Mythbuster 5: The War on Burqas
It is long overdue that the myths around burqas were busted.
Most notably, the myths that Muslim women who choose to wear it are all being oppressed. The burqa is an enveloping outer garment with a face-veil portion, usually a rectangular piece of semi-transparent cloth. Although, there are a variety of other Muslim dresses, veils and headscarves such as the khimar, chador, niqab and hijab, which are also all connected to ideas of religiosity and modesty, but for the purpose of this article we are focusing on one of the most talked about – the burqa. While incidents such as attacks on mosques and Muslims may grab headlines, they are at the extreme end of a much wider movement of intolerance. In Britain, many women who choose to cover themselves on religious grounds are made to feel as though they are being perceived as backwards or uneducated. Moreover, this perception is often attached to myths that these women have a lack of understanding of women’s rights and are controlled by a paternal religion that is inherently anti-British.
In Western culture appearance is everything and people are often immediately judged on what they wear. Instantly, you can be seen as educated in a suit or anti-social in a hooded top. A society where even the brands you wear are a status symbol and a reflection of yourself. A young woman with her hair tied back and sporting a Nike tracksuit may be stereotyped as a Vicky Pollard type character, viewed completely different at first glance to a young woman wearing Vivienne Westwood or Ralph Lauren. In a similar instance, when some western individuals see a woman in a burqa, they instantly label them as anonymous women who choose to be outside the dominant culture. A core value in the West is freedom of expression; this includes the freedom to choose what you want to wear. Some people believe that Muslim women are robbed of this choice and are forced into conformity. Yet if you look at society as a whole you will see minimal difference between what Britons are wearing. With all the emphasise on individuality, the reality is companies such as Topshop or brands such as Dolce&Gabbana dictate what we wear, decide what is fashionable and we imitate the clothes we see worn on runways or celebrities.
Ironically, women in niqabs (a face veil) and burqas are perceived as being invisible, yet walking down the street they are likely to receive the most attention. People’s imaginations rarely conjure up images of these women with dreams or ambitions or in loving marriages, possibly because we rarely see them depicted in a normal way, doing normal things, like other people in Britain.
Shortly after the 9/11 attacks `pictures of women wearing burqas in Afghanistan started to pour in via different media,’ these have been used to highlight the Taliban regime’s fundamentalism. Western media often portrays women in countries such as Afghanistan as helpless and invisible, hidden behind burqas. You don’t often see Afghani women fighting for their own freedom wearing a burqa or niqab, yet Afghani women protested American bombing and urged their sisters to fight against gender oppression. The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) is an organisation of Afghan women fighting for human rights, but are relatively unheard of, possibly because its actions are indeed ‘totally at odds with the “victim” image of burqa-wearing women that ﬁtted more comfortably with western discourses’.
Visibility and invisibility of the body is a core argument in making the burqa a symbol of oppression, it has been upheld as proof of Islamic suppression of women’s freedoms. However, it may also be that the western world is itself focused on bodies. For example, just over a week ago, campaigners gathered outside the News International offices with a birthday card for the Sun’s 42nd anniversary of Page 3. According to feminist campaigners, the female body is objectified in the media and this, in turn, supports the subordination of women. It could be argued that in the western world both nakedness and burqas make women objects of the gaze, but rather differently, and that this isn’t an issue of western superiority but an issue of cultural politics.
The central issue for many others is the compulsory wearing of the niqab or burqa in certain parts of the world. Interestingly enough, in Europe there has been a rise in far-right parties and oppressive laws that do exactly the opposite to the same effect, they ban burqas and niqabs thereby taking away a woman’s right to a choice. France, a nation where the far-right National Front party polled almost 12 percent in the 2010 regional elections, has passed legislation making it a crime to wear the niqab and burqa in public. As a direct consequence Muslim groups have reported an increase in discrimination and even verbal and physical violence against women in veils. One such French woman Ahmas, 32, is a divorced single mother of a three-year-old daughter, she was attacked in the street as a man and woman punched her in front of her daughter, called her a whore and told her to go back to Afghanistan. She says:
“My quality of life has seriously deteriorated since the ban. In my head, I have to prepare for war every time I step outside, prepare to come up against people who want to put a bullet in my head. 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 cafe or collect documents from a 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.”
Islam teaches that garments should discourage ‘lustful thoughts in the opposite sex.’ The wearing of a burqa is not an Islamic law but a cultural one. Moreover, it is not a garment made to punish, torture, hide, or depersonalize women and although some are forced to wear it, for many it is a choice; a sign of religious devotion. They see their bodies as sacred, and something that should be protected. It is similar to the clothing of nun, yet in the western world where a nun’s vow of poverty, chastity, and obedience is a sign of religious devotion, a Muslim woman’s stance is interpreted as a form of religious oppression.
The belief that wearing the burqa or niqab is inconsistent with Western norms of equality is a myth. The fundamental issue for many is the forced wearing of the burqa. The most important thing that every woman should have is a choice, wherever they may come from; which is precisely why denying women the right to wear it in the western world is just as intolerant. Women are free to walk around practically naked, why shouldn’t they also be free to cover?