What I Think About The Burqa
Let me begin this post by making it very clear that I do not support the ban on burqa by France. The way people choose to dress in public can be for a number of reasons, ranging from personal comfort to moral and religious ideas. Whether I approve of them or not, whether I understand them or not, if it is a conscious and willing choice of people in question, then banning it makes no sense for a liberal society. You want to cover yourself up from head to toe? Fine, go ahead. You want to dress skimpily? Fine, go ahead. I am not going to stop you in either case. In my opinion, the only valid reason for banning Burqa can be if women and girls are being coerced to wear it. That may have been the situation in West in the past, but that does not seem to be the situation currently.
At the same time as I express my condemnation of the burqa ban by France, I must strongly condemn the mandatory imposition of Islamic dress codes in Iran and Saudi Arabia, and other countries. All Muslims who are condemning France must also make sure to condemn the Muslim countries where freedom of dress is being violated. If you are someone who is comfortable with the compulsory imposition of Islamic code in Islamic countries, then you simply have no right to complain against the burqa ban by France.
I do not support the ban of burqa, however, I do not approve of the burqa either. I oppose it for a number of reasons. Your right to wear a burqa does not imply a ban on the analysis and criticism of burqa, for which I believe there is a great need in public discourse in the West.
This is what I have to say:
1) I do not believe that wearing a veil has any moral value. I do not believe that those who chose to wear the veil are doing something that is morally admirable; it is morally neutral at best. I do not believe that wearing a veil associates you with a good moral character. Wearing a burqa is an exercise in moral futility.
2) There are many Muslim women who wear burqa because they believe that Allah commands it. Now, I will maintain my distance from Islamic theology, and will refrain from discussing the validity of this belief as being Islamic (there are plenty of Muslim scholars who think otherwise), because the honest fact is, I don't care what religion says. It is something for Muslims to decide, and for Muslims who do believe that Islam doesn't command or recommend burqa, they must question that why is burqa being used as a symbol of Islam.
3) There is much talk now of the 'liberation' that burqa brings, that wearing a burqa by choice is a liberating experience. But liberation from what exactlty? The answer can be found in the writings of Naomi Wolf: 'Indeed, many Muslim women I spoke with did not feel at all subjugated by the chador or the headscarf. On the contrary, they felt liberated from what they experienced as the intrusive, commodifying, basely sexualising Western gaze. Many women said something like this: “When I wear Western clothes, men stare at me, objectify me, or I am always measuring myself against the standards of models in magazines, which are hard to live up to – and even harder as you get older, not to mention how tiring it can be to be on display all the time. When I wear my headscarf or chador, people relate to me as an individual, not an object; I feel respected.”'
I find something deeply odd and disturbing about the idea that women need to cover up extensively to feel an individual and not as an object. Needless to say, I do not believe it is correct. It springs from some excessive, obsessive and unhealthy idea of modesty. Furthermore, by implication, this idea states that women who are not covering up are allowing themselves to be objectified and morally compromised. This implication is something that I am deeply hostile to, but more on this later.
Does this solution by Muslim women work? Does wearing a burqa allow them liberation from a patriarchal society? On an individual level they may feel liberation, but over-all, it is a self-defeating manoeuvre.
Ali Rizvi writes in the Huffington Post:
"The tradition of the burqa/headscarf is the product of a patriarchal system that is geared towards and tailored to pleasing men by placing the responsibility of curbing male lust primarily upon women.
Similarly, the modern stripper is the product of a patriarchal system that is geared towards and tailored to pleasing men by catering to that lust.
Both are designed to sustain the dynamics of a male-dominated society. Both presume and maintain the status of women as sexual objects -- whether it's by having them covered from head to toe, or exposed from head to toe -- depending on whether the men in the immediate environment want to curtail their seemingly uncontrollable sexual urges or exercise them.
In effect, the burqa fosters the objectification of women just the same -- but in reverse.
Both can be seen as insulting not only to women, but to men, perpetuating the stereotypical notion that men have virtually no self-control over their testicular physiology, and no discretionary sense."
Burqa is just one of the adaptation measures in a male-dominated society. It does nothing to upset that male-dominance; it merely strengthens it. If you are dependent on your burqa to feel free, then I am afraid you are not really free.
4) Throughout history, burqa has been one of the instruments of suppression and subjugation of women. There are still parts of the world where a woman can receive terrible punishment for failing to observe the burqa. Burqa may be liberating for some women, but for large number of people in the world, it is entirely the opposite. Hailing burqa as a symbol of liberation messes and confuses things up, and is unfair to all the women who had to struggle to free themselves of this bondage. You cannot take a symbol of oppression and turn it into a symbol of liberation, while much of the world still suffers from that oppression.
5) Burqa acts as a means of reinforcing gender segregations and gender roles. I do not have a definite feminist position, but I am sympathetic to the people who oppose the existence of gender roles, and therefore, unsympathetic to the practice of burqa.
6) There are other reasons for wearing a veil, ones that are rooted in conceptions of marriage and public life.
Mary C. Ali writes: "... many women converts talk about the adoption of the Islamic dress code as a liberation. They see it not as a denial of sex and sexuality but rather as an acknowledgement that these are treasures to be shared with a loved one and them alone. They are not hidden but rather freed from objectification."
Noami Wolf says: "I learned that Muslim attitudes toward women’s appearance and sexuality are not rooted in repression, but in a strong sense of public versus private, of what is due to God and what is due to one’s husband. It is not that Islam suppresses sexuality, but that it embodies a strongly developed sense of its appropriate channelling – toward marriage, the bonds that sustain family life, and the attachment that secures a home."
You do not have to cover yourself up from head to toe obsessively to express the fact that you wish to preserve your sexuality for your husband. On the surface while these are seemingly noble ideals, these are ideals I do not share (at least, not to this neurotic extent), nor these are ideals that I would like to promote in the world.
7) The widespread practice of wearing burqa within a community leads to discrimination against the non-veiling women.
Claire Berlinski writes about it:
"In the beginning, I was sympathetic to the argument that Turkey’s ban on headscarves in universities and public institutions was grossly discriminatory.... But that was when I could still visit the neighborhood of Balat without being called a whore."
"There is no nation on the planet where the veil is the cultural norm and where women enjoy equal rights. Not one. Nor is there such a thing as a neighborhood where the veil is the cultural norm and yet no judgment is passed upon women who do not wear it."
8) Wearing a burqa in the West, you are making a strong identity statement.
Mary C Ali writes: "A Muslim woman who covers her head and wear loose clothing, is making a statement about her identity. Anyone who sees her will know that she is a Muslim and has a good moral character... As a chaste, modest, pure woman, she does not want her sexuality to enter into interactions with men in the smallest degree."
Regarding the moral aspect, I already wrote before that I do not believe that wearing a veil or scarf bestows on you any good moral character. Whatever a good moral character is, it is entirely independent of whether you cover or not. Regarding the identity, flaunting your religious identity so aggressively in the West does nothing to promote and help a pluralistic society. If anything, it contributes to religious segregation in public life.
If you wish to wear a burqa, by all means, do so, I am against a ban, but it does not grant the practice of burqa immunity from analysis and criticism. Burqa is not just a piece of clothing; it has become a symbol of many things. There are implications of this practice, and as a person with liberal and humanist concerns, I am threatened by these implications, and therefore I feel it my duty to highlight them.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: But the veil has got such implications. It's saying a woman's hair or face or body, if I look at them, are dangerous for her modesty. It's such an insult to men: what does it say about them? And it says that you are preserving yourself for a man. Only unpacking yourself for him. These implications are serious for feminists. It's not just me saying, "I don't like it." It's saying, as a feminist, that I can't stand the implications of "Woman as Evil".