Liberte, Egalite-De Feministes! Revealing the Burqa as a Pro-Choice Issue

By Knief, Amanda | The Humanist, September-October 2010 | Go to article overview

Liberte, Egalite-De Feministes! Revealing the Burqa as a Pro-Choice Issue


Knief, Amanda, The Humanist


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"BAN THE BURQA! Ban the burqa!" Across Western Europe this resounds as the rallying cry of the day among the public and politicians. At least Belgium, France, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, Spain, and the United Kingdom are in various stages of proposing, voting, or enforcing legislation that would prohibit a person from wearing a facial covering in public places that hides the identity of the person. The words "burqa,' which describes a Muslim garment that covers the body and includes a mesh covering over the face, and "niqab" referring to a Muslim facial covering that leaves only a slit revealing the eyes, do not appear in any nation's ban. However, the rhetoric accompanying the legislation in these countries leaves no doubt that it is Muslim women who are targeted--not those citizens who are wearing woolen scarves to keep their faces warm in cold weather.

Animosity against the burqa, the niqab, and even Muslim headscarves isn't new. France banned the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols in public schools in September 2004. The law had the effect of preventing Muslim schoolgirls from wearing headscarves. In spring of 2010 a sixteen-year-old Spanish girl was expelled from her school in suburban Madrid for wearing a headscarf, which violated the school's dress code. The student was readmitted after the national education ministry intervened, stating that the Spanish Constitution requires government institutions to respect religious beliefs. Turkey bans the covering of the face and neck; however, since 2008 loose headscarves are allowed. Some areas of Italy have used a national law against hiding one's identity in public, which predates any discussion of a burqa ban, to prevent Muslim women from wearing the burqa and the niqab in public.

It's worth noting that the burqa, the niqab, and other Muslim clothing traditions are not consistent among Muslim cultures. According to the Muslim Women's League, the Koran only states that women should dress modestly. From there, how women should dress is open to interpretation. The differences in how Muslim women dress reflects the diversity of the women themselves, which is often overlooked. The Muslim Women's League states that "stereotypical assumptions about Muslim women are as inaccurate as the assumption that all American women are personified by the bikini-clad cast of Baywatch."

The burqa and the niqab are striking symbols for those who wear them and for those who don't. When Western government officials and the public blindly insist that the burqa and niqab are used to oppress these women, they are in effect denying that women are intelligent individuals capable of making their own choices. There is no denying that the burqa and niqab have been and are still being used as tools to oppress some Muslim women--both individually by family members or peer groups and collectively by governments. But banning head and facial coverings is also a tool used to oppress Muslim women in Muslim and secular countries. Prior to the revolution in 1979 in Iran, women were prohibited from wearing religious head coverings, called chadors, as expressions of their faith. Many women wore the chadors while marching in the streets to protest the repressive regime. Iranian women were then forced to wear them everyday by those who seized power after the revolution. In Turkey, the ban on facial coverings stems from the belief imposed by Turkish authorities that the facial coverings and even headscarves are representative of radical Muslim groups who threaten the country's secularism. Therefore, women who wear facial coverings are prevented from holding public offices and jobs. In short, oppression in the form of forced apparel goes both ways.

There is a presumption among many Western non-Muslim men and women, many of them otherwise religious, that wearing the burqa or niqab or even a headscarf can't be an intelligent or rational choice for a woman but rather is always a patriarchal imposition--one that robs women of their identity and equality. …

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