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Islam, Women and Feminism ( 24 Jun 2009, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Don't ban the burqa, question it

By Nikhat Kazmi

Tuesday June 23, 2009


 Should Mr Sarkozy ban the burqa from France? Definitely not. Because bans are undemocratic and an unqualified attack on individual freedom. Should we however use this opportunity to question the efficacy of the burqa, the chador, the veil or what you will? Definitely yes. Specially since the burqa isn't just another piece of cloth but has a lot of ideological and cultural connotations to it. The French President himself has termed it a symbol of subservience which has no place in a secular state.

 Doesn't it have religious connotations, you may also ask? But hey, just let's keep religion out of this. Primarily because, as scholars point out, the Quran makes a mention of modesty rather than the word 'burqa' when it comes to women's apparel. The veil has more a cultural significance in Islam than a theological one. The Quran categorically mentions that "the best garment is the garment of righteousness." (7:26) And righteousness may or may not be interpreted as the burqa, depending on the personal choice of the person.

 Talking specifically of a dress code, the text holds 'chastity' as mandatory, both for men and for women. A translation of the verses by Dr Rashad Khalifa's states: "Tell the believeing men they shall subdue their eyes (and not stare at the women), and maintain their chastity. And tell the believing women to subdue their eyes and maintain their chastity."

 Now chastity is defined as a condition or quality of being pure or chaste. And righteousness is related to ethical conduct. Neither of these terms have a sartorial connection, having more to do to with states of mind and styles of behaviour, rather than a piece of clothing. While the burqa has found fervent advocates amongst its users, there have been strong cries against its proliferation in a progressive, modern world which is fast moving towards gender equality. In an age when men and women are perceived as equal, what exactly is the role of the burqa which well and truly wraps the woman in a cloak of invisibility.  Understandably, there have been radical feminist protests against the veil from the Arab world itself. Prominent amongst them being the voice of Nawal El Sa'adawi, feminist and intellectual, who sees the movement for the veil as just another offshoot of the "the age-old patriarchal struggle over women's heads, the fear that they might begin to think and throw off the bonds of slavery, of an inferiority enforced on them in all religions and in all societies...this was an integral part of their struggle to maintain men's control over women, men's control over their minds. This was above all the desire of Islamic fundamentalists to preserve the political power they exercise over society."

 While we would not like to take such a strident position against it, specially when it comes from free will, we would like to wonder why it is important for women to hide themselves when it is possible to dress decently, behave modestly, maintain chastity and be righteous without the veil too. Moreover, in societies -- and circumstances -- where women feel it is easier for them to maintain chastity more than the men, isn't it time to abandon the veil even more. For any prevention against crimes against women does not lie in hiding women from untrustworthy men. The cure lies in moving towards a more gender sensitive society which is only possible if men stop looking at women as objects of gratification. A burqa is no guarantee for that. A healthier intermingling of the sexes and a more open society are the only sure-fire way of ensuring both modesty and equality.

 But bans surely are not the way out Mr Sarkozy. Specially not in a democratic society.


 Burqa is integral to Muslim identity

Nandita Sengupta

Tuesday June 23, 2009

 I don’t know whether Nicolas Sarkozy — super-model Carla Bruni's arm candy and also France's president — knows how much he insulted the burqa. I only hope he knows by now he's wrong on both counts.

 What prompted the statement is important. French secularism envisages a strict separation between religion and state. So France will allow any religious identity to flourish on the streets. Fair enough. To that end, the French stopped Sikh students from wearing turbans. So lawmakers are, understandably, wanting to get rid of the burqa as well. In India, we understand secularism to mean all religions are equal and everyone pretty much gets to do their own thing, especially in terms of sporting clothes. That’s my first doubt cleared because for me secularism means more the merrier, not ensuring assembly-line photocopies.

 First part of Sarkozy's statement. The burqa is not a symbol of religion. The burqa, in fact, is integral to the Muslim identity as laypersons know it. But do the scriptures, the Koran, in particular say that women must wear burqa? I spoke to a couple of friends and Sarkozy's so wrong. The Prophet certainly advised Muslim women to protect their dignity. That a woman's dignity lies in her own hands and it is best that she have a chador when stepping out of the house.

 So Sarkozy's wrong. It is a religious identity. But the bigger point is if it were not religious as the French Prez says, how does it interfere with French secular values? Will France not allow non-religious identity even?

 Conditioning or choice, many Muslim women bond with their burqa. It's as much a style statement as a proud marker of identity. It gives them ‘security’, they say in a world that has become overtly sexualised. It's their choice to wear their identity on rather long sleeves, but that's none of my business.

 Second part. The burqa is subservient. Being inside a burqa can be hot as hell, but I don't see even the so-called empowered modern Muslim woman not having some sort of bonding with burqas. If earlier generations of educated Muslims rejected such markers of identity, nowadays I see more and more opting to wear it. In a recent meeting in Jamia Millia university, only one of the 20-odd girls wore a burqa, but every young woman had her head covered, even those in jeans and kurtis. None of them fiddled with their scarves, or dupattas, they were comfortable. It was a natural feminine way to be in a rude city.

 For Muslim women, it is not a symbol of subservience. The rest of the world bristles at any religious diktat. But I find Muslim women themselves quite okay with a sort of head-cover. And those who don’t bother with it are not labelled ‘parkati’ either, are they? At least in India, women in the average Indian home face no force in adopting a burqa. But the world would like to apply force, in the form of a ban, to wrench women away from the burqa. If we apply force, so will the mullahs. As has been pointed out, the burqa is older than the Taliban.

 Chador is as much a part of a woman’s Muslim identity as the beard for men is and very important for the average Muslim. Sarkozy has to only visit any Muslim social networking and matrimonial site to realise that.

 That said, Sarkozy is not alone in profiling the burqa. The West does somehow see the burqa as oppressive. The burqa has been targeted even at an Obama campaign rally in Detroit last year where two burqa-wearing women weren't allowed to sit behind Obama's podium. Of course, apologies and all followed, but not before the women were denied their right to seats.

 As for Sarkozy, before he opens his mouth again on the topic, he should get his facts cleared. Maybe get Carla to vacuum the cobwebs out from between his ears. If, as it is claimed, he is subservient to Bruninomics, he should know that her politics will probably be fine with a burqa.

 Waiting to see how Bruni fixes the damage done.

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