It’s Not Up To Us To Ban The Burka

Will banning burkas really liberate women?

It’s Not Up To Us To Ban The Burka

All around the world war has been declared on that which appears Islamic. Few things are seen as more symbolic of Islam than the burka. People of middle eastern appearance are searched more thoroughly before boarding planes, mosques are vandalised, and women who observe Muslim dress codes are routinely verbally, and sometimes physically, assaulted. The veil is one of the most controversial issues faced by Muslim women in Westernised countries. It’s important to note though, that a veil is not a burka.

Hijab is the Arabic word for cover, but it can also translate to the segregation of unrelated, unmarried men from women. There are a number of different types of veil, all coming under the banner of hijab. In Afghanistan there is the well known, and most extreme form of hijab, the burqa which is most commonly a blue cover that goes from head to foot with a mesh covering over the eyes allowing women to see out. In Saudi Arabia, the niqab and the abaya are worn, and in other places a simple scarf covering the hair will suffice. Everyone is familiar with the burka, but people frequently refer to all hijab as a burka, which is misinformed and unhelpful – at best – in our current political climate.

There are three main verses in the holy Qur’an which are cited as the direction to veil, they are:

{ “O Prophet! Tell your wives and daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks (jalabib) close round them (when they go abroad)…”} (33:59)
{ “And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and be modest, and to display of their adornment only that which is apparent, and to draw their veils over their bosoms…” (24:31)
{ “… And when you ask of them (the wives of the Prophet) anything, ask it of them from behind a veil. . .” } (33:53)

There is much controversy surrounding these verses and whether or not they actually direct women to veil. Many claim that the Prophet was simply imploring women and men alike to behave modestly and virtuously. He was clearly not recommending a burka, because the word burka doesn’t appear in any of the passages. It is worth highlighting here, that the direction to dress modestly applies to men as well as women, however a veil is a far more noticeable dress code and thus it causes much more controversy.

In France the hijab has been banned and in Australia there is often discussion of it in various corridors of power, leeching onto the streets. France and three other countries have banned hijab which covers the face in educational institutions and government buildings. They claim two reasons are behind the ban, one, safety – to prevent women from hiding weapons inside their burqas, and two, as a statement of liberation for women.

To claim that it is for safety is laughable. The idea that men might wear women’s clothing to conceal bombs is nonsensical when anyone who hasn’t had their head buried in the sand for the past two decades surely knows that anything can be turned into a bomb. A mobile phone, a shoe, a backpack, a car, the list is endless! Are we banning those things? No, just women’s clothing. That’s certainly thought provoking isn’t it.

Those who are in favour of banning hijab (often mistakenly referred to as a burka which most westerners have never even seen) come from a wide variety of backgrounds, from right wing extremists, to left wing progressives, and feminists, and they have a myriad of reasons supporting their arguments against veiling. Interestingly enough there are not many well known Muslim women who oppose the hijab, and very few opponents of the veil ever claim to have spoken to the women who actually wear a headscarf, let alone a burka.

Something worth mentioning is that when the regimes who police extreme dress codes such as the burka or niqab are ousted, women do often choose to go without, but they still wear hijab. They don’t like burkas, but they do wear a veil. Without asking them why, we can only speculate on this, but the fact they are willing to cast off the burka is noteworthy.

In countries which have successfully founded peace within a system of religious freedom, this one act could easily take us onto very dangerous ground. To claim that it furthers the cause of feminism is a completely inane argument. Feminism is essentially* about choice. Forcing women to dress one way or another is not about feminism, it is about fear and control, and it discriminates against women of the Islamic faith. Furthermore many of the people who argue that banning hijab would liberate women, are the last to believe that women need liberation.

To many women who wear hijab every day, suddenly being told they must cease, is akin to telling a westernised woman that she must now be naked when she leaves her home. And then there is the other side of the coin, where it is a woman’s husband or father who dictates that she must wear hijab. When the law bans her from covering herself, her father may in turn ban her from leaving the home to study or participate in other everyday activities. Women in this situation would suffer discrimination and oppression from every direction.

Women in this situation may spend their entire lives without being able to seek medical treatments, education, or any form of social or community support.

Some girls may be born into this life, during forced unassisted births, and they may live out their entire lives this way. Passed from the hands of one man to another at marriage, never free. Women have recently been arrested for wearing “burkinis” at the beach. Will those women every take their children to a beach again? A museum? An art gallery? The cinema? Are we really liberating them by banning hijab? Surely if we genuinely believe that hijab is some kind of prison for these women, then we don’t want to imprison them further by making it all but impossible for them to enter public spaces.

Those who fear Islamic extremism and link Muslims to terrorism, must be made aware that removing religious freedom will not serve to maintain safety. It is more likely to breed dissatisfaction in otherwise moderate Muslims. The veil itself does not oppress women when they live in a country where they are free to dress as they choose*. The men they live with  may oppress them, but the veil itself is just an item of clothing. For some it gives them freedoms they would not have in other countries. For example women in Saudi Arabia are not permitted to drive let alone leave their homes without a male relative to supervise them.

Surely the liberation of women comes from giving them all the available information, and the choice to decide for themselves what to wear. Any society which seeks to liberate women has no alternative but to allow all women to dress as they feel comfortable. In fact it could be argued that forcing a woman to unveil is no different from forcing her to cover herself. Whether or not we as westerners perceive the veil as a slight upon women’s rights, the issue of veiling is not for governments anywhere to concern themselves with, this is an issue that only the women in hijab …. or a burka must determine.

*When we discuss “choice” on Whole Woman, we do so in the knowledge that not all choices are equal, nor is it a feminist action to simply make a choice. Choices are not made in a vortex without cultural, patriarchal, or capitalist influence. 

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burka - a row of Afghan women wearing burkas
This is what a burka looks like
License: Creative Commons CC0.

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