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".

Comments

Komal said…
This is a great post. I think you've done a service to people everywhere by stating such a reasonable position in such clear language. Thank you for that :).

The idea that the burqa is liberating is misogynistic indeed, and is based on a complete misunderstanding of the patriarchy. I'd like to ask women who make this claim why it is not men who are wearing burqas, why they do not feel the need to cover themselves up because of the bad behaviour of other people? The reason is that we are operating in a system that includes a patriarchal ideology, and this ideology involves a certain construction of sexuality. The construction is part of a property paradigm that has constructed women as passive objects, and men as active subjects. The ownership of women is also associated with 'sexual access' to them. Thus, you would expect that when men lust after women, in a patriarchal-ideologized mind (yes I just made that word up :P ), this alone is the destruction of women's dignity, since women are 'had sex with', i.e. passive. And once that happens, someone other than her husband has sexual access to her. Hence, a violation of his property rights.

I hope this convoluted analysis made some sense :P. Either way, covering up is not a solution to objectification: feminism is a solution to objectification.
Awais Aftab said…
At many places I've had to just state my views, but that is only because of the extent of the issues involved. For instance, it is almost impossible to demonstrate in a paragraph or so the superiority of liberal values over Islamic ideals. That is a huge debate in itself. So this is one weak aspect of the post that should be kept in mind.

@ Komal

Thank you! :)
Anonymous said…
"I do not believe that wearing a veil associates you with a good moral character."
Though would you agree that it shows that the wearer expects or professes a higher standard (whatever that may be) of morality from herself?
Awais Aftab said…
@ anonymous

I would assume that the wearer expects and professes a higher standard of following Islam, and her view of morality would be equivalent to following Islam.
usama sajid said…
brilliant!
i read it to remove my confusion and i must admit,i am more confused than ever.
Anonymous said…
saudi arab aur france ko is lye compare ni kia ja skta kz donon mein johri fark paya jata hy!! saudi arab apne ap ko ek theocratic state kehta hy,so they can make laws jo un k religion ko suit krte hain,,jb k dosri janib france apne ap ko ek secular state kehta hy aur secular state ki tareef k mutabik state ko individual ki religious practice mein interfere ka right tb tk ni hy jb tk wo kisi dosry insan k haqoq se mutasaadam na ho rhy hon ya us se ryasat ko koi masla darpaish ho!!
bilal here
TJ said…
Nice post. I personally dont support the burka or the ban but u made some points that weaken your argument.

Saudi Arabia vs France? You cant compare two countries and their laws like that. One is a theocracy run by monarchy and other is a secular democratic country. Countries like turkey can be compared to France.

"I do not believe that wearing a veil has any moral value." I agree that one can have the same morality by not wearing a burka but do you think wearing a bikini to work or in city center has any moral value? If yes, then same goes for burka.

"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." So a piece/choice of clothing now defines freedom?? I know quite a lot of women who actually choose to wear the burka and are absolutely free in every sense. they are educated and successful professionals. A few have even gone bungee jumping and skydiving(sounds funny but its true :P). So how can u judge if someone is free or not by their choice of wearing a burka?

4,5 and 7 are spot on. I also know some who are made to wear it.

I am against the ban because if nuns can wear habits, then whats wrong with burka? Lets not even bring Islam into this. Lets just say that someone follows a religion ABC and wants to dress as she THINKS that she is commanded to wear something that looks like a burqa because nuns can.

@komal "The idea that the burqa is liberating is misogynistic indeed,and is based on a complete misunderstanding of the patriarchy". With all due respect, this is ridiculously stupid. There are many women who choose to wear it. Are you calling them stupid or ignorant that they dont know or are not intelligent enough to understand the workings of their society?
TJ said…
P.S are u uzair aftab's brother?
Awais Aftab said…
@ Bilal

Sir, just because some Government is theocratic and claims "Oh, we don't believe in human rights, so we are not obliged to follow them", it doesn't grant them any amnesty from violating them. If freedom of dress is a moral and political right, then it exists regardless of whether you are theocratic or democratic. Secondly, the concept of secularism that France upholds is a different and stringent shade of secularism, and their ban on burqa is entirely consistent with their view of secularism. But unlike you, my objection on the ban is not based on consistency.
Awais Aftab said…
@ TJ

Saudi Arabia vs France?

Moral and political rights are not dependent on the law of the land. A theocracy is not exempt from them.

do you think wearing a bikini to work or in city center has any moral value? If yes, then same goes for burka.

It is difficult to spell out the moral status of a dress code, so I would say wearing a bikini is also morally neutral at best. If bikini can be accused of being immodest, then burqa can be accused of being prudish. If anything, the moral value of both is in negative.

I know quite a lot of women who actually choose to wear the burka and are absolutely free in every sense.

I do not say that burka wearers cannot be free (there can be various reasons for wearing it); its just that if they are free, that freedom is not by virtue of that burqa. If you have comfortably adapted yourself to a patriarchal society by wearing a burqa, then that is what it is, a comfortable adaptation, not a liberation.

What Komal is saying is that whatever burqa may liberate you from, it doesn't liberate you from patriarchy.
Awais Aftab said…
@ TJ

Yes, I am Uzair's brother.
Sabahat24 said…
Sir, you have my eternal respect and gratitude for this. It is a truly amazing piece. Thank you.
tHnPp said…
Good post. The whole point being missed here is that it should be a personal decision rather than a third person imposing.
karmjeet said…
Is there any way out to stop countries forcing burqa on women? Women in these countries are so oppressed to know that there is even a choice of not wearing a burqa .
junaid said…
1. In Islam there is no coercion in obedience to Allah's commandaments.Muslims follow them with the faith that they afford best solutions to their problems.”It is a conscious and willing choice of believers"..



2. Islam advocates moral activism in all spheres of life. The Islamic concept of morality is integrative, not a patchwork expressing itself in a spiritual vacuum. It co ordinates temporal and spiritual affairs to realize its goals and enjoining of hijab is one of them. Being an important stepping stone, hijab is not morally neutral at all. To fragment the entirety of Islamic concept of morality to grasp it is tantamount to kill its very spirit.



3. To associate good character with wearing veil is an error of human judgment which is quick to draw conclusions. Before Allah every deed will be weighed before proclamation of a final judgment about a man’s moral character.



4. Islamic concept of individualism is not contained in Burqa but it is based on the principle of ‘for man is what he strives’. ‘For you is your religion and for me is mine’ ‘every one is accountable for his deeds’.



5. Modesty is not just enjoined for women only but also for men. In Surah Nisa, man are even asked first to guard their gazes and then women are addressed in this regard..



6. Islam does not brand woman ‘a sexual object’…This term spells the status of woman before Islam. The Mosiac Law and The English common Law had anathematized women in legal terms. Practice of Sati in Hinduism is another case in point. Islam gave women equal social status, forbid infanticide and ameliorated her lot immensely.



7. Islam has liberated women not through Burqa but through a reasonable social system of Rights and Obligations.



8. To assign duties and to divide work is meant to facilitate things like while operation, senior surgeons does his job, his assistants their. If everyone starts operating upon the same patient simultaneously the result can be surmised. Llikewise division of labor on gender basis is meant to run the social machinery efficiently not to clamp it.



9.. If burqa is reinforcing gender segretation so is gent’s way of dressing…if burqa is reinforcing gender segregation so is feminine use of cosmetics….



10. As regards Claire Berlinski, Tuh’mat is forbidden in Islam. In Islamic Law to declare some one whore demands 4 witnesses…



11. Awais is “a person with liberal and humanist concerns” yet he condemns a pluralist society…Islam gives complete freedom to its Non-Muslim citizens and doesn’t ban alcohol manufacturing by Non-Muslim citizens for their consumption…Thus, Islam is more open to include non Muslims in its social body than the modern so-called liberalists.
Anonymous said…
try saying all this to my face!
Achilles said…
@junaid:

1. "In Islam there is no coercion in obedience to Allah's commandments". You can see how that point shows that in an Islamic society, it should be fine for anyone to eat/drink Ramadan day time, or how it should be fine for anyone Muslim or otherwise to drink openly without being forced not to. But in Pakistan, this currently is not the case, nor I believe in any other Islamic state.

2. Just some fancy statements. You essentially say nothing concrete.

3. True. But then I guess you would agree that no one has the right to judge a girl who might be in shorts and sleeveless or something? and for that matter, we should treat everyone the same regardless of the clothes or appearance?

4. " ‘For you is your religion and for me is mine’ ‘every one is accountable for his deeds’." Again these statements give the feeling of freedom to spend your personal life as you wish but again an Islamic state would not allow an un-married couple to remain together or anything of that sorts.

5. skipping 5

6. "Islam gave women equal social status". You got to be high on some weird drug or living in an alternate reality to say women have equal status in islam. yes they have a status in islam, and yes, this status is better than what was existing pre-islam. BUT its no way near "equal status". You would be kidding yourself if you believe that.You can look at the inheritance laws, the testimony laws or the number of marriage stuff as example. I am sure you would have some explanation for them, but their very existence shows the inequality in statuses.

7. Again just words and hollow claims.

8. "To assign duties and to divide work is meant to facilitate things like while operation, senior surgeons does his job, his assistants their."
But to give men always the role of surgeons and women always the role of assistants is wrong (Metaphorically speaking of course).

9. That is true, both genders are different and do require different requirements in the way they live. So I will give you this one.

10. I'm not even going to comment on this archaic rule. Much has been said about that is other places.

11. "Thus, Islam is more open to include non Muslims in its social body than the modern so-called liberalists."
I live/study in a liberal university in "west", and the level of diversity and freedom I have seen here is without a match. There are women with scarfs here with women in mini-skirts at the same. People pray jumma prayer, yet at the same time people philosophically discussing the existing of God. Every religion and every lifestyle is welcome. You cannot possibly show me any single place in any Islamic state that could even potentially match that. So please, do get your facts straight before you try to judge the freedom level in the "liberal west".
Anonymous said…
It all depends the way you look at something and then form your arguments based on preconceived judgment about that thing. When you have already decided about it then what you will find only one side of the picture.

Hijab in Islam is very simple but there are different interpretations based on culture and societies. You dont need too much searching or reading to understand them.....just need a bit of wisdom and spiritual insight, just like other verses of Quran.

So to reject the whole concept of Hijab is not right thing to do. If its implemented in the right way it can be very good for the society.

One must ALSO ASK those who take Hijab. If they are happy and content then who are we to question them. or may be we think we are more happier then them.

Forget questioning, its not even right to look at them with hate and bias. If we feel less in someway then whats their fault in that, it has to do with our own mind.
mespeaks said…
RT @marvisirmed 'Personal choice' argument on Burqa is a fraud. Don't succumb to it. You don't support a suicider for his personal choice. http://j.mp/hbVt2s
SecretGarden said…
Burqa may not make a woman more pious, or morally righteous but PURDAH does.
I am a woman myself and all those who read this would agree that (if they have observed proper PURDAH) the effect of that on the ones around them is phenomenal. Every single man eyes them with respect and is cautious while dealing with them.
In old times, women of nobility used to cover themselves up properly. Even Holy Quran mentions that Muslim women be careful about covering themselves up so they may be recognized and not molested.
MODEST DRESSING LEADS TO MODEST THINKING. Sure, there are other factors involved, for example, modest speaking, modest eating, modest sleeping, etc. etc. but the PURDAH factor cannot be ignored.
PURDAH, of both men and women, leads to purification of heart and closeness to Allah.
I want to make clear that burqa and Chaddor, when not worn properly so not qualify as PROPER PURDAH.
As Muslims, we must not forget the importance of purdah in creating a righteous society.
I oppose the French ban on burqa, solely because I feel bad for the women who want to wear burqa, but cannot do so because of the ban.
But I also want to draw your and your readers' attention towards importance and effectiveness of PURDAH, which is completely ignored in most of the current so called Islamic states/societies.
Achilles said…
@SecretGarden:

I think a very important point here is what definition of "modesty" are we using. I am sure with your version of modesty, you certainly feel the way you describe. However, even the concept of modesty is fairly ambiguous and with different interpretations.

I am almost certain for some family within pakistan, the idea of modesty would even include girls not writing comments on blogs such as these. However, if this thought would sound absurd.

Similarly, if for someone or some society the concept of modesty does not prohibit the idea of flirtation or dating, they would probably not agree with what you are saying.

The thing to realize is no one should be forcing their concept of "modesty" on others.

A couple of other things:

"Every single man eyes them with respect and is cautious while dealing with them. " Again we are dealing with your definition of "respect" here and I believe yours is very much on the conservative side (which does not mean its wrong, it simply means that me and many others do not recognize that version).

"In old times, women of nobility used to cover themselves up properly". First, these ain't no olden times. This is a modern era. In old times they used to do slavery as well, you don't see that happening anymore (do you?).
SecretGarden said…
@Achilles
I may be a conservative in your book, but, I wrote a comment to this post only because in our community we do media watch where we try to rectify the errors or misunderstandings about Islam.
In this article, I saw a hint of the overpowering western ideology of liberty and feminism and what not... this ideology may work for westerners, but in Pakistan, it creates a big paradox for youth, with religion at one extreme and the libertarianism on the other. And if you look closely, what has this thought given us; a country divided into 2 factions, religious fanatics one one side and the so called liberal class on the other... and there are few who tread the middle path.
My main emphasis was and is ***PURDAH****. Burqa is just a small element in the wider definition. You think that it is possible to create a righteous society in absence of PURDAH? Fine.Go ahead. Make one. Or give example of one that exists.

I am basing my arguments solely on the facts in Quran and Sunnah (please try to look at them with a Muslim's eye) where we are advised to avoid the slightest chance of distraction...God knows us better than we know ourselves! And if you really tr and see emphsis on Purdah is really HUGE.
Once again, Muslims are obligated to do **PURDAH**. PERIOD. If you don't want to do it, its your choice But it does not change the fact that it is required.

Respect is the fruit of PURDAH neither burqa, nor modesty alone. Definition may vary from person to person but the essence remains the same.

PURDAH has such a wide definition... if I start writing, it will be morning b4 I finish.

I hope you get my point, because you, I assume are one of the Pakistani youth.
And the last para... I enjoyed it very much... thanks :)
Achilles said…
@SecretGarden:

I do get your point.However you have to realize this, if you want a closed society and bubble in which only Muslims and an Islamic society exists, then yes, I fully agree with all of what you are saying.

But you really need to understand, life is no longer a bubble (should no longer be a bubble). Rather, the "global village" is increasing. You can't justify anything solely with the argument that a particular religion or ideology says it should be so. Rather now, in the modern age of diversity, you really need to make arguments based on logic/rationality or thoughts independent of religious claims if you really want to make an impact (and have the global village thrive).

Me quoting some claim from Vedas (or any other scripture) will have no affect on you, and similarly you quoting Hadith or Quran will have no effect on others (who do not believe). You might want to think that you don't need to indulge in all this modern crap of tolerance or discussion or diversity appreciation. But then you will be isolating yourself and just going deeper into the bubble.

My point is, all your arguments are based on religious grounds, and these would make sense for someone who believes in that. But independent of religion, I have to say your arguments do not hold much ground.
SecretGarden said…
My point is, all your arguments are based on religious grounds, and these would make sense for someone who believes in that. But independent of religion, I have to say your arguments do not hold much ground.
Yes, they are because I am talking to a (major) Muslim audience... the Pakistani youth.
Me quoting some claim from Vedas (or any other scripture) will have no affect on you, and similarly you quoting Hadith or Quran will have no effect on others (who do not believe).
My quotes from Quran should affect those who are Muslims, and those are the ones I am trying to reach out to.
You might want to think that you don't need to indulge in all this modern crap of tolerance or discussion or diversity appreciation. But then you will be isolating yourself and just going deeper into the bubble.
Infact, I want all of us (Paskistanis) to come out of the superiority bubble and see the world from their free eyes.
Tolerance is my religion.
You can't justify anything solely with the argument that a particular religion or ideology says it should be so.
When I am addressing that particular religion, of course, I can.
Rather now, in the modern age of diversity, you really need to make arguments based on logic/rationality or thoughts independent of religious claims if you really want to make an impact (and have the global village thrive).
Who is talking about living in a bubble? Revelation, rationality, logic, knowledge and truth are all based in what one believes in. I tend to call that set of beliefs religion.
Modern age of diversity, you say? Have you ever heard the phrase "humanity moving towards its own destruction?"
However you have to realize this, if you want a closed society and bubble in which only Muslims and an Islamic society exists,
All I am saying is (while addressing a predominantly Muslim society);
The article suggested to me that it is a Muslim's choice to do or not do PURDAH, and that it is not required. I just think that thoughts like this create a paradox for youth. And also are misleading for correct interpretation of religion.
PURDAH is required by all (again referring only to Muslims).
Also, the PURDAH, I am referring to, actually frees you of the trivial things in life and lets you focus on the bigger picture. That is where the true progress lies.
And for your reference, I don't think that now a days, the PURDAH, the way it should be, is not observed anywhere in the world. Not even in the Burqa Cald countries.
***********************************
People hold discussions for 2 reasons;
1. They want to learn.
2. They want to justify themselves and prove that they are always right.