La Burqa

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This is a guest post by ‘Mrs. Election’.

In 2004, the government made school uniform truly “uniform” when it prohibited the wearing of any religious symbols (including headscarves, turbans and skullcaps) in all state schools. A large number of students who defied the ban and continued to wear such items were subsequently expelled and forced to pay for private tuition instead. The law excluded and isolated the very people that it intended to liberate. I think we are about to experience a severe case of deja vu.

Just what France needs: a commission to “study the extent of burkha-wearing”. President Sarkozy isn’t going to wait around for the results though, announcing yesterday that “burkhas are not welcome here.”

This move by Sarkozy is not entirely surprising, considering the decision of the Conseil d’Etat last year to deny French citizenship to a Moroccan woman on the grounds that she insisted on wearing a burkha. Whilst praising the decision, minister Fadela Amara described the burkha as a “prison.” Yesterday, Mr Sarkozy went further to describe such women as “prisoners behind netting, cut off from all social life, deprived of identity” — an insult to the fashionistas methinks, lots of women spend absolute fortunes on their “netting.”

When I first moved to the Middle East, I was shocked when I first saw women wearing a niqab with an eye veil so that the entire face is covered, even the eyes. It was difficult for me to imagine that there was a human being underneath the black chiffon. It was certainly very strange to be browsing through the clothes in TopShop alongside women in burkhas.

After 4 months living here, the burkha now seems very normal to me and I find it very beautiful. I met with one of our client’s key business representatives a few weeks ago — she is a woman and of course, she wears a burkha.

My message to Mr Sarkozy: you cannot change someone else’s culture for them and you certainly cannot change it overnight. By banning the burkha, you may well be taking away the one thing that actually liberates Muslim women in France. Without the burkha, some women may not leave their homes at all.

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3 Responses to “La Burqa”

  1. captainjako Says:

    “After 4 months living here, the burkha now seems very normal to me and I find it very beautiful.”

    Very beautiful? Is it not still a symbol of oppression, even if women volunteer to wear it? And how much freedom of choice do women in the Middle East have when it comes to what they wear?

    I agree that culture is not something that can be changed easily and it’s an interesting point about women not being able to leave their homes without covering up. But surely this is the situation we should somehow seek to change, rather than facilitating a conservative culture of inequality between the sexes?

  2. mrs election Says:

    Captain J,

    Of course the burkha a symbol of oppression in a Westerner’s eyes; and no doubt in the eyes of many Muslim women too. However, there will be many women who do not see it as oppressive and continue to wear the burkha because its traditional dress, just as a Indian woman wears a sari or a Scottish man wears a kilt. Some of the burkhas I have seen are absolutely gorgeous with embroidery and diamonds (very expensive too) – you could even argue that covering the face is just one particular style/fashion? Is Sarkozy going to ban brides from wearing a veil on their wedding day?

    Interesting questions are: how many Muslims continue to wear their traditional dress once they have emigrated to Western countries? How many of these are first generation migrants / older people? How many of those are women (my guess is that most men adopt Western fashion)?

    I disagree with Sarkozy intervening in religion. People’s attitudes to their own traditions will evolve naturally over time. We can’t expect other countries to catch up with us so quickly.

  3. captainjako Says:

    I admit that hijabs can be cool. Although they are still part of a patriarchal culture that I find distasteful I have fewer issues with them as an item of clothing. I have browsed through the online catalogues and get regular email updates of the hottest hijabs on the market!

    Burkhas, however, are on a different level symbolically and practically. The deliberate covering up of the woman to the maximum degree (isn’t there a debate amongst ultra-conservative Muslims over whether the burkha needs a second eye hole?) is making an extreme statement. Having watched women with burkhas trying to eat lunch in a cafe, it also makes simple everyday things very difficult!

    Hmm…perhaps we need to dedicate an entire post to cultural change and respecting cultural differences. I accept that state intervention is cumbersome and shouldn’t be used to pick on vulnerable minorities. It’s a tricky one. However, of one thing I am sure: that as feminists we should not be soft on burkhas or the causes of burkhas! Even if I don’t know how exactly we will do this!

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