By Irfan Husain
September 24, 2011
THE suicide bomber who murdered Burhanuddin Rabbani, head of the Afghan High Peace Council, concealed an explosive in his turban. This is not the first time the traditional head gear has been used to hide a bomb.
Similarly, terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan have carried weapons under burkas that they have used to slaughter innocent people. They were safe in the knowledge that they would not be stopped and searched by male security staff in deeply conservative societies. And, of course, it would be an insult to ask a Pakhtun to take off his turban.
These attitudes and traditions present formidable security challenges. We all remember how Maulana Abdul Aziz tried to escape arrest during the Lal Masjid episode by donning a burka. In India, robbers wore this all-concealing garb to hide their guns in a daring hold-up in a jewellery shop.
Security forces have been unable to come up with an answer to this troubling problem. There simply are not enough policewomen available to search every burka-clad woman in public places, and it would be anathema for male cops to demand that burkas be removed. So lives will continue to be lost at the altar of tradition.
In Europe, the burka and the niqab have become the focus of another kind of scrutiny. The French law barring these garments from public spaces has been hugely controversial. Widely supported by the majority, it has nevertheless divided opinion among feminists and liberals.
In a long recent article in the Guardian exploring the impact of the law, Angelique Chrisafis spoke to a number of women who continue to wear the full-face veil, despite the legal and social problems it poses. One of them, Hind Ahmas, said that on one occasion, she was attacked by a man and a woman on the street who told her “to go back to Afghanistan”. She was also punched in front of her three-year old daughter. The journalist quotes Ahmas about how the law has changed her life.
“In my head, I have to prepare for war every time I step outside… The politicians claimed they were liberating us; what they`ve done is to exclude us from the social sphere. Before this law, I never asked myself whether I`d be able to make it to a café or collect documents from the town hall. One politician in favour of the ban said niqabs were `walking prisons`. Well, that`s exactly where we`ve been stuck by this law.”
The fine for breaking the law is 150 euros; thus far, a judge has yet to impose it. But by the same token, only a few hundred Muslim women are estimated to wear the niqab. In most cases, they have chosen to wear the Islamic covering, rather than being forced to. One woman mentioned in the article compared herself to pre-Second World War Jews, and the persecution and attacks they suffered in France. After this article appeared, I expected a spate of letters to the editor of the Guardian from its staunchly liberal readers denouncing the French law. I saw three letters printed on the subject expressing strong views against the custom of women covering themselves.
Emily Marbach wrote:
“If the Jewish women could have torn off their yellow stars and slipped into the masses to survive, they would have done it in a flash. Most Jews have integrated into the societies they have come to live in….”
Leni Gillman cites Islamic doctrine in her criticism of the practice of concealing women`s faces: “Nowhere in Islamic teaching are women required to wear the burka, the niqab or any other swaths of clothing. The only injunction for both men and women is to dress modestly. These coverings are a matter of choice for Muslim women, and nothing to do with faith … Women wearing these styles of dress render their humanity invisible, which is presumably part of their purpose, so they should be prepared to accept the consequences in secular European countries. If wearing such clothes is so important to these women, perhaps they should find accommodation in one of the many countries that approve of them.”
Finally, Maureen Green writes:
“How sad the Guardian should express sympathy for a custom that deprives women of sunlight and fresh air. What next? A survey of the possible benefits of stoning women to death for adultery?”
These writers — all women — reflect a widespread revulsion towards Burqas and Niqabs in the West. Many liberals oppose it because they think Muslim men force their wives or daughters to cover themselves. Others feel these garments prevent women from achieving their potential and limit them in every sense.
My own feelings on the subject are pretty conflicted: while I respect people`s right to dress as they please, I do feel garments should not cause offence. Thus, if somebody wishes to strip in public, I would suggest they do so in the privacy of their homes. Fortunately, there are laws against public nudity that protect us from unattractive individuals exposing themselves.
Above all, I have a horror of people who try deliberately to call attention to themselves. Thus, orthodox Jews who wear skullcaps, long black coats and untrimmed beards draw curious stares wherever they go. A couple of generations ago, they would also have attracted insulting comments.
The Guardian article quotes Ahmas on the subject of finding work: “I`ve contacted scores of employers looking for work. I always ask them if they accept the veil. They say: “It depends what type. If it`s tunic and trousers and a headscarf, that`s OK, but a long robe is not.”
As an experiment, I wore a burqa a few years ago to see how it felt. My world shrank; it was hot and uncomfortable; and my movements were restricted. In short, I would not wish anybody to spend a lifetime in such a garment. But as I said, I respect individual choice, provided it is freely arrived at.
Having said that, the fact is that wearing it not only limits choices, but can also represent a security threat. I think the old adage `When in Rome, do as the Romans do` pretty much sums up my feelings on the subject. Sadly, this still does not resolve the security issues in Afghanistan and Pakistan…
Source: The Dawn, Karachi