Ah the burqa! A degradation of womankind, or an assertion by an individual Muslim woman that she will control who looks at her and in what manner? A sign of piety, an act of rebellion, a political statement? Amazing how a small piece of cloth can create such strong feelings and entangle so many issues!
French President Sarkozy has once against thrust Muslim women’s dress into the public discourse by proposing a ban on the burqa, which he calls a sign of subservience and debasement. While there are valid reasons to ban burqas, Sarkozy’s view is culturally bigoted and oppressively paternalistic. The state, according to him, knows better than individual women what is the best way for them to dress. And Western modes of dress, he believes, liberate women, while Muslim dress codes are restrictive and oppressive.
Before I start to deconstruct that mess, let’s be clear what we are talking about, as some people use the terms hijab and burqa interchangeably.
The hijab, in common parlance, is a scarf used to cover the hair and neck, not the face. It is sometimes called a khimar, especially in Arabic speaking countries. The burqa is a garment which covers the head, neck, shoulders, and upper torso along with the face. It is also known as a chador or chadri, and is associated with Afghanistan and the Indian subcontinent. The Iranian form of a chador is quite different from the Afghani, but the term is used in both countries. Niqab refers more specifically to a slip of cloth that covers the face, and is worn with the hijab.
Like many people from the West, I have a strong negative reaction to the niqab. I feel uncomfortable talking to women without the benefit of facial clues to the emotional content of their speech and the sincerity of their words. It’s spooky listening to a disembodied voice, hearing the woman in front of you but not seeing her lips move. The fact that most women in the West who cover their faces also choose to dress completely in black makes me feel like they are trying to erase their individuality and their identity. As someone who celebrates individuality, diversity, and the uniqueness of each person, I find the desire to cloak that distressing. I find the negation of identity unsettling; I want to be able to recognize the people I am around, and I want them to be able to recognize me. In my culture, only criminals try to hide their identity, and as such I feel uneasy around people who veil.
I also have a negative reaction to arguments that Islam calls for face covering. I believe that it is, in fact, contrary to the teachings of Islam, which calls for modesty, but also for moderation in all things, including dress. The burqa, especially those that have mesh in front of the eyes, is about as extreme a dress as you can get. The fact that the Prophet explicitly forbade women to cover their faces during the pilgrimage suggests that he frowned upon the practice. Perhaps most important of all, if God had wanted Muslim women to cover their faces, it would be unequivocally clear in the Qur’an. It is not. In fact, it is not mentioned at all in the Qur’an. The various arguments that people use to support veiling the face rely on extrapolation, rationalization in terms of public good and the supposed nature of men and women, and attempts to twist the words of the Qur’an into the meaning they want them to have.
The Qur’an mentions women’s dress in two places. The most commonly cited selection by the proponents of face-covering is: “Oh Prophet, tell your wives, your daughters, and the female believers to wrap their outer garments about themselves. This is better, so that they may be recognized and not bothered.” (33:59) As always, there is great discussion of the vocabulary among scholars. Some say the verb, “yudneena” (here translated as wrap) means to draw over, to wrap closely, or to make longer/lower. There is also discussion of what constitutes “jalabeeb,” the plural of jilbab. Modern jilbabs are just long dresses, often worn as jackets over indoor clothing. Others say it could consist of any outer wrap, like a long cloak, or poncho. No matter what the understanding, it takes an expansive interpretation to get the verse to include covering one’s face — a enlargement of “hinna,” which means “them” in the feminine, to mean “the entirety of themselves” ie their entire body, not just a simple “them” as it is grammatically in classical Arabic.
The other verse often cited requires an even greater leap of expansive reading. 24:31 reads: “And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and be mindful of their modesty; that they should not display their beauty except what ordinarily appears thereof — that they draw their coverings (khimar) over their bosoms, and not display their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers, their husband’s fathers, their sons, their husbands’ sons, their brothers or their brothers’ sons, or their sisters’ sons, or their women, or the slaves whom their right hands possess, or male servants free of sexual needs, or small children who have no sense of nakedness; and that they should not strike their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments. And O ye Believers! turn ye all together towards Allah, that ye may attain Bliss.”
Again we see impassioned discussions about what a “khimar” is. Literally, as in this translation, it means something that covers. Many scholars have said that at the time of the Prophet the word indicated a headscarf, as it does in modern times, although clearly it is being used to cover the chest. Proponents of face-covering argue that when this verse says not to show one’s beauty, it must include the face, as women’s faces are clearly part of their beauty.
This is coupled with a great deal of discussion of how women’s faces are such beautiful temptations that men are going to sin just by looking at them, and how such looking leads to even greater sins. None of which I buy into. It is patently false that seeing women’s faces (or any other part of their body) will drive men wild. Millions of American men prove this every day. It is also patently unfair to ask women to shoulder the burden of men’s problems with objectifying them.
It is this kind of tortured reading of the Qur’an, and distorted understanding of human sexuality, that makes the practice of face-veiling and the claim that it is somehow Islamically based all the more repellent to me. I makes me ill that it is being peddled not only as an Islamic requirement, but as the height of piety.
Having said that, I recognize the right of people to disagree with me. Clearly, there is a substantial segment of the global Muslim community who does not find such readings to be a bastardization of the Qur’an’s vocabulary and intent, but rather an accurate reflection of it. As much as I may disagree with them, I firmly defend their right not only to hold their view but to practice it. Freedom of religion, and of conscience are fundamental human rights that I hold sacrosanct.
Sarkozy’s proposal to ban the niqab because he (and others) view it as a denigration of women and a symbol of their submissiveness (to men, not to God) is a betrayal of the secular ideal of freedom of religion. They are placing their own cultural interpretation of the face veil over the right of women to practice their religion as they see fit, and even more fundamentally, to dress as they want to. This is a rather shocking abrogation of women’s agency, their freedom of conscience and religion. It is, in fact, as much a denigration as Sarkozy claims the burqa to be, because he calls into question women’s ability to think and act for themselves.
Sarkozy would no doubt argue that many, if not all, the women who veil their faces are doing so under coercion. That no woman would choose to wear such a garment on their own. Obviously, the matter of coercion is a complex one. The issues in America or France are vastly different than they are in some Muslim countries, such as Yemen or Afghanistan where face veiling is prevalent, or in other Muslim countries, such as Turkey or Tunisia, where wearing a headscarf is banned in governmental offices, universities and schools.
In countries where face-veiling is common or where it is seen as a religious requirement, the pressure to wear a burqa or other form of face-covering can be intense. When a society at large deems women who do not cover their face to be impure, impious, and immoral, the choice to veil or not is much more than a simple religious expression or personal taste in clothing; it is a choice to be seen as moral or immoral, pious or impious. A woman’s choice impacts not just how people see her, but how she is treated by her neighbors and associates, how marriageable she is or her children might be, and even might lead to violence against her by extremists. In that kind of social setting, I don’t believe the choice to wear a burqa is really a free choice. There is so much social pressure, and so many ramifications to not wearing one, that it becomes very difficult to resist.
In the West, the dynamics are reversed. Very few people are going to look at a woman who does not cover her face and deem her impious, unmarriagable, a tramp. The choice to cover one’s face is not succumbing to social pressure, but bucking it. It creates real hardships for people, from discrimination in daily life, and having to deal with assumptions about how subjugated you are, to difficulties in finding employment, challenges getting drivers licenses, going through airport security and even the fear that you might become the target of violence. While there are segments of the Muslim population here who look upon burqas with a romanticized idealism, seeing it as a defiance of a godless society and a show of one’s total submission to God, the fact remains that overwhelmingly the pressure is not to cover one’s face. In that atmosphere, there is a much greater probability that a woman who covers her face has made a much-thought-over choice to do so.
Sarkozy’s proposed ban, then, will not impact the women who are most likely coerced into wearing a burqa. Ironically, while protecting women from men, society or themselves is not a valid reason to ban burqas, it may well be valid for society to protect itself from the institution of face-veiling. There is a case to made for banning face coverings on the basis of public safety. It’s pretty obvious that if there are large segments of the community whose identity cannot be easily determined that is only going to make it easier for criminals to get away with what they do. And, indeed, we fairly regularly hear about insurgents in the Pakistani/Afghanistan region who escaped detection by wearing burqas. Certain establishments, like banks, have a need to be able to identify their customers. I could see supporting a ban on burqas, much as I would support a ban on wearing ski masks on public transport or in baseball stadiums.
In closing, I would like to turn the issue on its head. If we are opposed to face veiling because externalizes the belief that men are unable to see women as anything besides sexual objects, should we not be equally opposed to botox, facelifts, and a culture which sells cars, movies, music, liquor and pretty much anything else it can on the breasts and behinds of unnaturally thin, artificially busty young women? This fixation on women’s sexuality in the west, and the quest to be ever more alluring, is the mirror image of face-veiling in the east — it’s just in the west we exploit the very mindset that the face-veil seeks to suppress.
Worst, it is always women who bear the burden of men’s objectification of them, whether that means covering their entire bodies in dark cloth or carcinogenic cosmetics. If we are going to critique the burqa as denigrating to women, then we must also critique a culture where the never-ending quest for beauty has lead to an epidemic of anorexia, plastic surgery, and billions of dollars wasted on face paints, hair dyes, and debilitating fashions. We must seek a happy middle ground where women are just people.