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Whose Burden Is The Burqa?

By Farzana Versey

25 April, 2011

If anyone is benefiting from the Islamist idea, specifically the veil, then it is the western elite or the westernised liberals among Muslims. I might have been a part of the latter given my mode of dress, speech and general deportment. I choose, instead, to play devil’s advocate. The reason is that the debate over whether a woman has the right to cover her face and body has become a western discourse. Its validity is reduced partly due to its being co-opted by an alien yardstick and partly because, ironically, it uses the religious paradigm to justify the ban on the veil.

The Quran does not prescribe it, the Prophet did not enjoin it and so on go the arguments. That is not the point anymore, and incidentally men too follow certain dress codes. It is beyond religion and one must understand that the Muslim world, and even the Arab world, is not of one kind. Therefore, discussing anything in such uniform terms reveals paucity of insight. I’d like one single commentator to discuss this issue without bringing in Islam and then let us watch the fun.

Contemporary society has many areas of darkness and every religion is rediscovering its roots. The rediscovery probably has nothing to do with the essence of the faith. The Pat Robertsons often go well with TV dinners for those rushed for time and prayer. Patriarchal paranoia too would be justified if it also took into account how non-Muslim societies choose to treat their women where they are subtly left out of mainstream political and social opinions. Why is the West obsessed only with Islam?

This is an extension of the old xenophobia. Some are upfront and brand others as terrorists or suspects; the others go the other way and play patronising angels who understand the ‘pain’ of the Muslim woman. In France, where the veil was banned on April 11, a very small percentage of its Muslim population wears the veil. Why is the rest of the female population not considered in the arguments put forth? Does the fact that some women defied the ban not reveal that they cannot be herded into an ignorant, backward stereotype?

When the Bill was first being considered Andre Gerin, a Communist Party legislator, had said, “Today, we are confronted by certain Muslim women wearing the burqa, which covers and fully envelops the body and the head like a moving prison”. His 57 colleagues had signed a document that stated it amounted “to a breach of individual freedoms on our national territory”.

Whose individual freedom is it? I may personally not wear the veil but I do not think any woman doing so is infringing on my freedom. If the religion of France is secularism, then it does not as a matter of course mean that no religious choices can be made. Secularism is not atheism. If the issue is regarding security risks, then the government must make it clear that certain checks will be mandatory, but to sneak in ethical arguments is vile.

It is also extremely offensive to question veiled women who believe they feel empowered. Like grand vigilantes, the anti-veil group thinks it is important to probe the basis of such a choice. As a stand-alone poser it is legitimate, but then how many women have access to equal opportunities in the workplace or rights even at home? Those who object to the “moving prison” and contend that male insecurity puts a wife or sister behind the burqa say nothing about men who feel secure having trophy wives and displaying them for their physical assets in a consumerist paradise.

There is a belief that the veil defines a woman completely. It does not, just as a skirt or a lipstick does not. Whether they choose to wear loose ‘tents’ or scarves with tight clothes is only one of the choices they make in life, as much as others do things to please their partners, peer groups or societal trends. The people who can ensure that no one is forced to wear what she does not want to are those who understand the construct and not imposers who come with their own moral values garbed as liberalism. A true liberal is not offended by others and most certainly not afraid that she cannot bond with a face behind a niqab. With botox and cosmetics, not to speak of public facades, what about the masks we wear?

Farzana Versey is a regular countercurrents columnist based in India


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