Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Burka: The Other View


By Sara Malkani
Tuesday, 16 Feb, 2010
www.dawn.com
Pakistan's oldest and most widely-read English-language newspaper.


In the ongoing controversy about the proposed burka ban in France, the voice of one group of people is strangely obscured. Muslim women who do not wear the burka or the headscarf do not feature prominently in this debate.

We do hear a great deal about the importance of preserving the choice of Muslim women who want to wear the garb. But in any community, the choices of some people have a definite impact on the lives of others.

The presence or absence of the choice to wear a religious garment that is meant exclusively for the females of a religious group affects gender relations and gender hierarchy in the community as a whole.

I am a Muslim woman and I do not wear the burka or the headscarf. The constant reference in liberal media to those women who choose to wear it has made it increasingly difficult for countless Muslim women such as myself to express our discomfort with it. This is because any outright criticism of the garment comes across as an intolerant attack on Islam as well as the Muslim women sporting it.

The reality is that many women have reason to dislike the garment even when they do not harbour any Islamophobic sentiments. The fact is that the burka is often imposed on women by hardliners — in parts of the Middle East, state authorities force women to wear it in all public places.

Women are also prohibited from driving or travelling without a male relative. The Taliban imposed the burka on women when they controlled Afghanistan before 2001. Today they compel women to wear it in areas that are still under their control both in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In societies where women are punished severely for not wearing it, the burka is a part of a range of laws and policies designed to suppress women. It is not hard to see why many women in these environments associate the gear with a highly repressive patriarchal structure that subjugates and confines women in the name of religion.

The simplistic portrayal of initiatives against the burka as Islamophobic attacks on Muslim communities in western countries also ignores the fact that the burka ban has been welcomed by many in the Muslim diaspora. France’s secretary of state for urban affairs, Fadela Amara, a Muslim woman of Algerian descent, has strongly supported the ban in France.

Amara, a prominent women’s rights activist in France is the former leader of a feminist organisation that defends rights of women living in low-income urban communities in France, many of whom are Muslim immigrants becoming increasingly vulnerable to the pressures of Islamic fundamentalism in their communities.

A Canadian-based grassroots organisation, the Muslim Canadian Congress, has also approved of the initiative in France against the veil. The body argues that the garment “has no place either in Canada, France or any other place in the 21st century”. The positive reaction of many Muslims to the proposed burka ban in France is evidence of conflicting Muslim attitudes towards it.

But then the counter-argument is that for those who choose to wear the veil, the garment is a choice, not a tool of suppression. This argument obscures the fact that there is pervasive, sexist propaganda in many Muslim communities. Many women are vulnerable to this propaganda and so their so-called choice to wear a burka may not be the result of independent, informed decision-making.

Moreover, even an independent decision to wear it is not carried out in a vacuum. It is important to understand the effect of this choice on other Muslim women, many of whom may be trying to resist pressures from their relatives, community or governments. Their resistance is undermined when the burka becomes increasingly common in public places and more closely associated with Islam.

The question is wouldn’t the burka ban be a major impediment to the freedom of women who feel compelled to wear it when they are in public? Perhaps, but on the other hand, it may provide much-needed respite to the many Muslim women who are forced to wear the burka by family, friends or religious figures in their community.

The ban might encourage them to resist the pressure to wear the burka. It might also encourage Muslim communities to think critically about the garment and whether it is compatible with a modern, secular society where women and men are equals.

Another important question that does not receive much attention in the media is this: why do many women dislike the burka? Why might some women consider it to be an imposition on their freedom? The attire is a big shapeless tent around a woman’s body. In a public place, a woman draped in it does not have an identity; no one knows what she looks like, whether she is smiling or frowning, is kind or unfriendly, etc.

In some sense, a burka leads to the most perverse kind of sexual objectification — a woman wearing it is identified by absolutely nothing other than her sex: she is a nameless, faceless, shapeless ‘woman’ and nothing more. I do not mean to pick sides in the debate on the proposed ban by the French parliament. The decision about whether to ban the burka should be made in the context of French society and politics and the positive as well as negative consequences of the ban must be carefully weighed.

In any discussion of the ban, however, an important consideration must be the impact of the ban on all women in French society, including the Muslim women who want to resist the veil.

malkani.sara@gmail.com

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