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.

Comments

nzm said…
Mona Eltahawy's blog is great reading.

We need more intelligent voices like hers who are prepared to speak for change.
HEMILUTION said…
Holy shit a westerner who isnt full of themselves and can kinda sorta think!

Are there more of you in Canada? please tell me because I will gladly try to get rid of as many British and French (really annoying) people in favor of more Canadians like you!

That rant aside, yes, Islamic and Cultural are 2 different things. Islamically, a headscarf need be present, anything more (or less) is that person's choice.

I dont have an issue with France's action, but their point of view. Dont wear this because its better for you!

No. But had they said its a security issue, Id agree. It is. In France I doubt many if any police/govt employees know what to do if a woman comes in fully dressed in a Burga3.

Or if he had said the truth, we are a CHRISTIAN COUNTRY and we dont want this non-christian thing around, I'd have liked that truth as well.

But no, politicians will be as they always are.

A professor of mine (in the US, if you havent figured thats where I studied) once said that humans will be better off the day the last politician and priest kill eachother.

I 1/2 agree.

Anyways, good post, and please, bring more Canadians over.

Oh, and The National is almost as bad as Gulf News, So I hope you at least came all the way over here for good pay.
Mira said…
I agree with you that the issue is more complicated than it seems.

I live in the UAE and I wear a niqab. It's my own choice. While living in Europe I already thought that it'd be a great idea to wear niqab one day- as I'm shy and dont like strange men to look in my face.

Although I realize that now I am expected to wear a niqab by my husbands and his family. But I would not want to take it off myself. I'm used to it, it's helpful and comfortable. It gives me more privacy and freedom. In the West I would not wear it- it would only draw attention. But here in the Gulf it helps to avoid attention of curious men and women(I'm a pretty young white woman married to an Arab man)

It's not suffocatingly hot in it :) You can try wearing one- it'd be an interesting experience. But of course mind that most of the women in niqabs (locals) they dont go out in their burqas during the heat hours to walk under the sun. They walk in niqabs in malls where it's cool so it does not bother them. Niqabs are ok to wear outside in winter when those women do go out walking. But in summer when it's 50 C outside burqa does not make much difference in my opinion because it's hot and humid and everybody suffers from the weather be he in niqab or not. So it's does not suffocate unless someone is overweight or has some health problems...

You wrote that this religion is incredibly segregated. Is it something wrong in your opinion? I am an insider and it's very comfortable this way. Life becomes easier for men and women, there's more order, more space for each group (i.e. more space for being a woman). If one does not like segregation he can find mixed environment at work or universities.

I like that in the UAE it's possible to have a choice - you can wear a hijab and abaya or not wear, and if you want you are free to cover your face. You can choose to work amongst other men and women or you can choose a female only environment or you can be a housewife.

I see many girls and women- local and foreign converts to Islam- many many of them love their plain black abayas and niqabs. It's a part of who we are- modest and shy women. A burka itself does not change anything in my life. I'm a housewife. I have a normal life of a typical stay at home mum. I take care of my husband, children, my house. I meet my friends, I have hobbies, I drive a car, I go shopping, we go sightseeing and traveling, we go to parties or gym, swimming pool. Many girls in niqab study and work. They get married and have children. They love perfumes, make up, shopping for shoes and bags. Life is same, not less in quality or anything just because of a burqa..

Although I'm sure there must be some women which have to wear burka and they dont like it but they are expected to wear it because it's a norm for some societies (like here).

It's strange how bikini and sunbathing topless and even beaches for nudists are allowed in Europe.. gay clubs and gay parades, pornography and prostitution are legal but they want to take a right of a woman when she chooses out of modesty and shyness to cover her face in public.

And when they dont allow muslim girls enter schools in headscarves should not they stop educating the nuns as well? What about the catholic nuns in their head covers and long covering dresses..
Anonymous said…
Here's why it's a good idea to ban "burkas"—we call them that, although mostly what westerns call burkas are in fact not— in the west:

Because in Middle Eastern or Islamic states in general, the government dictates what westerns can wear. Apropos the guy who is facing serious jail-time for wearing a t-shirt of Victoria Beckham posing sorta nude as a public service message to alert people to the dangers of skin damage.

Until Islamic cultures stop jailing people whose clothes "offend" the cultural or religious values of their countries, those same Islamic countries don't really have the moral high ground.

If Arabs and Muslims want to be able to wear what they want, they need to extend the same rights to people who visit or work in their countries. And, no, I'm not talking about being able to walk down Muroor Road in a thong and pasties—you'd get in trouble for that in Toronto or London just as quick as you would in Dubai. I'm talking about people not having to wonder if they will spend four years in jail for a t-shirt that somebody, somewhere could possibly take offense to.
Anonymous said…
Anon, nobody will jail a person for 4 years only because of a t-shirt! What are you talking about. There've been a case recently with a stupid guy who was jailed for a month for ‘offending public decency.’ But I'm sure there was more to that than just a t-shirt. He probably behaved rudely as well. At least others will learn from his mistake that they should not wear t-shirts with naked women on them. And people should not put on offensive t-shirts anyway- there are many decent and nice t-shirts, why wear an vulgar one or with aggressive writings on it?

"Because in Middle Eastern or Islamic states in general, the government dictates what westerns can wear." Anon the government, society they only want"westerners" to cover enough, to dress decently. A bit more modesty will not hurt anyone. Imagine you have children and wife, who are innocent and polite and then you go out with you family and see half naked women, gays and aggressive people. They are bad examples to the children, they are demoralizing. There are still many innocent people in Islamic countries and this should be treasured and admired. Innocence - something many westerners have no idea about with all the pornography and rotten pop culture.
Anonymous said…
Do you know what's the real reason behind banning headscarf at schools and these attempts to ban niqab? It's fear. Sarcozy and others are scared of how fast Islam spreads in Europe. A lot of western men and women convert to Islam. A lot of "cultural muslims" start practicing Islam too. More and more women in head scarves in public scares them. Although they should be happy... these women simply want back their dignity and respect which modern western culture steals from them.
Anonymous said…
@Anon 9:00

Your attitude is typical of Muslims and Arabs. You practice a "do what we say, not what we do" kind of philosophy. It's some how fine with you for the UAE to dictate what clothing we all wear in public, but not for the French to do the same.

Who gets to say that a picture of a nude woman is indecent? I, for one, think there is nothing wrong with the nude female form. I am far more offended by people who bring their little brats around in public and expect me to help raise them by adhering to the particular set of morals they have chosen for their lives.

Where do we draw the line as to what to ban in public? If one person gets offended do the rest of us have to all change our behviour? It's fine with me not to wear a suggestive t-shirt in public as long as Emiratis don't bitch and whine about adhering to the cultural values of the French while they are in France...

My fundamental thesis is this:
if we all start imposing our values on each other merely because we are offended where will we all end up? Being part of a free society means having to tolerate things, ideas and people we find disagreeable. I don't expect you to understand this. I don't think your mind is ready to understand the ideas I'm expressing here.

Also, don't use your children as an argument; it holds no weight. That is, unless you ban them from watching TV or movies or video games. Each of those have violent images that should be far more offensive to a society.

Expand your mind. Stop thinking like a child.
HEMILUTION said…
Your attitude is typical of Muslims and Arabs. You practice a "do what we say, not what we do" kind of philosophy. It's some how fine with you for the UAE to dictate what clothing we all wear in public, but not for the French to do the same.

BIG DIFFERENCE.

We here are telling FOREIGNERS to do what we do, e are 100% Muslim.

In France, their dictator is telling FRENCH CITIZENS they cant wear what they want.

Those muslims in France are infect FRENCH CITIZENS.

France is NOT 100% anything.

If we had CITIZENS who were not Muslim, like say, Jordan, it would be different.

Why is it that foreigners here think, almost believe, that they have ANY CITIZEN rights?

You dont.

In the UAE's case, if you dont like it. LEAVE. In France's case, where should those FRENCH CITIZENS leave to?

2 very very different situations. Here YOU are a GUEST in MY home. There they are the home owners as well.
HEMILUTION said…
Where do we draw the line as to what to ban in public? If one person gets offended do the rest of us have to all change our behviour? It's fine with me not to wear a suggestive t-shirt in public as long as Emiratis don't bitch and whine about adhering to the cultural values of the French while they are in France...

And who has done that? If a foreigner (Emarati) in France doenst like the law, he/she can come back home.

But what of the millions (6 million now) of FRENCH MUSLIMS who are CITIZENS?

A citizen, no mater what their creed or origin, should have equal rights. Where are those rights now in France?

Non-existent.
HEMILUTION said…
I see many girls and women- local and foreign converts to Islam- many many of them love their plain black abayas and niqabs. It's a part of who we are- modest and shy women. A burka itself does not change anything in my life. I'm a housewife. I have a normal life of a typical stay at home mum. I take care of my husband, children, my house. I meet my friends, I have hobbies, I drive a car, I go shopping, we go sightseeing and traveling, we go to parties or gym, swimming pool. Many girls in niqab study and work. They get married and have children. They love perfumes, make up, shopping for shoes and bags. Life is same, not less in quality or anything just because of a burqa..

Dont forget Job! lol. There is a woman in the neighborhood who everyday before sunset is in her reboks and is power walking... in full niqab. Its funny and serious at the same time.
Graeme Baker said…
He probably behaved rudely as well.

F**k. Lock the mad man up.
Graeme Baker said…
PS the moment the UAE allows migrants to become full citizens is the day this argument becomes interesting. At the moment they are not, they are institutionally classed as a lower caste, and no comparison can be made.
HEMILUTION said…
Graeme Baker said...
PS the moment the UAE allows migrants to become full citizens is the day this argument becomes interesting. At the moment they are not, they are institutionally classed as a lower caste, and no comparison can be made.

That will never happen. The second the powers that be even think of it the military (90% made up of beduen Arabs) will revolt. THAT is why our Military is paid so well. 19 year old enlisted men making 30K a month? There is a reason for that. But money will only buy a person for so long.

As for the here and now, how are people treated as a lower caste? They are treated exactly as they are, FOREIGNERS. they have SOME rights. protection for example, but nothing else. If you want you FULL rights, go back home.

hemilution.com
HEMILUTION said…
Mona Eltahawy's blog is great reading.

We need more intelligent voices like hers who are prepared to speak for change.

HEre is what I think of "Mona"

http://braintrustuae.blogspot.com/2009/07/so-some-people-really-need-to-be-killed.html

Nothing more, nothing less.
Graeme Baker said…
As I said, you have no case to criticise France until you can test on a like-for-like basis.

The day a Western-origin citizen of the UAE goes unchallenged in his desire to wear what he likes is the day your argument has a point.
Anonymous said…
@ Hemilution 9:19

First, I don't live in the UAE. I moved away a long time ago because I got tired of living in an oppressive kingdom (benevolent though our dictator was).

Second, it's obvious that you are incapable of understanding the ideas I'm trying to express here. I'll stop repeating myself and try to explain why I think you are having a hard time picking up what I'm throwing down.

In the west—England, France, Canada, Australia, NZ—children are taught how to ask questions. We are taught how to think and reason as we learn our multiplication tables. Arabs on the other hand learn rote memorization and collective thought.

This is maybe why you can't figure out what I'm saying. You're missing the 24 years of education centered around the Socratic method.

I don't really care if the French ban the niqab or not; it's just nice to see the Arabs getting a taste of their own medicine. It's a biter pill to swallow for you, I'm sure. It sucks to think that a government would start dictating what you can wear.

By the way, you don't really get to claim that the UAE is YOUR anything. Dubai and Abu Dhabi were built by SE Asians.
HEMILUTION said…
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Graeme Baker said…
"I call them filth"

The money shot.
HEMILUTION said…
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said…
I know I should just ignore you, but I can't help it.

"black people are akin to monkeys."

-We're all akin to monkeys. You in particular seem to be further behind the evolutionary curve than the rest of us.

"I also believe westerners are sub-humans"

-Really?! Seeing as how your people have been dominated by westerners for about two millennia, what then, does that make you?

When are your people going to make their intellectual breakout and start to gain ground on we sub-humans?

Thanks for algebra, we've done great things with it.

A partial list of things we've accomplished follows (by "we" I mean a broad coalition of people from western cultures in cooperation with people of many origins):
the internet, personal computers, internal combustion engines, oil-well technology, airplanes, lasers, telephones, mobile phones, movable-type printing-press, satellites, television, radio, GPS, telescopes, microscopes, photography, email, the cinema, nuclear energy, dynamite, air conditioning... The list goes on and on. Pretty damn impressive for sub-humans. What have you super-humans contributed lately? What have you done with all your advantages?
Hey - I can't close the comments down on blogger. I can only say please stop on this one. I don't like where it's going (or actually, where it's been)
HEMILUTION said…
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said…
Some of Hemi's poetry:

"Oh oh! Oh oh no!
It killed it’s splendor!
It took it’s last sip of life last September!

Every lonely thought I ever possessed came together only of loneliness
Every single time my heart broke, I broke it alone
Every single tear I ever shed, I swear I shed it for her
Every single corpse I’ve ever been, Led me alone to this place

Oh oh! Oh oh no!
It killed it’s splendor!
It took it’s last sip of life last September!

I see the days change into night, but the fog remains the same
embedded on my mind, like cursed angels who sing

Breathe in, oh God, I just need a moment
Breathe in, I think I’ve lost my splendor
Breathe deep, I know it’s not the end,

Breathe in... Stop!"
HEMILUTION said…
I see that you've learned alot about how freedom of speech is killed here. Why was my post, full of nothing but facts (though hurtful at times) was removed?

Thank you for stealing my poetry and posting it here. But I'd prefer if my INTELLECTUAL property be removed from here.

You can read my poetry here:

http://shadowsweed.blogspot.com/
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said…
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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