The French parliament is debating plans to ban women from wearing the full Islamic veil, known as the burka, in public.
The country appears to be obsessed with Islamic dress. In 2004, the wearing of headscarves was outlawed in French schools and now Muslim women are back in the spotlight. As a young Scottish Muslim, I am tired of Western governments’ attempts to impose their values upon these women. Being brought up in Scotland has distilled in me principles such as freedom of speech and respect for all faiths. But it appears not everyone shares this view.
The French government claims to want to help Muslim women but dictating how they should dress would rob them of the choice to freely express themselves. The result? Women who were oppressed by their husbands would also be oppressed by their government. The irony of fighting repression with a ban seems to have escaped notice. From what I have read, it seems France views the burka as a symbol of the subjugation of women, with men playing the role of puppeteers to a woman’s decision.
Yes, there are some women who are forced to wear the burka, and these women should be helped. However, why is it inconceivable that a woman will herself choose to wear the burka? What appears to be lacking in France is communication and dialogue with the Muslim community. Has any research been conducted to find out why women are deciding to don the full Islamic dress? Have government ministers visited the mosque or spoken to any renowned scholars? President Sarkozy has been quoted as saying that the burka is “not religious” but to some women this is not true.
Personally, I don’t know any women who wear the burka but I have watched programmes relating to this issue, and heard women talk about their relationship with the garment and why they decide to wear it. These are not timid, oppressed women but intelligent, educated individuals, many of them from the West.
To many Muslims, wearing full Islamic dress is an act of empowerment, both for its explicit rejection of Western values and its implicit meaning as a status symbol. Many Muslims see the veil as a sign of distinction, the more so because it evokes a connection to the Prophet Muhammad and his wives. In the Koran, there is no specific mention of the face-covering, however the mention of “hijab” or “covering” is clear. It is a matter of modesty, a factor which is not exclusive to Islam: think of Christian nuns and the fact that a few decades ago, women covered their heads in church.
Muslims have two sources for guidance. The first and most important source is the Koran, the revealed word of God. Then there is Hadith which is the sayings and traditions of the Holly Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.w) and his Holly progeny who was chosen by God to be a role model for mankind. Hijab is all about covering a woman’s beauty so that the individuals are evaluated for their intelligence and skills instead of looks and sexuality. Today’s Western world is full of women who are advertised as sexual objects and the hijab is a rejection of this, as women are valued for their minds and not their bodies.
The hijab is also worn so that women can be identified as Muslim, because their faith is extremely important to them. Islam is not just a religion, it is a way of life.
The holy book does not mention the burka, but some women feel they want to cover themselves completely because they are more spiritually fulfilled in this way. That is their choice.
Among my family and friends, we have always respected women who choose to wear the burka and having lived in Scotland all our lives, we accept that everyone has a right to express their faith and dress as they choose. Some Muslim women will dress modestly without hijab, others will wear hijab. And then there are the minority who wear the burka.
When my non-Muslim friends ask about the full Islamic covering I try to the best of my knowledge to explain that the media’s reflection of the burka is not the only depiction we should follow. Some women choose to wear the covering for their own spiritual development. Open discussion helps people to understand the choices that others make, and makes the subject seem less alien. Perhaps if the French public were exposed to such discussions, there would be less revolt against Islamic dress.
The French Republic prides itself on its ethos of equality and liberty, so it seems ironic that, to protect their cultural ideals, they are removing a woman’s right to dress how she pleases. It may not be “French” to make a public show of one’s faith, but these women should have a right to express their faith and dress according to their personal convictions.
What has happened to multiculturalism? Can’t we all live together in one society and still honour our faiths and cultural differences?
I am opposed to the banning of the burka, except where it is necessary for security. However, a limited ban, which applied to certain “high risk” zones such as courts or polling stations, would be justified. I don’t think women who wear the burka would object to these conditions, as they are based on common sense rather than ignorance.
Community cohesion is at stake here. By banning the burka, France would further marginalise the small minority of women who choose to wear the full Islamic dress. And there is a bigger picture. Muslims across the world will also feel marginalised by the decision to deny a right to practice one’s faith. It is possible that more Muslim woman will become politicised and start donning the burka, in direct defiance of the government. That is likely to result in uproar.
Whatever we feel about the burka, it is none of the state’s business to dictate how a woman dresses. If governments really want to combat the oppression of women then instead of getting hung up on a piece of cloth, they should channel their energies into targeting violence, abuse and rape. It is time for priorities to be put in order.
Faiza Amjid is a freelance journalist and Awaz FM radio presenter