New Age Islam
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Islam and the West ( 29 Jun 2009, NewAgeIslam.Com)

The Burqa Debate: understanding the backdrop

By Shamshad Elahee Ansari

30 June 2009


 French President Nicholas Sarkozy’s statement on Burqa has created uproar amongst Muslims throughout the world. We are all busy finding the implications, and the pros and cons of what will happen if the French Government did decide to put a ban on wearing Burqa in their country. People are debating this issue as if havens were going to fall on our heads if it is not settled immediately. But, really Mr. Sarkozy is neither a spiritual personality nor a religious leader. He is a head of the state and a purely political person. His comments must be dealt with politically in their historical and political perspective.

We are living in a world which is extremely divided after 9/11. The attack on the twin towers of United State of America has not just created a political divide but has also divided the world geopolitics psychologically. We all know that US think tanks have worked overtime to evolve a strategy to combat the so-called Islamic threat. They have virtually hoisted a flag over western powers to unite them to declare a war against the “Axis of Evil”. The French Government is very much part of this so-called war on terror, which has turned Afghanistan and Iraq into a slaughter house.

 This war is not being fought militarily alone. It is being fought on a psychological level as well. Psy-ops are the order of the day. Billions of dollars have been spent to create war hysteria to justify the military action against Iraq and Afghanistan. Hundreds of documentaries on electronic media and millions of write-ups in print media are being pumped into the mind of the people. Islamophobia is mainly a creation of the western governments to justify their illegitimate actions to their own people. Hollywood is also propagating the same thing. Dozens of movies like The Kingdom, State of play, Body of Lies, Traitor, Babel, Vantage Point, to name a few have been released where all the bad guys are either Muslims or related to “Islamic” terrorism, while all the good guys are defending the state interest (read: US and western interests) and fighting a tough battle against Islamic fundamentalists throughout the world. It is a significant change that Hollywood has shifted its focus from Eastern European themes to Middle Eastern plots. The influence of Hollywood should not be underestimated as it plays a crucial role in shaping the opinion of its audience throughout the world.  In the past, it has played a very important role on various issues like Second World War, Holocaust, Vietnam War, and anti-communist agenda of US administration, etc. Now it has an even more saleable theme, Islamophobia.

 Opposition to Burqa-clad women in France was mainly spearheaded by a Communist parliamentarian André Gerin. He and his group forced Sarkozy to take an official stand on this issue.  But, for a better understanding we have to look at the backdrop in which Sarkozy is making his point.  France has its own ethos, tradition and history. It’s known for the revolution of 1789 which inspired many other revolutions.    It encouraged the industrial revolution in England which brought many important changes in human relations, mode of productions and production relations etc. The most important revolution though happened in 1917 as a Russian Bolshevik Revolution. French revolution is considered the mother of all revolutions in the history of human civilization. Even the Islamic Revolution in Iran (1978) could be credited to France to a certain extent as it gave refuge to its Leader Imam Khomeini.

Apart from its contribution to the Political Science, France has also been the place where some of the best theories of all streams of life like Culture, Humanities, Philosophy and Fine Arts were thought of. Paris is considered a Mecca of all cultural events of the world. Alexandre Dumas, Voltaire, Picasso, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Simone De Beauvoir are but a few influential French intellectuals. French renaissance movement is still considered a beacon of light for human sociological progress.    

France has also been a pioneer of sorts when it comes to the feminist movement of the world. Feminism was conceived and practiced first in France and has been a source of inspiration all over the world. France is also known for its outspoken feminine sexuality which might sometimes be beyond the comprehension of eastern mind-set. Catherine Breillat, for instance, is a movie-maker whose films have created ripples worldwide on this issue as even their concept couldn’t have been imagined in Asian or Middle Eastern societies. French society is a developed society today but it has sacrificed a lot in reaching where it has. 

Sarkozy’s remark can be viewed as a result of a compelling pressure of French ethos and its history as Burqa is the symbol of the regressive civilization of medieval ages which is gaining currency in French society amongst immigrant Muslims. To any French national who knows the history of his liberal culture that set women free from medieval bonds, this might seem like an imminent threat to his society’s value system.

But we should also try to understand the psychology of the Muslims world over who are under constant attack from Western Media and who are facing military aggression as well. Muslims are suffering from a loss of identity especially in the western world. The western media is putting pressure on their lifestyle and day to day life. To cope with this threat to their culture, they are trying to take refuge in their societal values where scarf and veil (Burqa) play a very important role. For them the Burqa is the symbol of being part of their culture which gives them a sense of security.

Sarkozy might have genuine grievances against the prevalence of Burqa in French society but Muslims also have a justification for their behaviour. This conduct of the Muslims can be viewed in entire Europe, USA and Canada. There is a definite increase in religious activities amongst immigrant Muslims, which was not seen before. They are feeling alienated in western society and thus, try to stick even closer to their culture and religion.

 The debate in the Indian Muslim society on this issue is a part of the global Muslim social psychology. Indian Muslims too share the grievances and outrage over atrocities being committed on their brethren in Iraq, Afghanistan or Palestine. The radical and fundamentalist section takes advantage of this present situation. They do not represent the mainstream of Indian Muslim society. As for the vanguard Muslim section of Indian Society, the Burqa was simply considered a hurdle in the path of Muslim women. We have many examples of prominent Indian Muslim women who did not wear Burqa. The wife of great writer Sajjad Zahir, Razia Sajjad Zaheer relinquished Burqa in those colonial days when it was considered an integral part of Muslim culture.  The sister of Qaid-e-Azam Mr Jinnah (Fatima Ali), wife of Hasrat  Mohani (Begum Mohani), Begum Liyaqat Ali are the few names of outstanding Indian Muslim Leaders who did not wear Burqa. We have many names to cite from modern Indian history like the great writer Qurratulain Haider, Ismat Chugtai, Begum Akhtar (singer), Shabana Azmi (actor and activist), Salma Sultan (News Reader), Mohsina Kidwai, Najma Heptullah (politicians) etc. became icons of the Indian Muslim Society. We have millions of Muslim lady doctors, professionals, employees who work without wearing hijab, niqab or burqa, while at the same time not at all compromising with their religious beliefs.

 There is, however, a very small section of Indian middle class that defends the benefits of burqa in a very illogical manner. They are really spokesmen of the traumatized section of Muslims who feel that they are under constant threat from the western media and military onslaught. True, there are some local pressures also from political elements who think that every Muslim is a terrorist.

 As far as the French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s statement is concerned, I would like to conclude it with a quote from a great French writer, philosopher, feminist, novelist Simone De Beauvoir who once said about the state of women:  

‘Society, being codified by man, decrees that woman is inferior; she can do away with this inferiority only by destroying the male's superiority’.

 Hope, the proponents of the Burqa tradition would understand it someday and try to see things beyond their narrow belief-system.

 Shamshad Elahee Ansari, is a free-lance writer based in Dubai , U.A.E.