BURKING THE BURQA
Shelina Merani is the coordinator for Muslim
Presence (Ottawa), a network promoting common values
and active citizenship based on a contextualized reading of
Islam, an open identity, and a harmonious co-existence within
up on lunch snacks at Costco, I saw a book that immediately
grabbed my attention. It had a picture of a woman wearing a
niqab, a face covering worn by a minority of Muslim women.
I bought the book, mentally congratulating the publisher for
having squeezed $20 out of my pocket. They know only too well
that the niqab sells, grabs headlines and diverts attention.
It is also a lightening rod for emotions and fear.
months ago, the debate raged among Canadian politicians whether
wearing the niqab and voting could jibe, and whether women would
be allowed to wear the veil in legal proceedings. It has been
discussed in Quebec, England, the Netherlands, Italy and many
other parts of the world, usually spun to create false controversy
by right-wing politicians.
this issue is making the rounds again, this time in France,
a country in the midst of identity crises. President Nicolas
Sarkozy is making the burqa -- a full-body covering with a screen
over the face -- his flavour of the month to deflect attention
from his plunging popularity. Amid raucous applause from his
fellow parliamentarians, he said:
our country, we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind
a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity
. . . it is a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement.”
know that fear will easily buy votes among a population who
feel increasingly vulnerable to the growing number of Muslims,
and who will embrace laws which provide a false sense of security
in preserving their identity. In 2004, Muslim women were the
targets of this strategy through a law banning headscarves from
French public schools.
President Barack Obama addressed this in his Cairo speech two
weeks ago: “ . . . it is important for Western countries
to avoid impeding Muslim citizens from practicing religion as
they see fit -- for instance, by dictating what clothes a Muslim
woman should wear. We cannot disguise hostility towards any
religion behind the pretense of liberalism.”
defending his words, Obama stated, “I will tell you that
in the U.S., our basic attitude is that we’re not going
to tell people what to wear.”
gets it. Unfortunately, the people who lash out at the niqab
or burqa are usually those who feel the most uncomfortable with
it: journalists, politicians, intellectuals and feminists. Under
the pretense of defending freedom of thought, they are actually
legitimizing hate, thus generating the exact opposite of what
they claim to defend.
they don’t seem to be particularly attentive to those
whom they are supposedly defending. In speaking for these women,
they assume they are oppressed idiots who can only be spoken
to, about, or for but never with.
women wear the face covering for a variety of reasons. Unfortunately,
we never hear their voices, their stories, their choices, how
they negotiate the challenges, how it impacts their integration
and how they feel.
Ullah, a Chicago graduate student, voices her experience of
wearing the niqab in an online blog, “Most people who
had an opinion about niqab never asked me why I wore it although
they were willing to express their opinion . . . ” adding,
“It was actually Muslims that were the cruelest. They
insisted that niqab was wrong, I felt more defensive about having
the right to make my own choices.”
laundry list of assumptions people had about her intentions
included: ideology; adherence to law; a method of escape; entrapment;
pretentiousness; performance of piety; heroism; fear of men;
desire to seduce; covered naughtiness; anti-social behaviour;
a vain call for attention; a passport to marriage; desire to
be silent; an oppressive father; and the classic -- anxiety
about being too dark.
it is time we reassess the biases that are fuelling this debate.
To fear means that we lack confidence in ourselves and in others.
By allowing this fear to infiltrate our societies, we are entertaining
the most serious illusions about our freedom, putting in danger
our notions of what a truly democratic society is.
organization Human Rights Watch concurs: “The ban on the
veil violates human rights and stigmatizes and marginalizes
women who wear it. The freedom to express religion and freedom
of conscience are fundamental rights . . . and such a ban would
send a signal to many French Muslims that they are not welcome
in their own country.” It has been announced that an official
commission in France will be created to assess the question
of the burqa over the next six months. It smells suspiciously
looking at the context and origins of the niqab, the majority
of Muslim scholars do not view it as compulsory. For the minority
who see it as a religious requirement, they should be, under
freedom of religion provisions, afforded the right to wear the
Muslim communities, there are growing discussions about Islamic
feminism -- the struggle for women’s rights within the
Islamic terms of reference, against cultural discrimination
and a literalist approach to the texts.
grassroots conversations are an important avenue to reiterate
that women should not be forced to do anything against their
will. But also that choices made through personal conviction
need to be respected -- a right embedded in most democracies.
dialogue had already started during the Prophet Muhammad’s
time. He strongly encouraged the active role of women in early
Islamic society, insisting that they should never confuse modesty
with disappearing from the political, scholarly, religious,
social, economic or even military sphere. In other words, Muslim
women were the actors of their own destinies.
concluding his speech, Sarkozy stated that the burqa “will
not be welcome on our territory.”
he will come to understand that a potential law banning a piece
of clothing won’t change anything except outward appearances.
emancipation and empowerment of Muslim women to be free, autonomous
and engaged will only occur when they are afforded the right
to speak on their own terms, not for someone else’s political