Burqa and the Muslim Woman 2011
May 1, 2011
Burqa and the Muslim Woman 2011
Rethinking the veil
An overview of Women's rights in the Islamic World and the "tradtition" of the Burqa
Should I be suffocated?
Imprisoning women in a veil to restrain men

We all know that the burkha does not have its roots in religion. Religion only asks women to dress modestly. So where did the burkha or veil come from? Why do so many women in the world cover their faces?

The burkha is a mobile jail invented by men to hide the women they “love”. If love were really involved, I could accept it. It would make the jail a little more acceptable in a twisted kind of way. But what kind of man would keep a person he loves in a jail? No, the burkha is more a jail to keep in the women they “own”.

Brainwashing begins at a very early age: When you are told that you have to hide yourself from men. It is ‘piety’ to hide your face. You are also taught to fear men. From a very early age you are told that men are dangerous and should not be trusted. Your father and your brother are the only ones you can trust. As someone so eloquently put it the other day, “in Pakistan, women are told that men are wolves and women are sheep” and due to this teaching, most men do indeed start acting like wolves and women as sheep.

Our men say that women should cover up so that we do not have ‘thoughts’ about them: Thoughts of harming women and thoughts of raping them. So they want to put me in a mobile jail just so their minds stay clean?! What twisted logic! And does this really stop their ‘thoughts’? In the real world, they don’t care if you are in a burkha, they will harass you anyway. Covering my face never protected me from street harassment.

When we lived in one of Pakistan’s smaller cities, either my father or brother had to accompany us whenever we left the house. If they didn’t, despite all the layers of clothes we wore, men on the street would yell taunts, follow us and even try to rub up against us as we passed by. This is the very reason why women cannot go out alone and always have to have a male relative with them. Men have to protect their women from other men in Pakistan, and in all Muslim countries.

When we moved to a bigger city, Lahore, and got rid of the big chadar, sexual harassment, believe it or not, was less. The men there were used to women who walked around with their heads and faces uncovered. They were more educated and their own sisters and mothers had more freedom as well.

Coming to the USA and witnessing the behaviour of the men on the street was an amazing experience. I can walk around wearing whatever I want. No one dares to harass me. This tells me that it is not the burkha which keeps the dangerous men away; it is the mind-set of a society and the implementation of its laws that keep women safe in any country.

I first experienced the touch of a cool breeze against my skin on a beautiful beach in Hawaii and it was wonderful. Men rob women even of their basic right to enjoy nice weather by putting them in a tent called the burkha. It is dark in there and it is hot in there. Should I be suffocated just so you do not have ‘thoughts’ about me?

Doctors consider ‘thoughts’ a god-made, healthy phenomenon. Acting on your thoughts without the other person’s consent would put you in jail for 10-20 years in any civilised country.

It is difficult for a man from an oppressed society to understand that in a free world, men do indeed learn to control their ‘thoughts’ and they do not blame women for it. When it comes to France and the burkha ban, the argument that ‘women should be allowed to wear whatever they want to wear and that is freedom’ does not work. Every society has to have a dress code and limitation to freedom. Your freedom ends where it starts taking mine away. Nudists frequently demand their right to walk naked on the streets. They cannot be allowed to walk around completely naked so as to protect other members of society.

In the same way, a person covered from head to toe is a security risk. You do not know what lies underneath. It has become a dangerous world. You cannot let your kids play in a park where people sit completely covered from head to toe.

Besides, what right do Muslims have to ask France not to ban the niqab when a western woman cannot walk around freely in a Muslim country wearing shorts? You expect them to respect your culture when they come to your country; you should respect their culture too when you move to theirs.

This article was posted on the website Let Us Build Pakistan on April 15, 2011.

Archived from Communalism Combat, May 2011.Year 17, No.157 - Gender Justice
The mother of all ironies
Intent on hiding them away, the burkha has instead made Muslim women the centre of global attention

Could this be the mother of all ironies, a delightful one at that? Whatever your view on the subject, one thing is beyond dispute: desexualising the female body, rendering a Muslim woman invisible in the public space is what the burkha (or niqab, a head-to-toe veil) is all about. Yet this very garment continues to draw global attention to the Muslim woman, generating heat and igniting passions as nothing else does. Muslim women were headline news last year when France decided to enact a law banning the burkha. Several other European countries are also heading in the same direction. With the new law having been set in motion on April 11 (a 150-euro fine or a crash course in citizenship for any woman who refuses to unveil before a French policeman), there’s great excitement all over: cyberspace, print and electronic media across the West and the Muslim world, including the Urdu media in India.

The irony is delightful too for those who acknowledge that truth does not always dress up in black or white; it often comes clothed in shades of grey. If you think this debate is about the clash of civilisations, between the West and the Muslim world, about the burkha vs the bikini, think again. In this battle over the burkha, it is West vs West, secularists vs secularists, liberals vs liberals, right vs right, feminists vs feminists, ulema vs ulema, Muslims vs Muslims and women vs women.

If you have a view on the subject, you have a point. But rest assured that someone with a diametrically opposite opinion also has a point. It is a bhool bhulaiyya, a maze out there with no familiar markers to guide the bewildered. Only one thing seems clear: if the most passionate supporters of the ban are Muslim women, the most ardent defenders of the burkha are also Muslim women.

Welcome to the maze, one step at a time. Banish the thought, as many in the West will tell you, that the French action is motivated by lofty principles such as gender justice, keeping religion out of the public sphere or upholding the 222-year-old ideals of the French revolution: liberty, equality, fraternity. With over five million followers of Islam, France is home to the largest number of Muslims anywhere in the western world. Why then is an increasingly migrant-unfriendly France so concerned about just 2,000 (itself a highly exaggerated figure according to many) Muslim women who wear the burkha in France? The answer lies in politics: in the presidential elections due next year, the right-wing Sarkozy faces a serious threat from his ultra-right rival Marine Le Pen. Sarkozy is trying to outsmart Ms Le Pen by stealing her agenda and so what if this adds more fuel to Islamophobia in the country and the continent?

Critics in the West who believe Sarkozy and France are playing with fire invoke the foundational values of the Enlightenment. Among the numerous editorials and columns that have been published in the last few days, here is one from Timothy Garton Ash in the Los Angeles Times on the meaning of freedom: “We may not like their choice. We may find it disturbing and offensive. But that’s the deal in a free society: The burkha wearer has to put up with the cartoons (of Prophet Muhammad); the cartoonist has to put up with the burkhas.”

If there is a debate, for and against, in the West, there is one raging in the Muslim world as well. In late 2009, in the midst of the storm then raked up by Sarkozy with his “no place for the burkha in France”, Sheikh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawy, the then grand sheikh of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, stunned the Muslim world with a fatwa that led to an official notification banning any burkha-clad female teacher or student from entering the Al-Azhar campus or any affiliated institution. Muslim-majority Syria has just relaxed its law prohibiting women in burkhas from entering educational institutions. The reason is simple: containing the spreading Arab revolution!

Egypt’s Tantawy, since deceased, was not the only important Muslim voice against covering up in the name of Islam. Among those who argue that the veil is a cultural practice which has nothing to do with Islam are influential voices in the Muslim world: the octogenarian Egyptian Gamal al-Banna (elder brother of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna), Sudanese theologian and politician Hasan al-Turabi (interestingly, a man accused by many in the West of promoting radical Islam across the world) and the late Abdurrahman Wahid (for years the leader of Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama, the largest organisation of ulema anywhere in the world).

It is impossible to list here all the well-known Muslim men and women who across the time-space continuum have opposed the burkha/ niqab. Even the fact that the right-wing Sarkozys have their own political agenda is no argument as far as many Muslims are concerned. “I am appalled to hear the defence of the niqab or burkha in Europe,” opined Ms Mona Eltahawy last year. “A bizarre political correctness has tied the tongues of those who would normally rally to defend women’s rights but who are now instead sacrificing those very rights in the name of fighting an increasingly powerful right wing. The best way to support Muslim women would be to say we oppose both the racist right wing and the niqabs and burkhas which are products of what I call the Muslim right wing”. Among Muslims opposed to the burkha there is a near consensus that the spread of this infection “like swine flu” (Yasmin Alibhai-Brown in The Independent, UK) has little to do with individual choice and everything to do with petrodollar-promoted Islamic revivalism across the globe in recent years.

How then does one negotiate one’s way through this maze? The “location principle”, enunciated years ago by the US-based scholar of Indian origin, Akeel Bilgrami, comes to mind. When an Indian Muslim calls for a common civil code, it is a progressive demand. But when someone from the sangh parivar makes the same demand, it is clearly communal, he argued. Perhaps the same principle could be applied to the burkha debate.

Archived from Communalism Combat, May 2011. Year 17, No.157 - Gender Justice.
Upheaval of stereotypes
At the forefront of various uprisings, Arab women forge their own identity

The Arab revolutions are not only shaking the structure of tyranny to the core – they are shattering many of the myths about the Arab region that have been accumulating for decades. Topping the list of dominant myths are those of Arab women as caged in, silenced and invisible. Yet these are not the types of women that have emerged out of Tunisia, Egypt or even ultra-conservative Yemen in the last few weeks and months.

Not only did women actively participate in the protest movements raging in those countries, they have assumed leadership roles as well. They organised demonstrations and pickets, mobilised fellow citizens and eloquently expressed their demands and aspirations for democratic change.

Like Esraa Abdel Fattah, Nawara Negm and Tawakul Karman, the majority of the women are in their twenties and thirties. Yet there were also inspiring cases of senior activists as well: Saida Saadouni, a woman in her seventies from Tunisia, draped the national flag around her shoulders and partook in the Kasbah protests which succeeded in toppling M. Ghannouchi’s provisional government. Having protested for two weeks, she breathed a unique revolutionary spirit into the thousands who congregated around her to hear her fiery speeches. “I resisted French occupation. I resisted the dictatorships of Bourguiba and Ben Ali. I will not rest until our revolution meets its ends, for your sakes, my sons and daughters, not for mine,” said Saadouni.

Whether on the virtual battlefields of the Internet or the physical protests in the streets, women have been proving themselves as real incubators of leadership. This is part of a wider phenomenon characteristic of these revolutions: The open politics of the street have bred and matured future leaders. They are grown organically in the field rather than being imposed upon from above by political organisations, religious groups or gender roles.

Another stereotype being dismantled in action is the association of the Islamic headscarf with passivity, submissiveness and segregation. Among this new generation of prominent Arab women, the majority choose to wear the hijab. Urbanised and educated, they are no less confident or charismatic than their unveiled sisters. They are an expression of the complex interplay of Muslim culture, with processes of modernisation and globalisation being the hallmark of contemporary Arab society.

This new model of home-grown women leaders, born out of revolutionary struggle, represents a challenge to two narratives which, though different in detail, are similar in reference to the myth of Arab cultural singularity; they both dismiss Arab women as inert creatures devoid of willpower.

The first narrative – which is dominant in conservative Muslim circles – sentences women to a life of childbearing and rearing; women are to live in the narrow confines of their homes at the mercy of their husbands and male relatives. Their presence must revolve around notions of sexual purity and family honour; reductionist interpretations of religion are looked upon for justification.

The other view is espoused by Euro-American neo-liberals, who view Arab and Muslim women through the narrow prism of the Taliban model: Miserable objects of pity in need of benevolent intervention from intellectuals, politicians or even the military. Arab women await deliverance from the dark cage of veiling to a promised garden of enlightenment.

Arab women are rebelling against both models: They are seizing the reigns of their own destinies by liberating themselves as they liberate their societies from dictatorship. The model of emancipation they are shaping with their own hands is one defined by their own needs, choices and priorities – not anyone else’s.

Although there may be resistance to this process of emancipation, Tahrir Square and Kasbah are now part of the psyche and formative culture of Arab women. Indeed they have finally given voice to long-silenced yearnings for liberation from authoritarianism – both political and patriarchal.

This article was posted on the Al Jazeera website on April 25, 2011;

Archived from Communalism Combat, May 2011.Year 17, No.157 - Gender Justice
Seeking a paradigm shift
On women and the veil: rethinking within Islam is long overdue

The mullah and the torch-bearer
Hail from the same stock;
They give light to others,
And themselves are in the dark.

– Bulleh Shah, Sufi, revolutionary and poet

The shrill opposition of many Muslims to the French ban on the face veil has only reinforced my conviction that a thorough 
reform, indeed nothing less than a paradigm shift, in the ways in which Muslims understand Islam is more than overdue. My point is simple: Muslims are by and large guilty of equating their own historically produced and conventionally understood readings of Islam as equivalent to and wholly synonymous with Islam itself or the divine will per se. Since these understandings are humanly produced and hence necessarily flawed and limited, to insist that these represent ‘true’ Islam or the divine will itself is to be guilty of the cardinal sin of shirk, or associationism. Such a claim is in effect (even if this is not the perceived intention) tantamount to equating humans with god by equating god’s word with human, producing therefore necessarily flawed understandings of it.

At the outset, let me clarify that although I am convinced that the face veil has no sanction whatsoever in the Koran and I agree that it is extremely debilitating and degrading for women, I am not convinced that banning it by law is the best way to reform the custom out of existence. That said, I also insist, contrary to what many Muslim critics of the French ban argue, that banning the veil is not tantamount to an attack on Islam although it may be an assault on Muslim communal sentiments that seem in this case to be premised on the visible degradation of Muslim women. To claim, as, for instance, the ignorant mullahs of Deoband recently did (in an appeal to the government of India to sever ties with France), that the face veil is an integral part of Islamic belief is wholly erroneous. This ridiculous argument only reflects the general tendency, pointed out earlier, of Muslims, led by their ignorant mullahs, daring to equate their own fallible and humanly conditioned understandings of Islam with Islam or the divine will per se.

It should be obvious to anyone who has read the Koran that nowhere does it specify that Muslim women should wear a specific sort of dress. Neither does it state that women should cover their faces. It is true that the Koran lays down certain principles of modesty in dressing but it does not specify precisely what people should wear, this being left to personal discretion and open to variation depending on local custom. Such principles apply both to males and females and are not specific to females alone. Unlike what the mullahs urge, based on rules that they have themselves devised, the Koran does not insist that Muslim women must be wrapped up in black sacks. To insist that this is a compulsory uniform for Muslim women is to be guilty of inventing rules and restrictions that have no Koranic warrant. To impose such rules in the name of Islam is a crime, for it is tantamount to claim to know the Koran better than the One whose word it is believed to be.

To insist, as the mullahs do, on a trap-like medieval Arab dress for women that effectively subjects them to enforced domesticity and abject subservience to men reflects another painful reality of conventional Muslim (mis)understandings of Islam: the notion that Arab culture is somehow integral to Islam and inseparable from it. Hence the widespread belief that Arabs are more ‘authentic’ Muslims than we are, that Arabs are superior to non-Arab Muslims (hence the prohibition on Arab women marrying non-Arab men in some schools of fiqh, or Islamic jurisprudence), that the Arab syeds have special privileges and deserve particular honour, that Arabic mosque architecture is more ‘Islamic’ than other styles, that Arab dates are more ‘holy’ than non-Arab dates, that Arabic is the language spoken in heaven and so on.

Arab cultural supremacism has played havoc with the notion, so integral to the Koran, of Islam as the universal faith – as the faith not just of the Prophet Muhammad but indeed that of all the other prophets of god, whom god has sent to every people, only few of whom were possibly conversant in Arabic, prayed and preached in that language or called their faith by the particular Arabic term ‘Islam’. (I suppose that if they used any term to define their ‘Islam’, it would have been in their own languages and would have conveyed the same sense as what ‘Islam’ means in Arabic i.e. submission to god). To privilege Arabic culture in the manner that many Muslims, including those hollering for the face veil, do, is surely a form of cultural idolatry (defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “extreme admiration, love, or reverence for something or someone”) that has no warrant in the Koran whatsoever.

By conflating Islam with Arabic culture and, on this basis, insisting that the face veil is normative for all Muslim women and for all time, the mullahs and their ignorant followers effectively declare that to be Muslim one must conform to, or at least privilege, seventh century Arabic cultural practices and norms. In making this audacious claim that freezes lived Islam into a fixed cultural mould and renders it incapable of adjusting to new cultural contexts, the ignorant mullahs are completely unmindful of the immense practical difficulties as well as psychological traumas that their ridiculous pronouncements produce for non-Arab Muslims, who happen to form the vast majority of the world’s Muslim population.

Much has been written about the shameless hypocrisy of many Muslim men, brainwashed by their ignorant and scheming clerics, in insisting on rules of ‘modesty’, including in matters of dress, for Muslim women while conveniently ignoring that modesty, as the Koran suggests, is for both genders to observe. I do not wish to revisit that debate here but only want to point to the blatant double standards of the champions of the face veil. Women, they insist, based on some (probably fabricated) Hadith reports and not the Koran, are wholly awrah, something to be concealed fully and hidden from public gaze, allegedly because women are by definition, by their very biology as it were, sources of temptation and fitna (strife). Even their voices, they quote another Hadith as declaring, are awrah and so no woman should speak to an unrelated man. The justification the mullahs proffer for this horrendously misogynist prohibition is that women are supposedly so sexually stimulating that if men not just see their faces but even so much as hear their voices, they would be thrown into the throes of sexual excitement. And that would cause the entire edifice of ‘morality’ to come tumbling down.

Those who have read the Koran (without the lenses supplied by the mullahs) will know that there is nothing in the Koran that sanctions this perspective. If men are so weak and so sexually charged that the mere sound of a woman’s voice will drive them astray by exciting their sexual desires, why should women be punished for the sexual obsession of men? The Koran (and logic too) insists that no one shall bear the burdens of the sins of others. That being the case, why must women be punished – hidden behind veils, locked up in their homes, denied access to the public sphere, left economically and educationally completely deprived and therefore utterly dependent on sexually frustrated men – just because men are supposedly unable to control their overcharged libidos? To force women to pay for the sins of men is certainly unjust by every reasonable standard. It definitely contradicts the clear Koranic declaration: “No soul bears the sins of another soul. Every human being is responsible for his own works” (53: 38-39). But will the mullahs, wedded to their own created interpretations of Islam instead of to the Koran, listen to the voice of reason?

Anyone who travels in the Middle East, the supposed ‘heartland of Islam’, will be confronted by the gross violation of the above-mentioned Koranic dictum on a massive scale. He or she will be faced with the frightening spectacle of women forced to hide behind black sheets, their faces completely invisible, because the mullahs have declared that this is how women must ‘preserve’ their modesty. On the other hand, Muslim men will dress as they please, in as revealing and as immodest a manner as they like, including in the latest western fashions. (It is a different matter that many Middle Eastern women sport the skimpiest of miniskirts and even the most tantalising belly dance costumes under their burkhas, and that a vast number of them, as in Iran, so I hear, simply itch to throw off the veils that have been forced on them by the mullahs – such is the hypocrisy these gendered dress codes necessarily generate.)

The fact that women, and not just men, have sexual desires and that they too could be sexually excited at seeing ‘strange’ men doesn’t seem to matter a whit to the mullahs, who dare not impose on Muslim men the same harsh rules they can on women. If the absurd logic of the mullahs – that the mere sight or voice of a woman is bound to sexually excite men and set off fitna on an uncontrollable scale, and that therefore the former must be silenced by compulsory veiling (not just of the body, including the face, but of the voice too) – is to be taken to its logical culmination, let them order men, the guilty gender, to be locked up in their homes rather than punishing women for men’s crimes.

The neurotic (there is no better word to describe it) obsession of the mullahs and their blind followers with the constant policing of Muslim women constantly reinforces the deeply rooted notion that women are simply tantalising sexual objects and that men constantly obsess about sex. In this way this discourse completely over-sexualises men as well as women. This has become so ingrained in the general Muslim psyche as to be transformed into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Curiously, this notion is wholly absent in the Koran but fully present in the Hadith and in other humanly crafted texts (which are replete with misogynist narrations that completely defy and contradict Koranic logic) which the mullahs in effect privilege over god’s word by insisting that the Koran can only be read in the light of their pronouncements.

The un-Koranic notion of women as simply sexual beings pervades Muslim cultures and societies worldwide, making for all sorts of enormities: the inability of Muslim men and women to relate to each other sensibly or even to see each other in other than just sexual terms. It leads to an enormous and painfully exaggerated obsession with sex on the part of men. The more women are ‘sexualised’ by being perceived as sexual beings and subjected to all sorts of ridiculous restrictions on that account, the more men’s obsession with sex mounts, producing a completely neurotic personality. The more women are denied access to the public sphere, together with chances of normal, non-sexual interaction with men, the greater the inability to conceive of the possibility of interaction between the genders in anything but sexual terms.

This accounts in large measure for the general impression of Muslim men as sexually frustrated and sex-obsessed creatures. That is not to say, of course, that this is a specifically Muslim issue, hyper sexuality being glorified in many non-Muslim cultures too. I admit this is a somewhat exaggerated stereotype. Yet all stereotypes, to gain acceptance, must contain at least a grain of truth. Denied any opportunity for interacting on even a non-sexual level with women, Muslim men, the mullahs insist, must inhabit an entirely male public space. This in turn leads to all sorts of complications and frustrations, including unhappy marriages that women find themselves trapped in because Muslim men are trained to perceive women as sexual beings and are generally rendered incapable of conceiving marriage as an egalitarian relationship between two equals based on reciprocity.

In their dogged commitment to the fiercely patriarchal and misogynist laws that they have themselves generated and falsely attributed to the Koran and god, the mullahs and their ignorant blind followers simply do not care what havoc they have created and continue to insist on creating. And if anyone dares to challenge them, calling them back to the Koran and appealing to them to desist from passing off their ideas and rules as the word of god, they quickly pounce on him or her as a ‘heretic’ and impute all sorts of false motives. This being the case, the prospects for reasoned debate on the women’s question in Muslim societies remain bleak.

This article was posted on the website on April 18, 2011.Courtesy:

Archived from Communalism Combat, May 2011.Year 17, No.157 - Gender Justice