by Ritwik on August 13, 2010

The following is a guest post by Ishita Tiwary. Comments may be directed at ishtiwary26888@gmail.com

The burqa is an enveloping outer garment worn by muslim women in order to cover themselves when out in public. It consists of “jilbab” a loose body covering, the “hijab” which is the head covering, and the face veil known as the “niqab”.

Historically there is evidence that women, particularly Arabian and Persian women, wore this garment before the advent of Islam. Hijab is a requirement as ordained by the Koran, for both men and women, to dress and behave modestly in public. This requirement has been interpreted in many different ways by Islamic scholars and clerics all over the world.  For instance, the Koran has been translated by saying, “And say to the faithful women to lower their gazes, and to guard their private parts, and not to display their beauty except what is apparent of it, and to extend their headcoverings (khimars) to cover their bosoms (jaybs), and not to display their beauty except to their husbands, or their fathers, or their husband’s fathers, or their sons, or their husband’s sons, or their brothers, or their brothers’ sons, or their sisters’ sons, or their womenfolk, or what their right hands rule (slaves), or the followers from the men who do not feel sexual desire, or the small children to whom the nakedness of women is not apparent, and not to strike their feet (on the ground) so as to make known what they hide of their adornments. And turn in repentance to Allah together, O you the faithful, in order that you are successful

The recent ban on the burqa by the French government has created a furor across the world.  Some have welcomed the move, stating that the ban upholds the principles of secularism and most importantly secures the right to dignity to a woman. While others have criticized it by deeming it as enforced assimilation in society, and stating that it is yet another instance of the perceived Islamophobia of the West.

The origins of “The Veil Affair” can be traced back to mid 90’s in France. In 1994, a memorandum- “Francois Bayrou memo” was issued, which distinguished between discreet religious symbols and ostentatious religious symbols such as the “hijab” which was sought to be banned in the public realm. A decade later in 2004, the French government passed a law on secularity and conspicuous religious symbols in schools, which in essence banned all ostensible religious symbols in public schools. The law basically upheld the principle of Laicite. The principle of Laicite basically means the separation of the church (or religion) and the state. In France, the government is legally prohibited to recognize any religion, but it does recognize religious organizations. In 2009, French President Nicholas Sarkozy commented that “In our country, we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen, cut from all social life, deprived of all identity.”  Accordingly the French National Assembly appointed 32 lawmakers from right and left wing parties on a six month fact finding mission to look at ways of restricting the use of the burqa. On 26th January the group delivered its report, and was in favour of banning the burqa in the public sphere.

The debate surrounding “The Veil Affair” can be surmised as such. Those who are for the ban, support it on chiefly two grounds- The Laicite argument and the Feminist argument. According to the Laicite argument, the wearing of the veil in the public sphere, distinguishes Muslim women from the rest and thus hampers the spirit of unity and secularism that the French Nation upholds. The feminist arguments points out the loss of identity of a woman who dons the veil as well as symbolizing the submission of women to men. Those against the ban point out that it yet another instance of rising Islamophobia in the west, that the woman has a right to choose whether she wears the burqa or not, and that this enforced secularism is a prime example of western patriarchy.

To me, the debate over the banning of the burqa by the French Government is much more than just upholding the principle of Laicite, or restricted to securing the dignity of a woman to just one nation, or the perceived Islamophobia. In essence the debate is and should be about the freedom and liberation of a woman, her dignity, and the right to her own identity, her body and finally the claiming of herself.

The donning of the burqa ensures the loss of identity for a woman. With only her eyes visible, the person observing her has no idea as to who she might possibly be. Is she young or old? Does she have short or long hair? How much does she weigh? Is her face happy or sad? Is there anything distinctive about her? How does she show her inner tumult or happiness to the world? Imagine living this reality everyday. Imagine looking at yourself in the mirror like this everyday. Perhaps an eerie sense of disassociation takes place, and perhaps as time passes by time ensures that this becomes habitual and normal.

The Koran talks about how modesty should be practiced by both men and women. Then why is it that it’s the women, who actually have to cover themselves from head to toe? Perhaps, it has got to do with the patriarchal setup of our society, where it is the responsibility of the woman to preserve the honour of her family. The burqa is not just a garment, but a garment that has religious weight attached to it. A woman who wears the burqa is also symbolically representing values such as Modesty, Piety and Piousness. By associating such loaded terms with this garment, the veil in essence desexualizes a woman, and takes away her right to her own sexuality, her own body.  In this case, religion supercedes individual liberty. It is something that most women, irrespective of their religion can identify with- The fact that women have always have to carry the weight of preserving honor of their family, by practicing modesty, and this is done through the means of curbing their sexuality.

From the above, it becomes clear how patriarchy uses sexuality as an instrument of control over women.  Symbols become very important, especially when it comes to exercising control. The wearing of the burqa symbolically shows that there is implicit recognition from a women’s side that she is subservient to a man.

In a democratic setup, it is the role of a secular government to takes steps that counter discrimination. The burqa is in essence against the basic dignity of a woman. It robs her of her identity, of the right to her own body and sexuality, and symbolically renders her inferior to man. In such a scenario, it is imperative for the secular state to intervene and take measure that counters this form of discrimination. Such steps will ensure, although controversy laden, and rightfully so, the upliftment of the status of women in society, a gradual change in the mindset of coming generation in their perceived attitude towards the burqa. At times, laws which seem to be unpopular and intolerant at first, can actually bring mammoth changes in not only the mindset of future generation, but also in trying to equalize the power relationships between different sections of society, in this case, it being between men and women.


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by France launches €1.35bn renewable energy package | Government Grants for Citizens on August 13, 2010 at 5:35 am. #

really useful info, keep up the good work!

by Kaliyan Zulfan Wala on August 21, 2010 at 12:13 pm. #

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