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Islam, Women and Feminism ( 10 Aug 2010, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Deconstructing Burqa

By Bushra Khaliq

On 13 Jul, 2010 the parliament of France, on the eve of Bastille Day, voted 335 to one in favor of preventing Muslim women wearing a full face-covering veil in public. According to French daily, Le Monde, the new law was strongly supported by the right, while Socialist Party, Communist Party and Green Party abstained.

According to the new law anyone who chooses to wear a face covering on religious grounds now faces a fine of 150 Euros or a “citizenship course”. There is also a year in prison and a fine of 30,000 Euros for anyone found guilty of forcing a woman to wear a veil, a penalty which is doubled if the “victim is a minor”.

It is pertinent to mention that the number of women in France wearing a complete veil, or a niqab, is only a few hundred. Figures range from less than 400 to a maximum of 2000, according to police data - in a French population of about 64 million inhabitants and about four million Muslims. It shows that the huge majority of the Muslim population, in fact, rejects burqa but feel that the law against a minority stigmatizes the whole Muslim community.

In recent years the question of burqa has emerged as mainstream debate among feminists and the Western governments, creating complexities around the subject. A careful deconstruction of the topic confirms that concept of burqa or Hijab has different connotations in western and eastern societies, especially in Muslim countries. To fully understand this question it is imperative to deconstruct and dissect the notions of patriarchy, private ownership, religiosity and dynamics of capitalistic system.

According to some western feminists, ban on burqa is violation of fundamental human right to choice for dress. To them the law does not aim at defending Muslim women rights but restricting the same. The burqa ban is, in fact, liberticide, they argue. And it will not defend women dignity but increase racist aggression against Muslim women wearing veils.

Those who argue that this law has political motives, carry weight. Sarkozy government badly lost recent regional polls. The social crisis is there with inequalities and discriminations are increasing in French society. It is easier to use a scapegoat and there is no denying the fact that the "burqa ban" seems an attempt to win back right wing votes.

Despite these facts, it is hard to digest all those arguments in favor of Burqa. There may be dozens arguments to oppose Sarkozy government decision, but there may be few to support burqa in the pretext of right to freedom of choice. Beyond oppose or support, there are other relevant aspects too should be taken into account to evaluate the question of burqa in the context of social oppression, patriarchy and religiosity in Muslim societies.

Before quick jumping onto the subject of burqa better we understand the cultural aspect as well. Social assimilation is a problem with Muslim immigrants in Europe and west. Therefore, assertion of religious identity is perceived as only option for many. Since modern Western civilization is dominating phenomenon, leaving little space for rest of the cultures and civilizations to claim their space, therefore retaining and promoting religious identity is considered as last ditch effort to resist western civilization.

Another important point to understand is the direct conflict between the typical religious mind set and capitalistic projection of gender, which has left no stone unturned to exploit the women beauty and its physical appearance for corporate profiteering. The frequent and exploitative projection of woman body by the corporate and capitalistic greed, in fact, provides right stuff for arguments in favor of necessity for burqa and concealment of women through Hijab or veil.

In Pakistani society, at least I can say burqa is not a matter of choice at all for women, rather an imposition by an oppressive society driven by decadent social and religious taboos. Burqa is not a dress in itself rather an additional piece of cloth to further cover the body in maximum way, which women generally not cherish. Free choice to normal dress for women does not exist even, and this choice is subject to approval of parents and husbands. Thus the women physical appearance in most of the cases is determined by men.

Since the typical societal frame of thought about women is shaped by the centuries-old concepts of private property, symbol of honor and patriarchy, therefore man-woman relationship is generally perceived as predator-prey relationship. In this context male dominated thought process is more focused on maximum protection of woman by restricting her mobility and concealing her from men through methods of Hijab and Burqa. Muslim societies, may be with few exceptions, are true reflection of this mind set, which refuses to rise above this instinctive paradigm.

“This very concept reflects the notion that male have a barbaric nature against female and instead of curtailing this unbridled nature, let us conceal the female”. We never think other way round to create an environment where male “frame of thought” about female be changed by subjecting it to strict societal laws and healthy moral values. Instead of developing more women-conducive societies, Muslim thought mainly focused on concealing the weaker vessel. Thus instead of seeing any improvement in gender relations, women are becoming weaker and weaker in these societies.

In our part of the world through centuries-old oppressive social systems women have been incorporated with this idea that by covering themselves they can better defend themselves against possible attack on their modesty and honor. This concept is popular among Muslim women and sometimes they have currency to their logic as well, because incidents do happen which proves this logic sometimes true. However, we should not forget that such “truths” are the creation of chronic historical and social wrongs and lies.

The debate on burqa needs paradigm shift as real question behind this whole debate should not be “women protection” rather “women empowerment”. This paradigm shift is imperative to further this debate. We feminists must be cautious not to give ground to those, who want to roll back the historic achievements of feminist movements by magnifying the minor issues.

No doubt burqa draws a symbolic line for women to wage struggle for right to choice for dress, but real question is something else. What about those women who do not wear burqa and still unable to understand the true dynamics of hurdles, erected by the oppressive mind set of society. Accepting or rejecting burqa is not manifestation of any ideology. I personally know women who wear burqa without having any logic to defend it. Similarly there are women who took off burqa without having any true gender consciousness.

Historically speaking, societies have corrected themselves by enacting laws to create social equilibrium acceptable for all sections of society. Legislations have been vital to secure due rights of marginalized sections. Therefore, we cannot deny the fact that pro-women legislations have played role in enhancing women struggles for just causes.

Obviously, we cannot keep ourselves aloof from this debate as we understand that Burqa is not mere a piece of cloth to cover woman body but a dangerous tool to control women freedom of thinking. Therefore, our fight should not solely be against burqa rather it should be merged within the grand struggle for gender equality at all levels in all societies by forging global gender unity.

Such grand struggle must aim at breaking all barriers in the way of women; patriarchy, feudalism, religiosity and predatory capitalism. I do agree that microscopic and scattered victories in different parts of the world count but these small victories, with the passage of time, are consumed by exploitative nature of the capitalistic methods. The theory of constant internationalist struggle for gender justice may be right strategy.

For the purpose, we have to create a new comprehensive framework of progressive thought and action having inconformity with global social justice that ensures true freedom for women. We have not only to challenge the Burqa with clear conscious but stand up against all those hurdles which curtail women freedom to think and act.

French government decision to ban burqa though aimed at political scoring and it may trigger and give rise to anti-west hatred among Muslim societies but even then, it is hard to oppose this decision. We should not and cannot support anything that check women emancipation process and burqa, in no way, helping women struggles anywhere.

At the same time I think if west is sincere with true emancipation of Muslim women it must stop supporting dictatorships and kingships in Muslim world and help transform Muslim societies by backing real democracies, social and women movements in those countries.



Total Comments (7)

  • 7 .

    I agree with Mr. Reyaz's excellent commentary.

    By Ghulam Mohiyuddin
  • 6 .

    The World in a Veil

    Woman clad in black from top to bottom, except the white cornea which is the only contrast, are increasing day by day. Many women since the birth of the 21st century have started wearing burqa or the naqab. This ever increasing number rocketed after 9/11. Muslims all over the world were looked down upon. They were considered alien and followers of a barbaric religion, which promotes terrorism. That was one of the most critical moments of Islam in this ‘modern’ world. But, instead of bringing a sense of cooperativeness and compatibility, many orthodox Muslim men sported a beard, if they didn’t keep it or further lengthened it, if it was already there; and women took the burqa.

    This decision of theirs _ nay ours; as it is happening all around us every second, did not and does not embrace other countries’ cultures and traditions. The thought of a veiled Muslim today, as his sense of thinking has been shadowed, is ‘I am the best’ kind of thinking. The feeling of ‘me-following-the- best’ kind of path brings in the person a sense of discrimination: I am good, you are bad; I will go to Heaven and you will roast in Hell etc etc.

    Innumerable Muslim men and women accuse each other in various common things: A Muslim woman who wears a burqa or a naqab accuses and looks down upon a Muslim woman who just covers her head and not the face, and vice versa. A bushy bearded Muslim man looks down upon a Muslim man who is clean shaved, and may be vice versa. The point to be noted is that, instead of accusing and pointing fingers on others, one must sit, think and study what the socio-political and religious background of the country is all about. One should try to bring cohesiveness between religion and religious. A person becomes religious not by wearing any special king of cloth or doing some fancy thing in the body but by having a sense of respect for one and all and bringing peace in all spheres of life. That’s what every religion says and should say.

    The countries that are worst affected by terrorism and radicalism are the United States and the United Kingdom, excepting Pakistan. These countries have faced horrendous affects of Islamic jihadism and fundamentalism. But the Muslims in these countries, instead of cooperating with them, they create further trouble by wishing and praying for further attacks on these countries. In the name of Islam many so called ‘i-will-die-in-the-cause-of-Allah-and-go-to-Heaven’ kind of Muslims who attack in the US, UK and other ‘western’ countries, who they consider to be the enemy of Islam, kill and maim many non-Muslims just for the desire to see Islamic supremacy in the entire world. The US and the UK do not wage war against Islam, even though unaccountable amount of damage has been done in the name of the religion, because they know that it is foolish to punish all if the evil doers are a few. On the other hand if any non-Muslim goes to an Islamic country and does ‘jihad’ and kills others for the name of his religion then I am sure that that Islamic country won’t spare anybody related to the ‘jihadi’.

    The need of the hour is serious rethinking and remodeling of one‘s thoughts. You cannot, for surety make all and sundry think and walk in just one path. There has to be someone who will differ. But still, in spite of the difference one should shake hands_ nay embrace each other, not just bodily but spiritually.

    The world in a veil is dark and dim, remove the veil (burqa or naqab) and see the sun shining it its powerful glory; feel the moon it its silver coolness and understand and respect the beliefs of others. The world in a veil is small, come out of it to live life that is fuller, better and happier.

    By Aiman Reyaz
  • 5 .
    A burqa is not just another piece of clothing that a woman may don or not don. Historically it is also a symbol of subservience and second class citizenship. If one understands that and still wants to wear burqa willingly, one should have the freedom to do so.
    By Ghulam Mohiyuddin
  • 4 .

    Your journey madam Bushra Khaliq,  will not end with Deconstructing Burqa alone,  but will go right up to Reconditioning Woman, a pet theme of some social engineers. With a friend I was discussing this topic one day, and we ended up with robotic humans – encompassing both man and woman – absolutely equal in shape size and character, with one looking like a blue ball, while the other possibly a green ball  - the difference simply being a manifestation of the ‘oppressions of centuries-old social systems’. And please don’t think I am in disagreement with you. I am bewildered!!!

    By Manzurul Haque
  • 3 .

    In western democracies, we believe in freedom of religion, if that's what women decide to do, it's their right!! Whether it's accepted by others or not! Slaves are required to dress as others dictate. Free people can dress as they like.

    wearing a burka is not good,why American and European women are raped everyday more then the muslim women.

    Wearing a burka does not prevent Muslim women ‘engaging in everyday life’ in Britain. Baroness Warsi defended the right of Muslim women to ‘choose’ to wear the burka.
    She suggested that many Muslim women choose to wear the veil of their own free will. ‘Why should we tell women what to wear? What it boils down to is choice. If women don’t have a choice over what to wear then they are oppressed.

     But if a woman has a choice, and she chooses to wear whatever she chooses to wear then she’s not oppressed is she? She’s choosing what she wants.’ Critics claim that the burka alienates Muslim women from the rest of society. But Lady Warsi said the burka did not act as a barrier in itself. She added: ‘There are women who wear the burka who run extremely successful businesses – internet businesses, which don’t actually require you to be there face to face.’I don't believe it's for the state to say what we can and cannot wear. Any woman who supports the burkha should wear one.

    There is a social and economic pressure on Muslim women not to cover themselves with Hijab or Niqab. Syeda Warsi is a member of the Toy Cabinet becaus she does not cover herself with Hijab or Niqab. Only those Muslim women who are having post of responsibility are those who do not cover themselves. Only those Muslim women recieve OBE, who do not cover themselves. Banning the veil or blocking the building of minarets would alienate the Muslim community and threaten social cohesion. There is no need for the British Establishment to ban Niqab because it is a Munafiq society. Those westen European countries who have banned Niqab are Kaffir.

    Some young Muslim feminists consider the hijab and niqab political symbols, a way of rejecting Western excesses such as binge drinking, casual sex and drug use. Which is more liberating: being judged on the length of your skirt and size of your breasts, or on your character and intelligence?

    A careful reading of the Qur’an shows that just about everything Western feminists fought for in the 1970s was available 1,400 years ago to Muslim women, who are considered equal to men in spirituality, education and worth. When Islam offers women so much, why are Western men so obsessed with Muslim women’s attire? Even British government ministers Gordon Brown and John Reid have made disparaging remarks about the niqab, and they hail from Scotland, where men wear skirts.

    “common sense” not to wear the niqab because it makes social relations “more difficult.” Nonsense. If this were the case, why are cell phones, e-mail, text messaging and fax machines in daily use?

    Covering ones body up does not reduce their intelligence or physical and mental capabilties in running their home, raising their kids, getting a degree, making money, being an informed member of society or their social interaction with other fellow humans. The niqaab does not make them inferior.

    Why are people reluctant to associate with us as willingly and openly as with other Muslim women who don't cover their face? We don't bite or are any different. Is is because they are afraid that we are more 'terroristically' inclinded because we choose to follow our religion more closely? On the contrary, people who follow their religions closely, any relgion, realize that they are under more obligation to uphold the sanctity of their faith under all circumstances and no religion teaches violence.

    To make a long argument short , women who cover their face and observe Niqab, are as normal as anyone else. If we are the victims then we are indeed the victims of mass propoganda and false advertising againts Muslim women that has caused this breach of trust between us and the rest of the world.

    We are very normal, we are very human and we are as intelligent as anyone else....the real beauty and inner strength lies within the mind. By wearing Hijab or niqab, a Muslim woman is able to confidentially project her opinions and ideas without having the pressure of being secretly or publicly critiqued of their body.

    Today, our society encourages women to show off their bodies, and not show off their brains. Female models are often underweight, and the media tells us this is the way women should look like!! dont make me laugh!!!!
    Iftikhar ahmad
    By Iftikhar Ahmad