Friday, July 3, 2009
To burqa or not to burqa, a question I (thankfully) don't have to answer
It really hit home how much my perspective has changed since moving to the Middle East when Nicholas Sarkozy, the president of France, said in a state of the republic speech last week that burqas would be banned in his country.
“The issue of the burqa is not a religious issue. It is a question of freedom and of women’s dignity,” Mr. Sarkozy said. “The burqa is not a religious sign. It is a sign of the subjugation, of the submission, of women.”
Mona Eltahawy argued that Sarkozy had done good in an op-ed piece for the New York Times:
"I am a Muslim, I am a feminist and I detest the full-body veil, known as a niqab or burqa," she wrote. "It erases women from society and has nothing to do with Islam but everything to do with the hatred for women at the heart of the extremist ideology that preaches it."
The thing is, I know if I never left Canada, I would also have perceived this as a good move, a progressive move. Not that I am agreeing with the reaction of an editor I respect upon hearing the news – he called Sarkozy a "tosser". I've just moved to the fence. Things are more complicated than they seem, is all.
It's easy to look at the burqa as a tool of repression, I get that, I've done it myself. And of course, I can wear whatever I want (within reason, and while I am here, best if shoulders and much of my legs are covered) and I am grateful for that. It's just that when you live in it, when you are really here, in a place that draws together Muslim women from so very many countries, from Malaysia to Saudi Arabia, you see all the sides. The women I see, excluding nannies, and the other obvious, etc, don't seem downtrodden, or put upon, or demoralised (although I am sure many are) - mostly all I can think about them these days is how incredibly, suffocatingly hot they must be. And then again, this is a religion that is incredibly segregated: when the prayer call goes five times a day, it is men streaming to mosque, not women. Weddings, funerals, meals - for the devout, I gather, rare are the gatherings where men and women sit together. Is banning the burqa in France going to make any real change?
I struggle with the variety of ways women here cover themselves - including the Emiratis who are fully draped - even their eyes under cover of a dark black veil. And the young girls too, ones that seem too young for such a message. But I also know women who will argue it is their choice to cover, that it protects them, from the looks of men who are not their husbands. Then there is Moza al Muhairi, a 47-year-old Emirati, has been wearing the burqa since she was 12. She told The National a couple of weeks ago that the burqa was part of women's beauty regime.
"It is meant to beautify the woman and hide all her flaws," she said. "It is not about suppression."
It could be argued that the notion of hiding one's flaws is about suppression, but whatever. I also know of a former colleague, raised in Abu Dhabi before moving to Ottawa, Muslim, who chose to begin covering herself - head, not face - with a hijab when she was 18. She wrote a column about it for The National.
"It was a scary yet exhilarating decision to make," she explained. "I knew I would be making a proclamation to the rest of society that I was different. At a time when other kids were piercing and tattooing their body parts, I was choosing to become more religious in a faith that was misunderstood – even before September 11."
And other women, including a colleague of mine, have argued that Sarkozy has no business making such pronouncements, that conservative dress is a matter of national pride and personal choice.
"What gives anyone the right to tell women what sort of dress liberates them?" asked Tala al Ramahi in her column in The National.
Look, I have no idea, I really don't. I do know it's just not as easy as saying 'you can't wear a burqa, it will be good for you'. I don't know a single woman who likes being told what to do or what not to do.
Even by a politician who thinks he is on their side.