By Javed Anand
Jun 30, 2009
With the burqa back in the news, only one thing can be safely stated: the garment intended to render Muslim women invisible in the public space ironically has turned her into an object of constant global attention. But there is clearly more than what meets the eye here. Taking sides in the raging war over the veil, distinguishing between friend and foe is not easy since the opposing camps do not follow familiar divides. If you think it’s only about Islam vs the West, or Islam vs the Rest, think again. For it’s also the West against the West, liberals against liberals, feminists against feminists, Muslims against Muslims.
In recent years, the West that is home to the bikini and the miniskirt has shown increasing discomfort at the presence of the burqa in its midst. The looming terror threat has added a security dimension to the ban demand. The June 22 verbal barrage of French President Nicolas Sarkozy — “The burqa is not a religious sign, it’s a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement. I want to say it solemnly, it will not be welcome on the territory of the French Republic” — comes like the bursting of this building reservoir of discomfort. Interestingly, among Sarkozy’s staunch supporters on the issue is André Gerin, a Communist MP who represents a poor, multi-racial area in the suburbs of Lyons. Also on Sarkozy’s side is a Muslim woman of Algerian descent, Fadela Amara. A crusader for Muslim women’s rights, currently France’s minister for urban renewal, Amara wants a total ban on “this coffin which kills the fundamental rights of women” in France.
US President Barack Obama falls in the opposite camp. Asked where he stood on the 2004 French ban on the wearing of the hijab (headscarves) in school during his visit to Normandy in early June, he said countries handle such issues with their national sensitivities and histories in mind adding, “I will tell you that in the United States our basic attitude is that we’re not going to tell people what to wear.” “It (is) hard for an American to fathom — this idea that government would dictate a religious dress code,” was the US Christian Science Monitor’s editorial response to Sarkozy’s remark.
The average Western liberal or feminist can just about tolerate the sight of the “stifling, foreboding dark veil, the smothering, all-consuming piece of fabric that purposefully extinguishes the faces, bodies, and voices of Muslim women.” Yet, many are fiercely opposed to a ban. Forcing women not to wear the burqa is nothing short of replacing one form of oppression with another, one form of paternalism with another, runs the argument. A French law that forces women not to wear the burqa, they say, will place the land of liberty, fraternity and egality on the same moral plane as Saudis, the Iranian Ayatollahs and the Taliban who force women to wear it. For feminists, at stake is a woman’s right to choose.
If you dislike the burqa but you are also against the state dictating a dress code for citizens, where does that leave you? A bright spark from India offers the best route out of this bind: don’t ban the burqa, question it. Great idea! Let’s examine the pro-burqa arguments:
The security argument: Many burqa-clad Muslim women claim they don the veil out of choice. In a world of growing sexual harassment and violence, you are not treated like a sex object and you feel more secure in a burqa, it is argued. But last year, the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights conducted a survey and found that contrary to anecdotal accounts, 80 per cent of Egyptian women faced sexual harassment and that the hijab offered little protection.
The convenient cover argument: To young Muslim women from conservative families, the burqa is a handy garment. You get to spend time in the company of male college friends or even with your boyfriend and your parents are none the wiser. If that’s the only way you can get around parental curfew, I for one am happy to buy this one.
The freedom to choose argument: In response to Sarkozy’s remarks, Muslim leaders and organisations across the globe have invoked the freedom to choose principle. This begs the question: Should Muslim women only have the freedom to choose to wear a burqa in France, Denmark or Italy? What about their right not to wear a burqa or chador in Saudi Arabia, Iran or Afghanistan under the Taliban?
The piety argument: There is a widespread perception among Muslims in India and throughout the Islamic world that it is a religious obligation to cover their heads or their entire bodies. But any number of Muslim theologians and scholars, both men and women, now argue that with the exception of the wives of Prophet Mohammed, all that the Quran asks of Muslim women, and men, is to dress modestly. Any Muslim will tell you that the burqa (or hijab, jilbab or niqab) which was going out of vogue in the post-colonial era, is back with a vengeance in the last two decades or so. This is thanks largely to Saudi Wahhabism bent on exporting a rigid, misogynic, monochromatic Islam throughout the Muslim world. Call it inducement with petro-dollars for “sectarian conversion” of all Muslims to an intolerant, Islamic supremist worldview.
Above all, to question the veil, Muslims must challenge what the US-based academic of Hyderabad origin, Muqtadar Khan, calls the “epistemological hijab”, the curtain that the male Muslim clergy has kept between Islamic scripture and women. Muslims engaged in ripping apart this epistemological curtain can see that during the lifetime of the Prophet and for a while thereafter, the Muslim woman was acknowledged as an autonomous human being. She was considered a person in her own right, not just a mother, sister, wife or daughter. Over fourteen centuries ago, it was both an obligation and a right of Muslim women to participate actively in the religious, economic, social and political life of the community. The clergy must explain how it happened that the female sex subsequently got pushed out of the common public space. The “pious burqa” is but a manifestation of this subversion of early Islam.
The writer is co-editor, ‘Communalism Combat’, and general-secretary, Muslims for Secular Democracy firstname.lastname@example.org
Source: Indian Express, New Delhi