The French government recently banned Muslim women from wearing the niqab. Some Muslim baiters that I follow on Twitter were naturally upbeat about the entire thing: “these Muslims want their way everywhere they go and it’s good that France is being strict with them” was the general refrain.
Is it about freedom of religion when people oppose the ban or are they simply catering to a religious sentiment that represses women? Changing religious beliefs is quite difficult, and this holds true for every religion, not just Muslims.
The problem with Muslims is, no matter what progressive, seemingly westernised Muslims claim, women and freedom are anathema to each other in the popular perception of Islam; call it a communication gap, Islamophobia, or whatever (to be fair even non-Muslim communities in Asia and Africa treat their women in quite a cruel manner). The Western perception of other religions is quite dismal, accepted (Hindus being pagan, etc.), but the perception of Muslims even among non-Western-non-Muslim countries is hardly positive. They have a millennium of history of violence and forceful conversions. Being a Sikh I’m more sensitive towards their violent nature because Sikhism and its symbols were born to fight against barbaric Mughals.
The moment they try to defend their thoughts and symbols the first expression that comes to one’s mind is “God, they go to other places but never adopt indigenous cultures, they always have to impose their own culture and way of life. ” Of course this is a narrow way of thinking because once a Muslim becomes (or rather a person from any other religion) a citizen of a particular country all the rights and responsibilities are automatically applied to him or her too. So if a country ensures religious freedom this freedom must be available to everybody irrespective of to what religion that person belongs.
Burqa, in reality, shouldn’t be viewed as a “them versus us” problem. It is about suppression of women. It is about devoiding them of an identity.
So what is burqa? It is a full body veil (again, it doesn’t have to be a full body covering, it can also be a scarf over the head are just covering the hair) that Muslim women have to wear when they go out. Muslim women are not supposed to show their faces to other men except for their husbands, brothers and father. Muslim men are easily given to temptations and hence their religion demands that other women be kept under veils so that impure thoughts don’t enter the men’s minds. Even in the pre-Muslim era in India there was no tradition of hiding women’s face; Hindus had to adopt this tradition to save their womenfolks from Muslims who would kidnap any woman they liked. This is a known history, I’m not aware of any other version.
One logic could be since this tradition originates from the hot sands of Arabia and Sahara, perhaps this was done to protect the women’s skin from burning (their veils were of a lighter shade and wearing black burqas in such conditions would be counter-productive). Later on it turned into a religious symbol. Many a times, religious symbols originate from traditional practices.
Hence women wearing burqas do it with two frames of mind: accepting subjugation as a normal consequence of being a Muslim woman, or accepting it as a religious symbol demanded by the Sharia law.
So is the French government wrong when it forcefully asks women to give up their burqas or else face discrimination? Personally I’m in favor of such practices and I often recommend them here in India also. Backward religious and cultural practices must be discouraged, even by force if required. Why so? I don’t think burqa, if used as a tool for repression, is any different from the practice of Sati, or forcing women into the devdasi system or tearing their hair off their heads when their husbands die. The sad reality is it takes years for cultures to adopt new ways of life and sometimes these new ways have to be enforced to save lives. For instance if I am a Muslim and if my sister or my mother is forced to wear a burqa I would like this practice to be abolished NOW and not wait for some cultural or social awareness to set in.
But you may say that the burqa doesn’t kill anybody or harm anybody physically and I totally agree. But it is a symbolic repression. I would call it religious symbol if even men wore burqas. For example in Sikhism both men and women can wear turbans because they are religious symbols of empowerment (the French government banned even turbans a couple of years ago, I don’t know what happened after that). Sikh symbols are never used to portray women as inferior or always requiring protection. Once you become a “Kaur” hhypothetically you are a warrior princess.
Burqa on the other hand encourages Muslim women to hide behind the veil so that they don’t have a public identity. They shouldn’t be recognized. They should be talking and walking oblique structures and they should only presume an identity once they are within the peripheries of their father’s or husband’s residence. Correct me if I’m wrong.
Why do many Muslim women insist that they wear burqa? Lack of awareness, I would say. Or Stockholm syndrome may be. Or religious conditioning. A sense of security (as they may feel that they will be more open to sexual assaults once they begin to appear without a veil). Education doesn’t have to do anything with it. Even some of the known journalists in India, including Barkha Dutt (in the name of religious freedom) support the tradition of wearing burqa; so you don’t have to be illiterate or ill-informed to sympathise with such practices.
It is high time Muslim women took a stand and opposed such practices instead of sticking to them. I think the French government has provided them with an opportunity to think progressively and declare their independence. Instead of defining they should support the burqa ban.