Can the burqa ban promote gender equality?

Yesterday the French parliament voted on and approved a contentious bill banning citizens from covering their faces in public. That’s the official description, but around the world it’s become known as “the burqa ban” as if effectively targets the minority of French Muslim women who veil their faces when in public. It’s another bold step in a secular movement that saw the banning of headscarves and other religious symbols in French schools. If the bill is passed by Senate in September, it will become law, making it illegal for Muslim women to wear burqas.

 A variety of reasons have been cited for the ban: security purposes, the improved integration of immigrants into French society, gender equality, the preservation of French secular values. Those who object to the ban argue that it will further stigmatize and marginalise Muslim minorities and that it violates women’s rights to personal freedom and freedom of expression. Legal authorities have pointed out that the ban may be unconstitutional.

My concern regarding this issue is a predominantly feminist one: is an official ban on the burqa an effective means of promoting gender equality? Or is it a form of discrimination in itself, exacerbating the prejudice against Muslims and Islamic culture as well as violating women’s rights to individual choice and freedom of expression?

 If the burqa were merely a personal fashion preference – whatever the wearer’s reasons behind it – I would argue that a ban is ludicrous and unconstitutional. Governments should not be able to tell people what to wear, except perhaps in terms of certain (debatable) standards of common decency. A reasonable exception in terms of face coverings would be in places where security requires that the face be revealed, such as in banks, airports, and casinos.

However, the burqa is not just a sartorial option. It embodies the ideology of hijab which views female sexuality and the female body as corrupting and therefore dangerous. Women must therefore be covered in public to protect themselves, men, and society as a whole from the morally degrading influence of their bodies.

Coincidentally, I recently read Women and Islam (also known as The Veil and the Male Elite) by Fatima Mernissi. She provides a historical analysis of hijab and the status of women in Islam, pointing out that Muhammad believed very strongly in sexual equality and his behaviour reflected this. His wives were active in political and religious life, and he often turned to them for guidance. Muhammad also had an open attitude to sexuality and sexual practice (within marriage anyway). Mernissi often notes the fact that Muhammad’s wife ‘A’isha had quarters leading directly off from the mosque, and Muhammad often went straight from her bedroom to his prayers.

Unfortunately, most of Muhammad’s Companions did not share his egalitarian attitude and did not want to follow his example in the way they treated their wives. They had come from misogynist cultures, and while they accepted most of Islamic doctrine, they objected to its interference in their relationships with women, especially such things as a woman’s right to inherit. In pre-Islamic Arab cultures, women were often treated as objects and constituted part of a man’s wealth. Because Islam treated women as individuals and gave them the right to inherit, the new religion robbed male Arabs of a large portion of their wealth and thus their power. It’s not hard to understand why they objected strongly to women’s rights, and consequently, how the hijab achieved such power within Islamic societies.

Mernissi analyses the famous hijab verse in the Qur’an, stating that it was not an injunction on women to cover up, but rather about creating privacy for Muhammad and his wives. The verse was recited at a time when Medina was on the brink of civil war and in addition many people had questions about the new religion. As God’s messenger, Muhammad was constantly harassed by the public, even in his home, hence the need for some privacy.

The demand that women cover themselves was made in a similar social context. The city was very unstable, trying to cope with conversion to a new religion that promised a better life but had also brought the threat of war to the city gate. Women were being harassed in the streets, sometimes as part of a political campaign against Muhammad. The men who harassed women claimed that they thought they were slaves. Muhammad’s Companions suggested the women cover themselves as a sign of status for the sake of protection. Muhammad was opposed to this, as it contradicted both sexual and social equality. Unfortunately though, he was getting old, he had serious social problems on his hands, so he gave in to his Companions.

Mernissi argues that this was the downfall of women’s rights in Islamic society. The hijab actually legitimates the sexual harassment of women, because it becomes a woman’s responsibility to cover up, not a man’s responsibility to treat women with respect. The unveiled woman becomes a legitimate target for sexual harassment and abuse. In addition, the pre-Islamic, pagan fears of female sexuality as corrupting or polluting survived and dominated the religion’s more egalitarian ideas. The hijab also legitimates the abuse of slaves, which again is a pre-Islamic, unegalitarian belief. Ironically, Mernissi says, the veiled woman has become the symbol of Islam, and yet hijab represents the failure of Islam to overcome pagan beliefs or instill social equality.

Mernissi’s book was a very informative perspective on hijab, but even with this in mind the question of the burqa ban is difficult to answer. There are women who want to wear burqas and whatever their beliefs, I believe in individual choice and I won’t say flat out that they should not be allowed to wear them.

I think what’s more important is that hijab ceases to be a moral requirement or obligation for women in Islam. My conviction is that hijab is a tool of sexual discrimination that itself is veiled in excuses about protecting women and preserving their purity. I have heard many Muslims, male and female, argue that the scarf and the veil protect women from the gaze of men who see them as sexual objects. However, that very idea of the protective veil implies that a woman IS a sexual object. They need to cover themselves because their bodies can ONLY be interpreted in sexual terms. In addition the idea of a protective veil implies that men have so little control over their sexual impulses that the sight of a woman’s hair, or the definition of her figure in fitted clothing drives them into a sexual frenzy. Any crime they then commit against unveiled women could be excused by a lack of control over their actions – a case of temporary insanity caused by the victim herself.

This is a problem that exists within Islam and Islamic society and it should be addressed as such. What is needed is a reform in the way Islam views female bodies and female sexuality. I doubt that a legal ban on the burqa could achieve this. Whether it is appropriate or not, the burqa is considered a symbol of Islam. Banning it will no doubt be interpreted as an attack on Muslims and their religion, and an issue that should be about women’s rights could easily be overshadowed by a debate on religious tolerance. This is not to say that the ban is simply wrong. It’s a criticism of what many see as an oppressive religious practice, and no religion should be protected from legitimate critique. Lets just hope that this particular critique marks the beginning of reform in Islam rather than reinforcing the “us vs. them” mentality that many already adopt.

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11 thoughts on “Can the burqa ban promote gender equality?

  1. Why don’t they ban short skirts? I mean come on, it is a personal choice about what you wear, but i don’t see anyone trying to ban it. So now they try and ban something that is religious?

    If i was Muslim i would find this offensive and i would feel people are trying to take my free will away!

  2. I do find the problem of individual choice to be a serious issue here, but my problem with the burqa is not the item of clothing itself. If a woman would like to cover her face, that should be her choice. No doubt a burqa ban will have serious psychological effects on women who choose to wear them.

    My issue is with the ideology of hijab – the idea that a woman SHOULD cover her herself in pulic, that it is a moral obligation to some Muslims because the female body is in some way bad and should be hidden. If the burqa could exist outside of religious doctrine I would strongly oppose the ban, but at the moment it doesn’t.

    France also wants to ban the hijab because their values are secular, and the burqa, as a strong religious symbol, goes against their national ideals.

  3. Interesting topic Lauren, I was watching the news the other night regarding this. I remember reading an article a few years ago that mentioned when they banned the burqa in Iran some years ago, the women went on a protest march. People are of the view that Women are forced to wear the burqa, and for some women maybe this is true, for some it is a matter of choice, yet the majority of women who wear it do so of their own free will.

    I think you have to remember that Times have changed and the world that we are living in nowadays is an unsafe one. Should people be covered so that they cannot be identified? And what about places of work? Should they be able to wear whatever they like regardless of their religion or culture?

    When I was younger I lived in Turkey for 3 years, and although Turkey is not an Islamic state it is a Muslim Country. There are certain things that one cannot do. I went with a friend to visit some family members and we, out of respect wore long trousers instead of shorts and covered our arms.On another occasion I went to visit a Mosque and so I had to wear an head-covering. If I as a foreigner have to stick to the cultures of another country, then why shouldn’t immigrants learn to adapt to European ones?

    • “If I as a foreigner have to stick to the cultures of another country, then why shouldn’t immigrants learn to adapt to European ones?”
      That’s a great point Emma, I read it in a news article yesterday as well. The journalist noted that Islamic states such as Saudi Arabia and Iran have had dress codes for years, requiring foreign women to wear scarves and abayas (neck-to-toe gowns). And yet this has not raised as much controversy as France’s ban. Most likely that’s because religion is often treated as an infallible excuse for all sorts of behaviour (“it’s their culture”), but a secular stance is seen as intolerant.

      The security issue is also one that’s come up a lot. You can’t walk into a bank wearing a balaclava, you can’t pass through airport security wearing a motorcycle helmet, and the same rule should apply to the burqa. Some people have said the ban just reflects the stereotyping of all Muslims as terrorists, but the burqa does pose some serious security issues. How easy would it be for someone to wear a burqa for criminal purposes?

      • There was a debate in the UK awhile ago on youngsters who wear hoodies, and whether they should allow them into malls etc. It is the same principal with the burqa, as you cannot identify the wearer. At airports they have special rooms where a female wearing a burqa can identify herself to another female working at the desk. Why should a European country have to change the rules to suit the needs of its citizens, shouldnt it be the other way around. You are correct that Saudi and many muslim countries have had rules for many years regarding clothing etc. And I not being muslim cannot travel to Mecca, why is that?

        Unfortunately since 911 all Muslims have been seen as potential terrorists and they probably see this as just another way for Governments to persecute them.

  4. I wear the head scarf. Why? Because my father wants me to? No, he doesn’t like it. My mother then? No, she doesn’t wear it. What makes me want to then? Faith.

    Faith? Yes, faith. Faith in the Creator , faith in His decisions, faith in Islam. A deep faith. Many wander at the faith of Muslims, at their conviction and their commitment. It’s a faith, that if you are not Muslim, is hard to explain or describe. The scripture of Islam, the Qur’an has scientific miracles in it, such that have captivated scientists globally, leading many to accept Islam. Moreover, the Qur’an has not been changed in over a thousand years, since it was revealed; not one letter moved from its place. I dare say there isn’t a religious scripture like it, and this lends a clue as to the root of such faith.

    In the Qur’an, Allah Ta’ala tells us to cover ourselves, ‘so as to be known, but not molested’. So our covering is a protection; a liberation.

    Protection? you ask. Liberation? From what?

    Time and time again we hear it said that we Muslim women are forced to veil, are oppressed; treated by our men folk as nothing more than ‘objects.’ And that niqaab, burqa, hijab; whatever term you use, is a form of ‘imprisonment’.

    But what about the imprisonment of anxiety and depression?

    What about the imprisonment of anorexia and bulimia?

    What about the imprisonment of frequent rigorous exercise routines?

    What about the imprisonment of always feeling the need to look like the super-model on the cover of Cosmo, or the pop-singer in the music video?

    What about the slavery to fashion?

    What about the entrapment of jealousy??

    How many women waste their hard-earned money, destroy their physical and mental health, expose their bodies to vulnerability, abuse and extortion in order to…… in order to what??

    In order to gain approval and praise. Who’s approval and praise? Men’s. And yes, it seems even other women too. So it seems non-Muslim women are not only slaves to men, but slaves to society as a whole.

    Before you scream your disagreement, which many of you may do as a knee-jerk reaction to being told you’re also oppressed , stop and think. Look around you, contemplate society today, and its values, its aspirations, its goals, its direction, its past-times, its hobbies….

    What good has it done for women to doff more and more clothing?

    What good has it done for images of uncovered made-up women to be plastered on every billboard and magazine, on the TV, in the movies, and on the net?

    Has it really brought any good for women?

    The women in the images may aptly feel good about themselves for a while, but what does it mean for every other women?

    Women who look upon these images usually become anxious, jealous, unsure and critical of themselves, or all of these things. Many men who view them will become aroused, or even unhappy, less satisfied with the partners they already have. What can, and does this lead to?

    Cheating, dumping, chastisement, and even harassment of other women, and even children by, men who cannot find a legitimate outlet for their constant arousal. And yes, I can hear some of you; ‘then the men must control themselves!’ Frankly speaking that argument is well spent, not to mention futile, as most men are, inherently, only able to react to that, the same way a hungry lion would react if thrown a juicy piece of steak, and told not to eat it….

    Do the uncovered women captured in these images and industries, or parading around, realise or even care how many young girls are starving, purging and stressing themselves trying to mirror their image? No.

    It seems they even take perverse pleasure in it. One barely-dressed singer even boldly and crudely sung, ‘Don’t you wish your girlfriend was hot like me?’

    What?!

    What is this women and her ilk saying??

    What are they implying??

    What are they doing to their sisters in humanity??!

    So many poor girls, eroding themselves physically and mentally as they watch with jealousy and anxiety their partners ogle singers like this. Have the same thing occur to these women, these ‘idols’; have their partners swoon over another similarly attired, and witness their reaction! And when their daughters are molested by men they themselves, or women like them, have aroused, will they reflect?

    Will they act?

    Will society act?

    Yeah, we see it reacting: ban the burqa!

    It just amazes me how many women especially, despise my choice of dress. Yet, would they rather their husband’s secretary to be dressed like me or otherwise?

    Would they rather the waitress serving the table at their anniversary dinner, be dressed like me or otherwise?

    Is it me and my sisters who are turning their husband’s head, or attracting their boyfriends??

    Is it me and my sisters who have led their daughters to anorexia, or their sons to pornography?

    Is it me and my sisters whose bodies and faces solicit their husband’s/boyfriend’s attention on every corner? Is it me and my sisters who have aroused that man to rape or harass their sisters?

    Whose mode of ‘dress’ is truly oppressive and harmful to women??

    It is not so much that women can, as you put it “ONLY be interpreted in sexual terms” but that it is the first and foremost reason behind any action taken to women of any race in any society. I ask this; when going for a job interview or meeting anyone new what is the first thing that is generally taken note of?

    We do not threaten anyone in any way. We do not intentionally wish to deceive or offend anyone. Yes I agree it could be used by certain people to go rob a jewellery store for example. This doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t have found another way to rob them.

    Why is it that a nun can be covered from head to toe in order to devote herself to God but a Muslim woman is oppressed if she does so?

    When a western woman stays at home with the kids she’s respected because of her sacrificing of her life to her House but a Muslim woman is then oppressed?

    When a man stops a car from crashing his labelled a hero, a Muslim man throws a few stones to save his son from being killed, his brother’s arm being broken, his mother being raped, his home being destroyed and his mosque being violated… He gets the title of “terrorist”

    When a Muslim is charged with a crime it is Islam that goes to trial. Yet when a man in America locks his kids in the basement for 20 years and rapes them almost every day, religion is not mentioned? They did get to be on Oprah though.

    Did you ever wonder why Christian women started wearing hats to church? Because as the Bible says; “Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoreth his Head. But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered, dishonoreth her head, for that is all one as if she were shaven.” (vs. 4-5). Has anyone banned that?

    Yet every time I walk in the airport everyone expects the sirens to start wailing as I pass through the metal detectors (which it did once) And I don’t even wear the full veil, I only had the head scarf, my jeans and shirt with comfy takkies…

    Except for the scarf I was just like every other woman going on holiday that day.

    • Thanks for your reply Naz; the opinions of Muslim women who wear the scarf or hijab are crucial to this debate. However, one of the reasons for which you wear a headscarf – as a sign of faith – is not quite the same as the one I am discussing. As a sign of faith the headscarf is akin to a Christian wearing a cross around their neck, a Muslim man wearing a fez, or a Jewish man wearing a yarmulke.

      My dispute with the headscarf, and more pertinently, the hijab, is that it is seen by many as a MORAL OBLIGATION for women in Islam. It’s not always just a sign of faith, but an implication that there is something sinful about the female body, something harmful to both men and to women themselves, and a woman is a better person if she covers herself. Your argument that you and other women in scarves are burqas are not threatening like uncovered women are, reinforces the idea of the dangerous nature of femininity.

      The other extremes you mentioned – women wearing skimpy, oversexed outfits, suffering from bulimia and anorexia, exhausting themselves in gyms, spending exhorbitant amounts of money on fashion, etc. – all to subscribe to impossibly, largely Western standards of beauty is as oppressive as you say. But the fact that unattainable, expensive standards of beauty are harmful to women does not validate Islamic standards of morality for women. In fact, I would say that both are equally bad, both attack women’s minds and bodies, just from different positions on how women should behave/appear and why. Such moral requirements sound very much like victim blaming, and places the responsibilities of an insult or crime on the person who is wronged. If I were to apply this logic elsewhere, I should protect myself from being hijacked by avoiding driving, or protect myself from being raped or mugged by never leaving the house.

      In addition, oversexed western beauty images are not the only alternative to the headscarf and hijab. No one could say that women who don’t cover themselves as Islamic culture dictates inevitably becomes the sex object of every man who lays eyes on them. Modesty is relative. If I were seen in jeans and a t-shirt 500 years ago, I could have been censured for immodesty, not to mention the crime of crossing gender boundaries by dressing like a man. Today in that outfit I blend in with the hundreds of men and women around me wearing pretty much the same thing, and neither bare arms or uncovered hair will attract unwanted attention. Just because I’m not in a headscarf or burqa doesn’t mean I have to dress like a Pussycat Doll, or that I will be seen as such.
      Nor is every man a pig. Yes, there are men who have no respect for women. Many men have been raised to view women as sex objects. But the fact that such men do exist does not mean that all men are oversexed, uncontrolled animals when it comes to their relationships with women.

      For ages, women have been assumed to be incapable of analytical thought, unable to control their emotions, and useless in terms of social progress. By blocking women’s access to education as well as all areas of society except the domestic one, men easily made these and other ridiculous ideas self-fulfilling prophecies. Similarly, when men are raised to view women as sex objects, chances are they will be as bad as you say. But that doesn’t mean it’s how they naturally, unavoidably are.

      I have male friends who would be deeply insulted to be compared to hungry animals. I’m sure many men would. It’s not that they don’t have sexual desires. Almost every man does. Almost every woman does too. But it doesn’t mean we have no mastery over them, or that lust alone determines our thoughts, actions, and relationships. How would you feel if you were told that you’re just a slave to your sexual desires?

      At various times and places in history, women were actually believed to hopelessly promiscuous, and only men were assumed to have the self-control to keep their lust in check. Our beliefs and expressions of sexuality are deeply affected by social interpretations rather than just being the result of who we ‘naturally’ are.

      The trend of Christian women wearing hats (or scarves) to church is now more of a fashion than a requirement. According to one of the two creation stories in the bible, Eve was made out of Adam’s rib, to be his helper. This was understood for a long time (and still is, by some) to mean that women were inferior and subordinate to men. The wearing of scarves or hats in church was a symbol of a women’s submission to men. Given the gross sexual inequality of this, women are no longer required to cover their heads in church, except perhaps in fundamentalist churches.

      Finally, to comment on your reply to Emma: I’m not sure that she would have had any choice in “respecting” Islamic law. From what I’ve read, foreign women who do not wear a scarf or burqa will be harassed, not by lecherous men but by the police. However, Emma would have to clarify that issue.

      You also say here that culture and religion are different things. However, Mernissi (as well as the scholar Reza Aslan) makes it very clear that culture and religion in Islam are deeply intertwined. In fact Mernissi’s argument is that the headscarf and the burqa are products of culture rather than religion. And how many Islamic authorities are willing to acknowledge this cultural influence on their religion?

      I think true liberation for women will come when we don’t have to worry about how much of our bodies we have to expose or cover up in order to be beautiful or good, and when we can walk around wearing whatever we like, from short skirts to headscarves, without having to be afraid of what men will do to us. I want to be free from the fear of sexual harassment and sex crimes; the freedom to protect myself from it is simply not good enough.

  5. One thing I forgot about “If I as a foreigner have to stick to the cultures of another country, then why shouldn’t immigrants learn to adapt to European ones?”

    Culture is not religion. The difference being one is as solid as law and the other is preference. If a European religion forbade the wearing of a head scarf it would be a different matter completely. The reason you must cover your head, arms and legs in a Mosque is because it is written in the Qur’an as I’ve mentioned.

    I respect that you have worn the scarf Emma and that you’ve respected the Islamic laws by doing so as I know many people would not.

    Apologies if I’ve upset anyone. It is a slightly delicate topic though.

    • Yes, it’s extremely delicate. The prejudice against Muslims that you mentioned in your first comment makes it even more so. One concern of mine is that this burqa debate will become an issue of racial/cultural prejudice, and the feminist debate will be sidelined.

      Nevertheless, I firmly believe that no religion or culture, or the practices that stem from them should be free from criticism. Ethics should never be based on tradition.

  6. Okay firstly let me apologize for been bluntly rude by comparing men to animals. They not, I was been unfair and those were a poor choice of words. My male friends would probably not find it amusing either. There are a few psycho’s out there but generally most are decent.

    However, everyone regardless of race or religion is subjected to unfair judgment. All people both men and women alike are victims of the standards of living in a modern world. Almost everyone wants to be accepted and to spite yourself the first thing that you would generally take note of whether consciously or not is the appearance of someone who walks through the door. We generalize. If he has an afro with a few piercings and a tattoo on his neck but dressed in a formal shirt and jeans he could be an artist but if he has an afro with a few piercings and a tattoo on his neck but dressed in a baggy t-shirt and torn jeans he could be a thug.

    As much as we would like to live in a world where women don’t have to worry about what they wear and how they look because of what men will do, this cannot happen because even if men didn’t care how we look other women do.

    Modesty is relative as you said and to most Muslims in South Africa jeans and a t-shirt is the norm for women. It boils down to how comfortable you are with what you wearing in relation to your beliefs and your social company. Other Islamic countries would scream in protest if I was to walk down the street wearing this, others such as in India consider the sari to be an appropriate Islamic covering but in Saudi for example this would cause uproar.

    If we want to be free from sexual harassment and sex crimes and we cannot stop such things over night should we not take action to prevent them? If you go to a mall and don’t want someone to steal your car you lock the doors don’t you? Or if you want to protect yourself from being hijacked you install tracker and a panic button and lock the doors and close the windows if you have your handbag on the other seat? If you want the headache to go away; take a panado.

    As a Muslim I feel my Faith and religion constantly been attacked. I choose to wear the scarf. Those women in France choose to wear the burqa. As much as Islamic laws and Islamic tradition are intertwined we believe that there is a God, and that He has sent us a Book that we should follow, in this He tells women to cover themselves in a certain manner. It is an obligation. It’s not always taken as a sign of faith but it should be.

    Those who do not see it as a sign of faith are sorely mistaken and should either try to understand it before accusing us of being fanatics or not approach the matter and make false accusations. Islam does not imply that there is anything sinful about the female body, nor does it imply that men are better than women or women better than men although many assume it does.

    No favoritism is made on the basis of sex. Islam recognizes that the sphere of prospective capabilities and hence responsibilities of men and women are equally important in themselves but not exactly the same. The roles of men and women are complementary to each other.

    I’m not saying that Muslims are perfect, we faulty, it is human nature to err. I’m not asking anyone to believe in anything they not willing to believe in either. You may believe ethics should never be based on tradition. To Muslims Islam is perfect however and you may criticize but at the same time realize that we believe Islam is a way of life.

    You cannot have a debate about the burqa without it being a religious issue. It’s not only Muslim women this concerns but Muslims as a community, Islam as a religion.

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