Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Banning the Burqa: What’s Really Being Hid?

“After a hard day at work, an Afghan working woman usually changes out of her uniform, applies her lipstick, a dab of mascara, and a dusting of eye shadow and then she puts on her powder blue burqa and commutes home,” writes Kiko Itasaka, an NBC News producer in her blogging at NBC’ Blog. (http://worldblog.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2010/05/14/4376895-under-that-burqa-lipstick-and-high-heels).

Burqa, a full-body covered black gown and hijab (‘niqab’) a head/ face-covered scarf are modest Muslim styles of dress in general which were introduced into Arabia long before Muhammad, primarily through Arab contacts with Syria and Iran, where the veil was a sign of social status. [See: Ahmed, Leyla (1992). Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 0300055838.]

Wearing a ‘burqa,’ for a woman, is also not a pleasant experience.

When she moved to Saudi Arabia, Nesrine Malik, a girl originally from Sudan but living in London, had to wear a burqa and she tells of her experiences with that full-length cloak in her blog (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/personal-view/7896536/Burka-ban-Why-must-I-cast-off-the-veil.html). She commented, “On a practical level, it was cumbersome, hot, and uncomfortable. Eating or drinking in public became a chore, as food has to be maneuvered gingerly under the veil or taken abruptly in small bites. In Saudi’s overwhelming heat, temperatures regularly reach 45C and any physical outdoor activity, even walking, is out of the question. I became anti-social, hardly able to wait until I got home before tearing off the ghastly garb.”

In Kabul, more than half of the women wear burqas, while outside of Kabul, virtually all women are clad in head-to-toe covering. It was an astonishing fact for me that during my Bangladesh visit a few years ago, I found none of the women wearing burqas and very few in ‘niqab’ or ‘hijab’ on the streets of Dhaka and Chattogram or even in Cox Bazar. But during my visit to Kerala, I saw the majority of Muslim women walking on the street wearing that black long gown, covering their total body. One of my writer friends told me that these types of scenes were not common in Calicut at least fifteen years ago and the tendency to wear has been growing after the demolition of Babri mosque. After that evil incident, Indian Muslims suffered from an identity crisis and started to accept all religious conservatism as their mark of religious identity. I haven’t visited Pakistan, so it is difficult for me to say what is the status of Burqa there, but I encountered a question asked by an internet user at ‘Yahoo Answers’ site. The user has asked, “I went to India and Pakistan respectively for vacation and surprisingly to my knowledge, I expected Pakistani women to be dressed very ‘Islam-like,’ but from what I've seen, they were all mixing in with men with no head-scarfs on their heads, let alone burqas. Isn't Pakistan an Islamic state?” (See: http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20110417132757AAxwwfo)

I have an idea that the ‘burqa’ was imposed on women when the Taliban took over the country in 1996, but Kiko Itasaka says it was accepted by Afghanistan women before the Taliban when the Northern Alliance took control of Kabul in 1992. It was accepted as a tool to protect them from unwanted male attention as that was the time of violent crimes, many of them committed against women. (See: http://salaamafghanistan.blogspot.com/2004_07_04_salaamafghanistan_archive.html) I don’t know whether it is American propaganda or not but in India we are reading in news that the fundamentalist Muslim militants in Kashmir issue ‘fatwa’ from time to time that wearing ‘burqa’ for women is an essential of the female dress code. Recently in this year, Sesto San Giovanni, a small town in Italy, made national headlines after it decided to ban women from wearing burqas and to which Muslim women of Italy, who generally do not prefer ‘burqa’ came on the street to protest the authority’s decision stating that it is an unfair and unnecessary attack on their freedom of expression.

Recently in several European countries, a tendency to ban this full-body covering burqa or the face-covering ‘hijab’ has been seen and as governments there are trying to outlaw this dress code, which is pushing many countries toward a debate. At the end of April, the Belgian Parliament agreed unanimously on a law that would forbid full veiling in public. But the law must still be approved by the Belgian senate. France is set to be the second European country, after Belgium, to declare the full veil illegal in public places. The French cabinet introduced a bill that would also ban face-covering in public. If parliament agrees on the measure, wearing a burqa or a hijab could carry a fine of 150 euro (about US$188). Besides these two countries, other states like the Netherlands, Italy, Austria, Denmark, Switzerland and Great Britain also intend to introduce a bills in their respective law-making bodies calling for bans on burqas. But the European Council has voiced opposition to the burqa-ban ambitions of these countries and the European Council's Human Rights Commissioner, Thomas Hammarberg, has warned that a burqa ban would only increase the tension between religious communities. According to him, “two rights in the convention are particularly relevant. One is the right to respect for one's private life and personal identity (Article 8). The other is the freedom to manifest one's religion or belief ‘in worship, teaching, practice and observance’ (Article 9). Both articles specify that these human rights can only be subject to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are notably necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.” (See http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/mar/08/europe-ban-burqa-veil)

Interestingly enough the burqa was abolished from Egypt after the eminent Egyptian feminist Hoda Shaarawi started a movement against wearing veil for women in 1923. The movement was so successful that in 1958, an article published in the United Press Service stated that “the veil is unknown here.” [See: United Press Service (UP) (26 January 1958). "Egypt's Women Foil Attempt to Restrict". Sarasota Herald-Tribune (114): p. 28]. But the veil returned back to Egypt again and in 2007, Michael Slackman, a correspondent for the New York Times, wrote in its 28 January 2007 issue ("In Egypt, a New Battle Begins Over the Veil") that 90 percent of Egyptian women wore a headscarf or a hijab.

In South Asian and Southeast Asian countries, any type of veil for women was not in tradition. In 1994, the Malayasian Supreme Court said in a historic ruling that any type of veil or purdah, “has nothing to do with (a woman's) constitutional right to profess and practice her Muslim religion, because Islam does not make it obligatory to cover the face”. But later, during the rise of Muslim conservatism, the religious fundamentalists introduced ‘burqa’ and ‘hijab.

Interesting to note, Tunisia, Turkey, and Syria are some Muslim countries which have imposed ban on wearing burqa for school and university students. Recently, Syria has lifted its ban after the 2011 Syrian Protests. So it is also a fact to remember that all Muslims are not standing in unity with such veils but if anyone forcefully tries to impose a ban, it may gather an emotional attachment with these religious dress codes and people may return to the uncharacteristic cloak as happened in Egypt in the past.

But the question is why are these European countries really showing such interests in banning a burqa and other clothing identified with the Muslim faith? Do most of women show their obligations to these religious dress codes? Many Muslim women born and brought up in European countries do not show any fascination toward these veils. But enforcing any law to prevent these veils may create a crisis in their identity and they can feel themselves to be eliminated from mainstream.

I think it is totally undemocratic to dictate any code of living to anyone. Democracy means freedom of choice! If anyone has freedom to wear jeans, they should also have the freedom to wear ‘burqa.’ Leave women to wear what they want.

If we look at the history of the initiative in France, it was started with a secular view not against only burqa and hijab but also to prohibited all religious garb, including large Christian crosses, Jewish yarmulkes, and Sikh turbans. But the law was enacted with the specific intent to eliminate the Muslim hijab, or headscarf, from French public school classrooms. In March 2004, the French Parliament passed a new law that makes it illegal for students to wear any clothing or symbols that “exhibit conspicuously a religious affiliation” in public schools. On June 22, 2009, during his address to both houses at the Chateau of Versailles, French President Nicolas Sarkozy sparked controversy by saying the burqa is unwelcome on French soil and a violation of “the French Republic's idea of women's dignity.” President Sarkozy's remarks arrived on the heels of a call by cross-party members of Parliament, led by Communist Andre Gerin. The Parliament demanded a parliamentary commission be established to investigate an increasing trend of Muslim women in France wearing the burqa and to determine whether the burqa was compatible with “French secularism.” As a result, a parliamentary commission was created by the French National Assembly, which included 32 members of Parliament from various political parties. After a five-month study, the commission submitted a report stating that “the wearing of the full veil is a challenge to our Republic. . . . We must condemn this excess.” The commission did not call for legislation to outlaw the burqa in public spaces out of constitutional concerns, but did request that Parliament adopt a resolution calling the burqa “contrary to the values of the Republic.”

France’s attitude towards banning burqa or hijab made some fundamentalist intellectuals in Britain (there are a few judiciary people are also attached to the organization) started to celebrate Interantional Hijab Day on September 4 every year [Please see: http://www.mcb.org.uk/features/features.php?ann_id=386 ] Though Bangladeshi women were not fond of these type of veils, extremist intellectuals were trying to make a global protest for protecting their Muslim culture.

I never think these types of laws are motivated with the idea of feminism but rather, are more Islamophobia and resurgent nationalist sentiment which contribute to outlaw this religious dress code. It is no doubt that Islamic radicalism is a deeply disturbing danger developing in Europe. There is every chance that the of using this cloak may disguise any terrorist and it should be harmful. But we have to remember that accessing one’s face and banning ‘burqa’ are not standing at the same point. State authorities should have the right to check and verify the person disguised under that cloak. But no state should have the full authority to interfere in an individual’s choice and cultural beliefs of any citizen. To legislate against the extremes would be a highly intrusive extension of authority. But to mobilise the mechanism of the state to tackle Islamic fundamentalism via cracking down on the face veil is not the answer, in my opinion. To force a female to remove her veil is just as subjugating as forcing her to wear it. It then becomes a question of numbers: should the behavior of five percent create prejudice or discrimination for the other 95 percent?

In French there is a term ‘Laicite’ which sometimes used in English as "laicity" and dictionaries ordinarily translate laïcité as secularity or secularism. But the term is not exact to ‘secularism.’ To solve the church-state conflicts in Europe, Pope Gelasius I established the doctrine called “Gelasian Dualism,” which denotes with regard to temporal issues, the priest must obey the emperor and in spiritual matters, the emperor must obey the priest. This theory would later develop into the theory of laicism. If we replace the term ‘church’ with the term ‘religious belief’ in this doctrine, then the state should be obliged to allow ‘burqa’ and the ‘burqa-dressed individual should be obliged to obey the state. The state authority should then have a right to access the face or search the ‘burqa’ whenever the cloak poses a safety risk to the person wearing it and those around them.

I think each culture has things that make it special. Why should that right be taken away because a small fraction of the members of that culture ruin it for that culture?

What I find more a gender bias in this law is that this ban, in fact, would reduce the equality between men and women — whereas men are allowed to wear whatever they want, women again have their rights restrained. It is foolishness to think that by making any law or dress code, the institution making its rules can make people obey and follow as dictated. Rather, it usually serves to ignite emotions and increase the impulsive alienated attitude among some communities.

If Toronto can witness ‘slut walk’ for high heels or mini skirts, why couldn’t Europe encounter a march for the veil or ‘veil walk’ in the coming days? It DOES raise interesting questions.

(While blogging on this topic, I asked my Facebook friends whether ‘burqa’ should be banned or not and what they shared with me as their comments and opinions are being posted with FEMININE-FRAGRANCE. It’s needn’t to say that the comments are neither edited nor moderated.)