To Burka, Or Not To Burka

Following the French parliamentary report this week that called for a ban on the Burka and Niqab in schools, hospitals, public transport and government offices, I had an  interesting discussion with several people on Twitter about whether this was the right decision for France or in fact any country to make.

There are concerns that should France go ahead with this recommendation, other countries could follow suit.

President Sarkozy has been quoted on French radio as saying:

“”The burka is a prison for women and has no place in the French Republic.” (1)

While France is notoriously protective of its culture, is this a case of a President doing what he believes is right for his country or another example of Islamophobia?

The requirement for women to wear a burka stems from the Qur’an instruction that Muslims should dress in a modest way.

If I’m honest with you, as a western woman, I find the concept of wearing a burka or niqab slightly appalling, but this isn’t about me.

There are of course the obvious concerns about national security and confirming personal identity. There is also the worry of just how many women would wear a burka if they had a choice in the matter?

But I think the issue runs deeper than this.

I think the main concern about this judgement should be around the growing movement to ostracise all religious symbols from the public domain. Let’s take the case of Nadia Eweida, the British Airways’ employee dismissed for refusing to remove her cross when working as a check in operator at Heathrow as an example. This case is currently with the court of appeal, so I will be interested to see where it goes. However, I still remain flabbergasted by British Airways’ stance on this. I have yet to have a discussion with anyone from a non Christian faith who would be offended to be served by a women wearing a cross. Please do feel free to comment if this is not the case. So why should it be banned?

Then to look at things a bit further, what if the burka is simply a starting point? In recent years lawyers have cited a woman’s state of dress as a justifiable reason for rape. While most of us would not agree with this as a defence, I wonder how many of you have whispered behind your hands at the length of a women’s skirt, or just how ridiculously low cut her top is, or can you believe she’s not wearing a bra?! Let’s face it, we probably all have. What if, in a few years down the line a law is passed that a woman should not wear a skirt any shorter than five inches? A bit extreme perhaps, but you see where I’m going.

I think fundamentally, I may not agree with the burka or niqab, but I do believe in the individual’s right to express their own beliefs, or more simply to choose what they want to wear. Does a government really have the right to dictate this to us?

Last year, I went on holiday to Egypt, my first trip to a predominantly Muslim country. Despite staying in what was classed as a holiday resort, the vast difference in our cultures was quite starkly apparent. I was startled at first to see fully clothed women in the pool, especially when their husbands stood there beside them in shorts that would have made Daniel Craig proud. But in retrospect there was a probably a part of me that would have loved to have covered up more than my feeble sarong could manage.

It strikes me that perhaps it could be that this way of life and choice of dress is so alien to us in the western world, that it is not only unfathomable, but makes us feels feel terribly uncomfortable. But, should it be us apologising for this discomfort, rather than Muslim women?

We like to think of ourselves as diverse and cosmopolitan, but I wonder are we truly saying that it’s ok as long as you look and dress like a European? Or is being Cosmopolitan about women choosing to look how they wish to look? Or is it just conforming to a very broad norm? To cut to the chase, is a burka or niqab any different than someone with multiple facial piercings? Or is it the fact that we perceive it as a religious rather than a cultural choice the real reason for this awkwardness? For example, if Cheryl Cole was to perform during her next concert wearing a niqab how long would it be before we all had one in our wardrobes I wonder?


7 thoughts on “To Burka, Or Not To Burka”

  1. A very thought provoking blog, and something I have often debated with myself. I do feel as if the Islamic faith is balanced in the favour of men, but that’s just my opinion and it’s not for me to decide. The bit about the swimming pool rang a few bells with my argument.

  2. As a muslim, I can honestly say I do not know a single woman that is forced to wear the niqab/burka it is done out of choice (im there are exceptions but how many western men tell their women how to dress). Just to clear up a small matter, the quran does not state that a woman should wear the niqab/burka it states just to dress modestly and cover the hair, hence most muslim women you find will only wear the headscarf.Contrary to belief, men also have to cover their bodies for modesty reasons.
    In properly practised Islam women are very much equal to men. Men have a responsibility to treat their wives, sisters, mothers etc with the respect and freedom they deserve.
    As for the display of the cross, BA badly misjudged this, I know no muslim that would be offended by this christian symbol or any religious symbol for that matter.

  3. Thanks Stu, that’s really interesting.
    I did do some research prior to writing this on what the Qur’an stated perhaps I should have put this in here as you quite correctly stated it does just say to dress modestly.
    As long as the women are happy and it’s their choice I think that’s all that matters – who are we to judge?
    Out of curiosity, can you tell me why most Muslim men do not cover their hair?

  4. Youre quite welcome Simon 🙂

    The issue of men not covering their hair is an interesting one.
    The belief is that when a men wears head cover or not it does not change his appeal to the opposite sex. (please bear with me…)
    Whereas, if a woman wears a scarf (hijab) she lowers the chance of sexual assault or unwanted attention.
    You will still find men wearing small hats (toopi) but this is more a cultural thing. Men in arabic countries often wear a head scarf but this is more to protect them from the sun.

  5. I do agree with religious freedom and feel that women who want to wear the burka should be free to do so, as with religious symbols of all faiths. Like Laura, I would not choose to, but I understand the requirement to dress modestly (I am a Christian,) and whilst I could never accept any form of apparel as justification for rape, I would agree that very provocative clothing is not appropriate for public wear. I also agree that this could be the thin end of the wedge – banning one type of religious expression will only lead to more. This seems to an attempt to reduce all people to a ‘lowest common denominator’ where anything that shows our individuality or differences of opinion is excised. In my opinion it displays a very poor assessment of human beings in general, suggesting that we are incapable of understanding, accepting and living alongside anyone who dares to think differently. 25 years on, is Orwells ‘1984’ arriving?

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