Reasons Women Wear Burqas

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Natalie Behring-Chisholm/Stringer/Getty Images

In June 2009, while speaking to the French parliament, President Nicolas Sarkozy spoke out against the burqa on CNN. "It will not be welcome on French soil," he said." We cannot accept, in our country, women imprisoned behind a mesh, cut off from society, deprived of all identity. That is not the French republic’s idea of women’s dignity."

People reacted strongly, either with outrage or elation. All over the world the burqa has become a subject of discussion and controversy. Many Western countries have some sort of burqa ban in place, usually at schools and government office buildings. Many places are considering banning the burqa for security reasons, while others claim that it is divisive; it prohibits women from engaging in normal social activities.

According to dictionary.com, a burqa or burka is defined as “a loose, usually black or light blue robe that is worn by Muslim women, especially in Afghanistan, that covers the body from head to toe.” But there’s more to it then that… a lot more.

While the burqa is often associated with the Islamic faith, its history actually predates Islam by thousands of years. The earliest known instance of women veiling their faces is found in the Assyrian empire, which dates back to 5000 BC.

Although not all women veiled their faces during the empire; the veil developed as a way to keep aristocratic women separate from the masses, especially the slave women and the prostitutes. If slave women or prostitutes were found veiling their faces, they would be publicly lashed. Other cultures favoured the veil for upper class women; The Byzantine Christian women of Persia, the Rajput women in India and many in classical Greek society.

Islam started in Mecca, through the teachings of the Islamic prophet, Mohamed (570 – 632 A.D.) As the religion spread, it came into contact with other customs and cultures. Often times the local customs were adopted and made part of the Islamic faith, not the other way around. Face veiling was a custom adopted by Islam, not organic to it. For the first 100 years of Islam, Muslim women did not veil their faces.

There is evidence that this type of dress was worn by some Arab and Persian women long before Islam. For example, the Roman African,Christian Tertullian, writing in Chapter 17 of The Veiling of Virgins around 200 AD, praises the modesty of those "pagan women of Arabia" who "not only cover their head, but their whole face…preferring to enjoy half the light with one eye rather than prostituting their whole face." Strabo, writing in the first century AD, also refers to covering the face as a practice of some Persian women.

Debates over whether to ban the burqa often assume that women are forced by men to wear it. In many Muslim countries, women lack equality and basic rights that other women take for granted; therefore, the burqa may seem to be just one more example of patriarchal control.

There is some evidence that women in particularly conservative countries, are forced to wear a burqa or niqab out of fear of beatings, arrests or honor killings. But what of those women in France who Sarkozy addressed in his 2009 speech? Many of these women, both in strictly Islamic countries and in Western countries have insisted to countless reporters that wearing a full covering is their choice and their right. As believing Muslims, they interpret their holy text to mean that their faces must be covered.

So what does the Islamic holy text actually say and how is it interpreted? The Islamic holy book is the Qu’ran (pronounced Koran). From this book, all Muslims derive their faith. The Qu’ran makes at least three references to dress:

“O children of Adam, we have provided you with garments to cover your bodies, as well as for luxury. But the best garment is the garment of righteousness. These are some of God’s signs, that they may take heed.” [7:26]

“O prophet, tell your wives, your daughters, and the wives of the believers that they shall lengthen their garments. Thus, they will be recognized (as righteous women) and avoid being insulted. God is Forgiver, Most Merciful.” [33:59]

" Say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty ; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what must ordinarily appear thereof. " [24.31]

While Islamic scholars disagree about exactly how these passages should be interpreted, it is generally recognized that these are the passages pertinent to women’s dress and that they call for nothing more specific than modesty.

It is the passage 24:31 that causes the most controversy surrounding women’s dress. While some scholars argue that it is permissible for a woman to display the common parts of the body – face, hands, wrists, feet and ankles – others argue that the term “beauty” suggests more. The logic is that a woman’s face is the most beautiful part of her, and displaying beauty is discouraged. Therefore it is immodest to display it for anyone other than women and close male relatives.

The Quran has been translated as stating: "O Prophet! Say to your wives and your daughters and the women of the faithful to draw their outergarments (jilbabs) close around themselves; that is better that they will be recognized and not annoyed. And God is ever Forgiving, Gentle." [33.59]

Another verse in the Quran is translated as: "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". [24.31]

The various different interpretations have led to four primary pieces of clothing becoming popular, the Hijab, the Niqab, the Abaya and the Chadri. The term Burqa encompasses all of these separate pieces of clothing. A woman may use a Hijab and a Niqab to create a burqa or simply wear a Chadri that is all one piece.

The Hijab is the piece of cloth that covers the hair and neck but leaves the face exposed. It is the most commonly worn piece of clothing for Muslim women. The Abaya is loose and flowing robe, often worn in conjunction with the Hijab. The Niqab is the face veil. It is the small piece of cloth that is causing the most controversy and is the most commonly associated with the Burqa. The Chadri is the burqa that covers a woman from head to toe in a tent-like costume with only a woven mesh over her eyes allowing her to see. It is the burqa that is seen in Iran and Afghanistan and is favoured by the Taliban.

Under the Taliban’s rule, the burqa became a symbol of oppression for Muslim women. They enforced the wearing of the burqa as law, which is totally contradictory to Muslim tradition. The burqa is a cloak that totally and completely covers a woman’s body with a small crotched screen as an eye piece.
Before the Taliban came into power, the burqa was worn for centuries by Muslim women in order to move about outside the family compound while still managing to adhere to the religious and social customs of being secluded from men. Before Taliban rule, wearing of the burqa was optional, and most women chose to dress in more westernized style clothing. 

The reasoning behind wearing a burqa is that it maintains personal modesty. In the Qur’an, Allah’s word, as stated by Mohammed, is that women should cover their “beauties.” This has been interpreted by many Islamic scholars (but not all) as meaning their legs, arms, hair and chests. These body parts should only be viewed by a women’s husband, or her family.

Many women also say that the hijab isn’t a tool of subjugation at all, but rather a means for equality. Their reasoning for this is that in public, they aren’t judged on their appearance. They are free from unwelcome male advances and liberated from objectifying leers. Naomi Wolf, writer of "The Beauty Myth," commented in an editorial for the Sydney Morning Herald that these women were far from sexually repressed; they just kept their sexual appeal under wraps in a way that made it more special within the bonds of marriage.

Even after the fall of the Taliban, many women still choose to wear Burqa. But why? There are a couple of different reasons. In Afghanistan, due to control of certain factions in some regions women are forced to wear the Burqa for fear of retaliation, even though it is no longer legally mandated that they have to wear one. Also, with an increase of kidnappings and murders, some women just feel safer in general while wearing a Burqa. And finally, some women view wearing a Burqa as a direct commandment from Allah.

Another reason women say they continue to wear the veil is for purposes of group identity. It’s a badge of honor and solidarity in a world full of negative opinions about Islam. Some women have suggested that if countries like France were to ban the veil, it would only cause more women to wear it in defiance. So should it be banned?

Other reasons for wearing the burqa, as citied by some Muslim women, range from helping to stop unwanted attention from men, as well as the ability to bargain better at shops, since only the eyes are visible when wearing a burqa, and no other part of the face.
Whether these reasons are legitimate, or are just being used by women who are terrified of retaliation from males in their country, may not be known for years; not until we can created a world where all women are safe to speak their mind and express their opinions without fear of harm or punishment.

Many Muslims believe that the Islamic holy book, the Qur’an, and the collected traditions of the life of Muhammed, or hadith, require both men and women to dress and behave modestly in public. However, this requirement, called hijab, has been interpreted in many different ways by Islamic scholars (ulema) and Muslim communities.

The French argument is the strongest and revolves around their constitutional guarantee of egality and human rights.  It could be, but I don’t believe it is, cynical.

The French do have a strong record on this, even if on other things racial they are not perfect.  For example they have a much more secularised public school system than us.  So the argument is more about the relatively small sub-group of Muslims in France which are still strongly paternalistic — a soft description of neo-feudal brutal male oppression of females. The banning of Islamic headwear in schools is a very justifiable move, in my opinion.  The contrary case is usually stated as: why shouldn’t a young woman wear it if she wishes?

Well, the point is that in those parts of Islam that still practice such vile habits (Iran, Saudi Arabia, Taliban, parts of Pakistan), those young girls are forced to wear it, even if they often will claim they are doing so by choice. Since it also goes with suppression of girl’s education it is even less valid to claim “by their own wishes”.  I say, let that “right” be restricted at least to when they attain majority (which is post-school age).

If I had my preference all children would be forbidden, in our secular society, to be inducted into any cult (Catholic, Methodist, Scientology, etc) until they attained the age of majority when they had true free choice. Why on earth should parents be given the right to brainwash their children this way? (Wouldn’t it be an act of kindness to rescue Steve Fielding’s children?)

Recently, the ABC’s Emma Alberici reported on this from France and it was curious that the French burqa-wearing woman they interviewed was ethnically Caucasian (and French born) who had converted to Islam after being brutally raped as a child and being unable to cope with men’s intrusive staring (which is possibly even worse among Islamic North Africans in Europe, maybe just the same — it is pretty bad in the Latin world).

She was obviously quite disturbed and in no way representative of either young women in general and certainly not Islamic women. Nevertheless her French-Caucasian origins is probably why she was the only burqa-wearing woman permitted by her husband to appear on camera;  most husbands are the cause of the burqa wearing and forbid media contact.  As odd as it was, it still showed a convincing reason why the burqa is pretty evil.

The other interesting thing from the ABC program, and obvious to anyone who has lived in France or visited there much, the vast majority of the 14% of the population who are notionally Islamic (a lot of them drinking in bars around the 19th and 20th arrondissements!) do not embrace those extreme forms of Islam, and they don’t like the burqa either.

In recent years the Burqa has become a symbol not just of modesty, but also of political affiliation. As Arabic culture and Islam have spread and are challenged in other nations, like France, this political identity has become increasingly important. The Burqa has been in existence for approximately 7000 years. It is doubtful that it will be eradicated in the modern world as there have been and always will be people who seek to keep this tradition alive for political, social and religious reasons. And it will, for this reason, continue to be a source of controversy.

References:

http://middleeasternaffairs.suite101.com/article.cfm/the_burqa_controversy

http://people.howstuffworks.com/veil3.htm

http://www.youthnoise.com/page.php?page_id=6400

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burqa

http://www.crikey.com.au/2010/05/10/to-burqa-or-not-to-burqa/

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