Yet another European country, after France, controversially banned the Burqa inviting accusations of Islamophobia. Switzerland overwhelmingly voted for burqa ban with £6,500 fine for Muslim women who would rebel. The immediate imagined connection between ban on Burqa and Islamophobia makes me think as if Islam has nothing else to offer, as if its entire survival is on the success of Burqa, you take Burqa away and Islam is kaput. Well!
Burqa ban is one topic that always puts me in disagreement with feminists. Ironically it is my fellow feminists who lament the ban the most. I on the other hand completely support the ban.
Symbolism not identity
The burqa to me is neither a cultural or religious symbol nor a simple piece of clothing. It doesn’t form a part of somebody’s identity because you cannot identify people whose face cannot be seen. It reduces women to cargo, a Muslim cargo if you will. It only identifies human bodies as Muslim women. There was a time in India when untouchability was practiced, traditional sweepers used to walk around with a broom tied on their back like a tail. It was meant to identify them as ‘low caste.’ Saying Burqa is part of my identity is same as the sweepers saying the broom is part of my identity. Imagine if Dalit activists argued “Let’s give them the right to chose whether they want the broom to be tied on their back or not. Banning the practice is Dalitophobia?”
Let’s call a spade, spade. Let’s call it what Burqa really is, a horribly stupid regressive religious practice meant to oppress women. It is violence. We ban violence. We banned Sati. We should ban Burqa. Both are forms of violence only in varying degrees. Sure, Burqa cannot kill someone, but is that an argument? Should we condone violence that doesn’t kill?
As Feminists we always look at the ‘history of oppression’ or ‘historical context’ of rituals and practices. We always say that things cannot be seen in isolation without its historical context, that’s why we believe that although today on the face of it Karvachauth appears harmless if you look at the historical context and its origin, it is an oppressive practice. This argument magically disappears when it comes to Burqa. Burqa is quickly dissociated from its origin and historical context and seen merely as a cultural symbol, a piece of clothing, a woman’s identity embraced by her for ages. Strange inconsistency in arguments.
Right to choose a regressive practice but no option to give up one
The other argument, and the most common one, is that of Choice. “Ban is not the solution let’s give women the right to chose whether to wear it or not.” But I thought that choice is already there, isn’t it? There is no such law in secular democratic countries that declares “All Women Must wear Burqa” which means it is up to women’s choice. But what have they done with that choice? It is 2015, women are still wearing it. Shouldn’t they be giving it up already? Why are they still wearing it? Either they really really love it, which would mean they have masochist pleasure from oppressing themselves or that they are brain washed and put into social pressure to wear it in the pretext of showing respect to their religion and culture.
Even if we accept that it is a matter of choice for some, what about the lack of option for many others? What about those women who want to get rid of Burqa but are unable to do so because they do not have a law to back them. What options do they have? Their only option is to beg and plead with their male guardians to allow her to give it up. If the male members don’t allow the freedom from Burqa, women have no choice but to wear it because let’s face it she is not going to drag her family members to police station, because they told her to wear Burqa. She would give in as always.
It is like marital rape. Women don’t like it, but can’t do anything about it because it is not yet illegal. We seek to ban marital rape. But when it comes to banning Burqa suddenly it should be left to a vague volatile highly speculative idea of women’s free choice.
Free Choice is Utopia – women mostly don’t have it
The idea of choice itself is questioned by feminists on several occasion. We think we have a choice but choice is never free from context, social pressure and expectations. Women is rarely 100% free from social constructs to make a really free choice. That’s exactly why we counsel women who believe living in subjugation and tolerating violence is their duty and they do so out of choice. Except when it comes to wearing Burqa, suddenly we imagine that all women who is wearing Burqa is actually making a real choice which has no baggage.
Burqa ban is not patriarchal
They will say this is replacing one patriarchy with another. How is it patriarchy? Patriarchy is when men hold power to decide. In case of a law made by referendum how is it patriarchy? It is replacing a religious insanity from primitive times by modern values.
Inherent assumption that all Muslim women love Burqa
Those who are opposed to Burqa ban assume all Muslim women love the burqa and are devastated by the ban. Those who support the ban assume all Muslim women hate it and are happy to be liberated from it. Which assumption is true, nobody can tell. So shouldn’t we go with the one that is likely to bring some positive change rather than the one which is likely to maintain status quo? The argument however seems to be ‘let’s give SOME of them the ‘choice’ to continue with a regressive practice, but don’t give ANY of them the option to get rid of it.
So if a woman wants to wear Burqa, she has the the blessings from all quarters, religious extremists, moral police, self imposed custodians of culture and delusional feminists who thinks it is her choice. But dare a woman decides to not wear one, then she is left to her blasted fate and ability to negotiate.
Violence is violence, no right to suffer violence
Even assuming women can make a choice, there cannot be any question of choice in matters of violence and human rights violation. We don’t give her choice to decide if she is ok with domestic violence or rape or murder. Why does the question of choice only come up on the debate about Burqa ban, why not in case of other reforms?
Whenever laws are made that goes against religious stupidity, it is met with resistance. Ban on Sati also met with resistance from Hindu fundamentalists. But reforms are important, we changed Hindi religious laws to give women equal share in property, we got rid of polygamy, we gave them grounds to divorce, we are talking about abolishing verbal tripple talaq. Abolishing Burqa is a part of the reform. We should embrace it.
Burqa ban is not causing terrorism as the apologists would want us to believe
Truth is we are scared to take the religious nuts head on. We are apologists for the religious bigots who immediately connect Burqa ban with an attack on their religion and then justify jihad and terrorism by pointing fingers at the West. We live in the fear that if we attempt to reform their stupid religious practices they will turn into terrorists in retaliation. No wonder France today is being blamed for the attacks. Well, bad news, Burqa ban is not causing terrorism, please give the terrorists a little more credit than that.
To conclude, in Superland there were 100 women. 50 of them loved wearing Burqa, and other 50 hate it. President of Superland banned Burqa. 50 women wrote protest letters saying ‘we want choice to be regressive’. Other 50 sent letters saying ‘thank you for releasing us from a regressive practice’. I am the President of Superland, next thing I would ban is Ghoonghat covering the whole face and Karvachauth.
Update 29 Nov 2015
And some additional thoughts, not coherent but just putting all thoughts in one place. Made a poster too, to convey the point pictorially
The Burqa ban debate really exposes a lot of the twisted logic and double standards in a section of the feminists. I am a feminist, but feminism is not one but many, so I am holding my ground while I criticize the other types who I think are being apologist. Many of you must have already seen the day long debate on my page. I am too tired now to sum it all up, but I would just say this, nobody knows what majority of Muslim women feel about Burqa but we have indeed heard many English speaking privileged Muslim women from first world country writing articles on NYT / Guardian etc about how Burqa liberates them, its part of their identity, (much like hundreds of Indian women who say how Karvachauth empowers them)
Truth is these women have made Burqa a symbol of religious superiority and have made it an ego issue at the costs of those not so privileged women who really want to get rid of it but have no options / law to back them up. While the non Islam feminists are busy fanning their ego and apologizing for calling their practice stupid and regressive. The greatest irony is when the Vogue Empower My Choice video was released these same women questioned the idea of choice. They said, grass root level women don’t have any real choice so this video was irrelevant for them. Yet these same brand of feminists have only one rallying point when it comes to opposing Burqa ban, the vague, speculative idea of ‘women’s choice’ as if majority of Muslim women are in a position to make real choice.
In none of the discourses voices of marginalized women are being heard. What majority of Hindu women from lowest strata feel about Karvachauth, and what most marginalized Muslim women feel about Burqa, we don’t know. Unless we do some survey and get some real data, I am willing to take the approach which would get rid of the practice rather than the one which would maintain status quo. But some feminists would rather keep the Burqa.
If you are a non Muslim and you call the Burqa regressive, inhuman etc they will immediately dismiss your opinion and assume you are Islamophobic because of your so called ‘outsider’ tag. So called outsiders are met with suspicion and told to shut up and mind their own business and not try to liberate women of other community. It is argued that since you as an ‘outsider’ are coming from a different standpoint you don’t know what is regressive and what is not, and therefore cannot decide who needs to be liberated and from what.
This is an extremely narrow and arrogant approach to the debate. One doesn’t have to always be born within a community to be able to criticize the drawbacks in that community. It is not difficult to form unbiased opinion to certain regressive practices and rituals that affect women irrespective of what community you belong to. Violence against women is judged in the framework of CEDAW. Frameworks like UDHR, CEDAW give us an idea of what basic rights are and Burqa certainly goes against the ethos of these rights. CEDAW further encourages state parties to abolish regressive practices and customs. The only question then remains for women’s movement to decide is Is BURQA A FORM OF OPPRESSION OR NOT. It is hypocritical to say that we accept Burqa is oppression but let the women have the choice if she wants to wear it or not. NO we don’t give choice in case of violence. We a demand ban on marital rape, ban on dowry, child marriage, ban this ban that but not Burqa. Why? Because just a piece of clothing. Well how about its history and genesis. For everything we look at the history of violence when it comes to Burqa we dissociate it from the history and see it as cultural religious symbol.
The other angle to the debate is about the basic necessity of social communication, it is also my right to be able to see the person I am talking or having a professional engagement with for my personal cognition which helps build the confidence in my engagement. For example, if I am going to see a doctor, I should be able to see her face to be able to trust her and confide her. Same for a lawyer or any other professional I meet and deal with. The Burqa completely defeats this purpose. The debate over the ban must address this angle.