Banning The Veil

As Belgium is all set to ban the Burqa in public places, citing ‘security’ reasons and describing it as ‘walking prison’, and as other European countries are likely to follow the move shortly, certain questions come to my mind; for instance, is the veil forced on all Muslim women, or, do all of the Burqa-wearers don it willingly, or, is it fair on the part of a democratic government to grandstand the issue, telling  women what to wear and what not, nearly denying cultural freedom to an immigrant community?

From liberal vintage point, the Europe can be found guilty of responding to a religious protocol foisting forced modesty on women by a democratic law foisting forced liberty on a community, of being ‘intolerant’ to alien cultural symbols, and of not being honestly committed to heterogeneous, multi-cultural society. But then, there’s no denying the fact that a truly multi-cultural society, one that is heterogeneous when it comes to customs, traditions, dresses and so forth, is one where even different cultures are tied together to a common core, to one mainstream, integrated with each other; for if that weren’t to be so what will be there is not one multicultural society, but multi-cultures.

The failure of both locals and immigrants at arriving at a common core is at the core of the problem about the Burqa in the West. The tough stand – and to some, maybe quite unjustifiable one – that European countries are taking on the issue lately is largely because the core Western value system is in sharp contrast with Islamic beliefs, requiring considerable understanding and flexibility and sacrifices for mutual integration. While one is extraordinarily liberal, the other is equally conservative.

The modern western line of thinking advocates freedom, identity, and status to women and concludes that the veil is not just an obstruction to it but makes interest of women subservient to that of men. In a democratic, liberal society, a cultural symbol like Burqa has been found to become obviously distinct in daily life, attracting glances from strangers and some kind of uneasiness from acquaintees, so when Jack Straw of the UK described full veil as a ‘mark of separation’ a few years ago and French President Nicholas Sarkozy proclaimed it as ‘sign of debasement’ last year, they might be offensive in their tone, probably sounding xenophobic, but their points originated from reality.

The criticism of the veil is widespread, without targeting a country or a community in particular, and extends to all forms of Purdah, be it ghoonghat or Burqa. Whether it is a forced modesty on women, or, they put it on voluntarily, doesn’t make things different. In the first case, it is a matter of denying identity to a female and violating her human rights; while in the second, that of concealing identity, something that puts others at disadvantage in day-to-day life and something that is a serious issue during security checks.

Unfortunately, a considerable section of immigrant Muslim community takes opposition to genuine demerits of the Burqa negatively, mistaking it as demonization of their cultural symbol. This is what more and more Muslim women coming forward to wear the Burqa on European streets and frequently refusing to show their faces during security checks had to mean. This can hardly be a proper response to western opposition to the veil, particularly when immigrants are expected to integrate to local social mainstream.

No wonder, the reluctance of Muslim community to adopt local customs and traditions pushed their clash with natives too far. It failed to achieve what it was intended at, altering thoroughly the popular perception about the veil, that it is a symbol of oppression inflicted on women in violation of their human rights, and replacing this impression with a message that women wear the Burqa on will and for safety and comfort. However, with erstwhile Taliban regime of Afghanistan having forced Chadri (shuttlecock burqa) on unwilling women in Kabul and given the fact that in most cases around the world, the veil is a forced modesty, you hardly stand a chance of glorifying the Burqa in the Europe with success. And now, as bombers strike their targets and flee successfully in protection of the Burqa, like 2005 London bomber and many Taliban suicide bombers in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the argument that no one should tell a Muslim woman what she should wear and what not gets further weakened.

Just as it’s not the job of a government to tell someone that Burqa is not secular; by the same token, immigrants cannot seek their native country on a foreign land in the name of religious freedom.

The veil has all along been supported and advocated on the ground that it’s fundamental to Islam and protects the modesty of women. This is scarcely admissible. The Burqa is a tradition, as experts put it, that originated in the deserts of Arabia even before the advent of Islam actually, first, as sand masks worn both by male and female, and second, with a view to save young women from raiders and robbers, for veil made young and old women indistinguishable so that youngs girls could not be identified and abducted, and thus the tradition is rooted in tribal custom, adopted by Islam only later. Besides, Muslim scholars vary considerably in their interpretation of hadiths, with some construing the veil as an instruction to cover whole body while others only to conceal private parts.

That Islam requires both male and female to be modest but women need to wear the veil to reign in their sexuality is an unintelligent, very offensive argument. This interpretation makes a good religion sound as if it cannot treat men and women beyond bounds of sexuality with former being perceived as primarily licentious and latter objects of sensuousness provoking lust.

There’re some other social issues related to the veil. In a number of cases, it is true that woman voluntarily putting on Burqa have some sure sense of safety, all due to religious beliefs cultivated in them from very young age, thinking that it liberates them from the male gaze and so they feel comfortable. It’s all very well and okay. But it doesn’t make others feel comfortable. Many well-bred men in a liberal, open society would hesitate to interact with a Burqa-clad woman for a simple reason that a woman covering herself in swathes of black clothe is, while protecting her modesty, clearly accusing men – both strangers as well as acquaintees – of licentiousness.

Also, such a distinct symbol of so-called high morality as Burqa would naturally put any average woman or man at unease.

Saurabh Dharmesh