Whose burden is the burqa?

Those who object to the “moving prison” say nothing about men displaying the physical assets of trophy wives in a consumerist paradise.

If anyone is benefiting from the Islamist idea, specifically the veil, then it is the western elite or the westernised liberals among Muslims. I might have been a part of the latter given my mode of dress, speech and general deportment. I choose, instead, to play devil’s advocate. The reason is that the debate over whether a woman has the right to cover her face and body has become a western discourse. Its validity is reduced partly due to its being co-opted by an alien yardstick and partly because, ironically, it uses the religious paradigm to justify the ban on the veil.

The Quran does not prescribe it, the Prophet did not enjoin it and so on go the arguments. That is not the point anymore, and incidentally men too follow certain dress codes. It is beyond religion and one must understand that the Muslim world, and even the Arab world, is not of one kind. Therefore, discussing anything in such uniform terms reveals paucity of insight. I’d like one single commentator to discuss this issue without bringing in Islam and then let us watch the fun.

Contemporary society has many areas of darkness and every religion is rediscovering its roots. The rediscovery probably has nothing to do with the essence of the faith. The Pat Robertsons often go well with TV dinners for those rushed for time and prayer. Patriarchal paranoia too would be justified if it also took into account how non-Muslim societies choose to treat their women where they are subtly left out of mainstream political and social opinions. Why is the West obsessed only with Islam?

This is an extension of the old xenophobia. Some are upfront and brand others as terrorists or suspects; the others go the other way and play patronising angels who understand the ‘pain’ of the Muslim woman. In France, where the veil was banned on April 11, a very small percentage of its Muslim population wears the veil. Why is the rest of the female population not considered in the arguments put forth? Does the fact that some women defied the ban not reveal that they cannot be herded into an ignorant, backward stereotype?

When the Bill was first being considered Andre Gerin, a Communist Party legislator, had said, “Today, we are confronted by certain Muslim women wearing the burqa, which covers and fully envelops the body and the head like a moving prison”. His 57 colleagues had signed a document that stated it amounted “to a breach of individual freedoms on our national territory”.

Whose individual freedom is it? I may personally not wear the veil but I do not think any woman doing so is infringing on my freedom. If the religion of France is secularism, then it does not as a matter of course mean that no religious choices can be made. Secularism is not atheism. If the issue is regarding security risks, then the government must make it clear that certain checks will be mandatory, but to sneak in ethical arguments is vile.

It is also extremely offensive to question veiled women who believe they feel empowered. Like grand vigilantes, the anti-veil group thinks it is important to probe the basis of such a choice. As a stand-alone poser it is legitimate, but then how many women have access to equal opportunities in the workplace or rights even at home? Those who object to the “moving prison” and contend that male insecurity puts a wife or sister behind the burqa say nothing about men who feel secure having trophy wives and displaying them for their physical assets in a consumerist paradise.

There is a belief that the veil defines a woman completely. It does not, just as a skirt or a lipstick does not. Whether they choose to wear loose ‘tents’ or scarves with tight clothes is only one of the choices they make in life, as much as others do things to please their partners, peer groups or societal trends. The people who can ensure that no one is forced to wear what she does not want to are those who understand the construct and not imposers who come with their own moral values garbed as liberalism. A true liberal is not offended by others and most certainly not afraid that she cannot bond with a face behind a niqab. With botox and cosmetics, not to speak of public facades, what about the masks we wear?

(c) Farzana Versey

The images are posited to emphasise the exaggerated positions and draw home the point that there are several layers between the two aspects.

Published in Countercurrents, April 25, 2011


  1. Although, I agree with most of what you say, I will bite:

    Kemal Ataturk tried this way before any western countries (even in their colonies) dared to try it. Ataturk was primarily affected by his experience as a young army man in Battle of Gallipoli (and subsequent disintegration of Ottoman Empire) and decided that in order to catch up with the west, East needed to emulate it first.

    I read somewhere that few tens of men were actually executed in Turkey during his time for wearing the old style Turkish hats!! Talk about a strict dress code... This fight between secular army and Turkish democracy has been going on all the way into present when more Islamist Erdogan government came to power.

    In our nook of the world, it was a huge step for Papa Bhutto to decide that Benazir will not need to wear it. So, something as personal as choice of cloth is not, once politics/government or organized religion gets involved.

    On a personal level, I am not sure if I can find a Black person in America who wants to fly a Confederate flag on his pickup truck but he/she will certainly have a freedom to do so; however awkward it may seem to others.

  2. FV, double standards again
    1. You want this subject discussed without bringing in Islam. Do you seriously think it is possible? If a woman wears a bikini in Saudi Arabia, will she not be punished for violating Sharia? Who is bringing in Islam here? It is the Muslims, dear.
    2. The game of freedom and equality can be played only if two sides abide by same rules. Let Pak, Saudi and Iran (I know they are Sunni/Shia. Let us not bring in the monolith argument in unnecessarily.) grant equal status to non-Muslims. Let OIC pass a resolution that punishing people for converting out of Islam is a sin. The whole issue will be over in no time.
    3. Muslims demanding individual choice is like the devil quoting the scriptures. I want to see one Muslim protesting that the ban on Rushdie and Taslima is unislamic or whatever. He will be dead before doing that. If he is not, some believer will happily do the needful!
    4. If "religious" veil should be allowed in secular France, then it stands to logic that "secular" bikini should be allowed in Saudi, Pak, Iran and all other Islamic countries.

    I have perhaps not been able to convey it all that well. But trust me, I am crystal clear about my opinions on this subject.

  3. Bikini in Pakistan? I guess you don't know Veena Malik just like me :)

    Let America, France, Britain etc. stop bombing and maiming innocent civilians then we can discuss the important matters of wardrobe etiquettes between cultures.

    Game of freedom and equality can be played by two sides. True, but I think you are confusing individual Muslims living in western countries with the governments in the Muslim majority countries.

    These issues are primarily related to minorities. Now, your premise is that Muslim majority countries are intolerant and oppressive and taking their lead is the best way to move forward. Who knows, it might work. Worth trying...

  4. Hitesh:

    Kemal Ataturk’s revolution was not restricted to dress, although he can most certainly be credited with modernisation of Turkey. But I have problems with seeing it as a western principle. African countries where Islam is prominent have their own dress codes that are not stringent, but have cultural moorings.

    Also think about Iraq, Lebanon, Iran in the days of the Shah and many Middle-East countries

    It was not a huge step for Z A Bhutto to decide whether Benazir should cover her head; Pakistan at that time had no such compulsions, and does not even today, except for the Frontier regions. It was a cop-out when Benazir decided to wear a dupatta – not a hijaab and forget any other more veiled version – as a public figure. But then Pratibha Patil is always with her pallu over her head and long sleeves; same went for the late Vijaya Raje Scindia.


    The only double standard in this piece is that I do not wear any form of veil and yet voice what may be ONE of the perspectives from the other side.

    1. The ref. to not bringing in Islam was to challenge the western paradigm. Please read the whole para. And do note that the primary emphasis is on not bringing in ethical arguments, then we can talk about security risks etc. In case you are not aware, women do not wear bikinis as a normal mode of dress. It won’t even figure as ‘smart casual’. So where in Saudi Arabia would such women be walking around and violating the Sharia?

    2. I agree with this point in social and political rights terms completely. I’d add that there should be a resolution for converting into Islam as well. It is blasphemous to defile the pure race :)

    3. There have been several Muslims who do not agree with the ban on Rushdie and Taslima, and they have not been killed. Gosh, you seem to be looking for ghosts. I wonder why you do not ask who first banned Satanic Verses and why. It was the Secular Republic of India. Incidentally, both of them have made their careers still living off their victimisation. Rushdie has literary merit, but still prefers to play shaheed-shaheed and manages a few houris. How Muslim is that!

    4. Your logic does not work. I have already stated that a secular society does not mean an irreligious one; it includes all faiths. Now, for the “secular” bikini in Islamic countries (which are clear in that they are not secular), most of them do allow swimmers of other countries to wear it. I know that in the UAE it is a fairly common sight at the beaches and it is not uncommon to see women in other modes of western dresses that might be revealing.

    Have you ever extended your ‘crystal clear opinions on this subject” to how bikini-clad women are perceived in India? What about dress codes being imposed in colleges, and not just in Kashmir? And how many women walk around in bikinis anyway?

    I am mighty amused by the emphasis on bikinis in Muslims countries. Planning a trip to any ‘pure’ land soon?

  5. When I wrote about black confederate, I thought it was a crazy enough example, but I have so much to learn:



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