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Banning the Burqa

September 28, 2013

I am assuming the call for a blanket legal ban on the wearing of a burqa would also mean a ban on the niqab, as the burqa and niqab are the particular styles of Islamic female dress which cover, either partially or entirely, the face.

For clarification, here is an image showing different forms of Islamic female dress:

Niqab and Burqa - two of many forms of dress

Niqab and Burqa – two of many forms of dress

I’ll state my belief right out up front.  I do not believe that banning the burqa would be anything but a retrograde oppressive step, and further that any ban is ethically, morally and legally unjustifiable.  I have engaged in much debate over the last weeks of discussion of this proposal, which I do not believe will actually be enacted despite Nick Clegg’s fairly toothless promotion of the same in what in my opinion was a desperate attempt to regain credibility.

One constant refrain by those who don’t wear the burqa/niqab (by choice or by not belonging to the culture in which it is worn) is that it is symbolic of the oppressive lack of freedom and choice women in that particular branch of Islam are subject to.  To a certain extent that may be true; some women may be unable to choose to adopt that form of dress.  That is not the fault of the clothing.  That is to be laid at the feet of the people who are enforcing the rule that the woman must wear that item of clothing.  You know what?  The burqa/niqab is not compulsory under Islam nor is it defined as such in the Qur’an.  It is as much subject to personal ideology as any other form of religious iconography or dress one wears to express ones faith and, in this particular case, modesty before the eyes of Allah.

A ban on the burqa/niqab would not save those women who are being forced to wear it i.e. those suffering in an abusive situation.  A ban has been testimonially stated to actually worsen the situation for women; they are kept in the home, out of circulation, and abuse has increased (according to testimony from France, collated by Islamic feminists).  Fundamentally nothing has actually changed as a result of the ban other than to further oppress the women who cannot access aid to escape such situations if they would wish to and who were already not making a free choice to wear the clothing.

If the women are being isolated due to the ban, to whom are they to report their abuse? There is far more to domestic violence than that. The ban has isolated the women further than the emotional/physical and/or sexual violence already does. Being unable to leave the home just means it is impossible for them to seek help or to be recognised by the in-community help organisations as possibly needing help.

All that is quite apart from the fact that many Islamic women do choose to wear the burqa or niqab as a representation of their faith and modesty before Allah.  That choice is made free from any other oppression apart from that of the religion they believe in.  I have problems with all forms of organised religion but that is a different argument and pertinent to the belief systems that I believe need changing and updating.  It has nothing to do with the freedom to wear whatever item of clothing one chooses.

To force women to dress one way or the other is oppression; it’s the attitude and belief system that needs adjusting. Banning such clothing removes choice just as much as enforcing it does.

I have also become aware of reports that the wearing of the burqa and niqab is on the rise in the UK.  I have yet to see any statistical evidence of this but either way it is irrelevant.  What I do know from my reading and conversation with Islamic feminists and non-feminist Islamic people is that the wearing of burqas/niqabs or any other form of Islamic female attire is a complicated topic which creates much debate with the various and myriad interpretations of Islamic faith both within the UK and worldwide (specific to countries, areas in countries, regions of the planet etc).  Incidentally, under some forms of Islamic expression men are also supposed to wear modest non-sexualised baggy full covering clothing including covering their head, although not particularly their faces.

Banning an item of clothing that a woman wears does nothing to stop the idea that men are not supposed to take responsibility for their sexual urges; the evidence with regard to sexual offences in this country bears that out. The banning is simply policing the women and dictating and perpetuating the idea that a form of clothing is responsible for attitudes towards the gender. A ban is as bad as an enforcement; it is simply the opposite extreme. A burqa does not legitimise, excuse or apologise for rape any more than a short skirt asks for it. Should we then ban short skirts? Women are raped even when they are wearing burqa or niqabs.

I am not saying don’t ban the burqa or niqab because women are being abused; that is reductive of my argument. I am saying clothing is not responsible for societies attitudes and banning any item of clothing is simply reinforcing that women’s bodies are not their own and should be policed in some way. Many Islamic women choose to wear the burqa or niqab for their own reasons. Some do not. A ban will do nothing other than remove agency from Islamic women.

I would agree that in order to prove one’s identity such as with passports at Airports or in Court cases where one is on trial, one should remove face coverings of all kinds when required.  There are already practices and rules in place for this.  I have also seen arguments that patients should be able to see the faces of their caregivers, and pupils the faces of their teachers.  Are we not teaching intolerance to our children if we tell them that some women who are members of a particular religion have no right to wear what they choose? What harm does it do to be unable to see the face of one’s teacher, if the body language, the tone, the care and the actual teaching are all of good quality?  Where are the reports of actual children being unhappy at being taught by a woman wearing a niqab or burqa?  With regard to medical staff, I can understand the apprehension at such a heightened time that you might wish to see the face of the person diagnosing and treating you.  If you does not trust your medical caregiver then you should be allowed to opt for another member of staff.  That is the choice of the patient, and trust is vital in the relationship between patient and medical practitioner.  In all cases though, an assumption is being made about the efficacy of the person wearing the burqa/niqab without any actual evidence pertaining to the same.  Case by case may be understandable in this, but not a blanket legislative ban.  The decision is based upon the patient’s fear and is fundamentally based in a mistrust borne from personal intolerance, however that intolerance is created.

EDIT: A friend commented on my FB post of this blog “completely separate to the communication issues which are drummed into us during training, there are safety requirement issues to do with staff dress. Veils etc are at risk of hanging into things and passing infections between patients, same as hair which has to be tied back. Also with regard to dress, staff should be able to wash all of their hands including their wrists which is impossible with full length sleeves and also with cloth wristbands worn ceremonially by some other religions.”  I agree – any item of apparel that causes hygiene hazards should not be worn.  That is not limited to the burqa/niqab, and should be policy in the NHS and in private medical facilities.  That does not support a blanket ban on the burqa/niqab, and from what I know medical facilities already have policies in place to deal with these matters. END EDIT

Ultimately, I do worry about the policing of clothing. It tends to involve the policing of women; legally and socially. Men tend to be policed in our society by social attitudes, and I do think women have more choice of clothing. However, women’s clothing is objectified and policed with regard to how it is perceived sexually, men do not have such pressures). For many Islamic women in this country, the burqa/niqab actually allows them more freedom in that they are not constantly the subject of the male gaze and can move more freely, made invisible to a certain extent. Of course, that is as much a reaction to the policing of female bodies and the clothing they wear as anything else.

This is why I think a ban of the burqa/niqab is simply policing women’s clothing and does nothing to address the underlying attitudes, beliefs and oppressive systems to which women are subject. The attitudes need to change, or we are simply shifting focus in the same patriarchal view.

In the United Kingdom, we have a culture of freedom of religious expression, freedom of choice of clothing.  Legally we are allowed to wear what we choose (to a given value of patriarchy, prejudice etc.).  I have heard and read the argument that women should respect our culture and not cover their faces.  That is a fallacious argument; our culture is one which allows the burqa/niqab.  Further, if one feels fearful or mistrustful of women in burqas or niqabs, then I believe that person should question WHY they feel that way.  Oppressing another person based on unsubstantiated feelings you have towards arbitrary factors that person may exhibit through clothing, colour, disability, gender and so on is unacceptable; it is creating and perpetuating discrimination.  Banning the burqa/niqab on this basis is to use the same reasoning that allows victim-blaming in sexual assault and rape: i.e. the clothes the victim/survivor wore made the rapist/assaulter feel that way.

You are in control of how you feel and react, not the person who is wearing whatever item of clothing that is inspiring that fear/anger/sense of intimidation etc in you.  Don’t blame the object of your fear for creating that fear, blame the society that teaches you to think that way and moreover, change the way you think and react.  Question why you feel that way.  That is the only way we can overcome the prejudices we are all brought up to believe in, myself included.

I’m leaving the last words to the women who actually wear the burqa or niqab, click here to read what a few have to say.

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From → political

25 Comments
  1. Your assumption is incorrect. You can’t apply face-recognition software to security camera footage of a woman wearing a burqa. Not enough data. This is not a problem for footage of a woman wearing the niqab. It really is that simple.

    • What assumption? What are you talking about? I in no place mentioned face-recognition software. In security matters, women are asked to remove the burqa/niqab in the presence of another woman who can then verify their identity. Your comment makes no sense, can you elaborate?

      • Security camera footage is routinely scanned by computer after crimes take place. I’m not talking about airports. The reason so many security cameras are in place in the UK is to re-examine AFTER the fact, not during events.

        • So if the crime was committed by someone in a burqa or niqab they’d still be unrecognisable. If wearing it as a disguise afterwards, still unrecognisable. What evidential basis are you stating your point on? Masks etc are worn, stockings over faces are worn, facial deforming disguises are worn – do you suggest we have a legal blanket ban on all forms of clothing which disguise one’s face from facial recognition software, including hoodies pulled over the face, scarves over mouths, balaclavas etc? Because I oppose that too.

    • This is actually a really solid point. In most of the southern US covering your face is a crime. This was passed into law well before any considerations of Islamic culture where considered. It was passed to help police the KKK and other racial hate groups that where terrorizing the south. If we allow face coverings then this supports the clan hoods of bigoted racists. If we ban face coverings we are in affect banning burkas.

      • That is a good point, when expanded to a ruling against ALL face coverings. Then it becomes a clear issue as to one’s right to wear whatever clothing one wishes, as opposed to those who utilise such coverings for the purpose of criminal activity. That is a different debate, and definitely one over which I have mixed feelings. I understand its implementation in the case of hate groups such as the KKK; however from the photographs I have seen not all KKK members had their faces covered, and it did not stop those who did from using face coverings in the committing of race hate crimes. Did it do anything to change the attitudes of those whose racist ideologies led them to identify with and wear the KKK uniform, or did it in fact solidify the hate felt as blame for the KKK outfit being banned was blamed on the victims of their racist ideology? I really don’t know.

        • Banning the face coverings Made a HUGE difference. There where some bigots that where not afraid to be publicly identified as bigots, most where. Most of the bigots knew they where bigots and that was wrong. Making them identifiable, not just one more white hood in a crowd of white hoods, convinced many to stop participating.

          • Did it? Or did it simply push their actions underground? I can well believe it stopped a few lynch mobs, but I have also seen photos in which lynch mobs were clearly identifiable from the fact there were no face coverings.

            I find it hard to believe that a ban on face coverings would have actually changed the beliefs of a person who used face coverings to express that belief in violence. To express such violent hatred would take a strength of feeling and motivation that I find it hard to believe simply having one’s costume banned would change.

          • To express the violent hatred OPENLY takes a strength of feeling and motivation. To express it hidden behind a hood takes following the herd.

          • On the other hand, I can see how banning the KKK costume, for example, because it is used to incite race hatred and for criminal activity would focus the debate on such activities, and lead to social change in the long term through the questioning of the attitudes and actions.

            It’s an interesting debate, how the ban on ALL face coverings would effect and affect the society in which it is enacted.

  2. “I am assuming the call for a ban on the wearing of a burqa would also mean a ban on the niqab…” Your first sentence.

    • That was because the call for the ban was entirely based on one’s inability to see the face of the wearer. I have posted an image in the article now, to clarify the types of dress. I see where you are coming from, but I did not mention face recognition software nor was it implied. I am not sure how face recognition software would work with either the burqa or niqab?

      • It doesn’t work with the burqa. It does work with the niqab. That’s why they want to ban one, and not the other.

        • How? I do not understand how facial recognition software would work with the niqab; you can only see the eyes.

          Irrelevant to the point of my post anyway; I do not believe a ban is a step that should be taken for the reasons given. What do you think?

          • I agree that anonymity should be a right. I’m not so sure governments agree. Certainly security firms (for hire) and police organizations do not agree. I do not know whether we have the power to prevent them from acting.

  3. “For many Islamic women in this country, the burqa/niqab actually allows them more freedom in that they are not constantly the subject of the male gaze and can move more freely, made invisible to a certain extent.”

    This is where I have a huge issue with much of feminist thinking. Mabey you can explain it. Not being subject to “the male gaze” makes women invisible to a certain extent. If men are prohibited from “the male gaze” how is this notably different than forcing women to wear burkas. The affect of forcing women to wear burka and prohibiting men from “the male gaze” are the same, women are made invisible to a certain extent. Complaining about “the male gaze” in affect is say all women should wear burkas in the minds of men.

    • ‘The male gaze’ is defined as the objectifying of women in society. Complaining about ‘the male gaze’ is complaining about the objectification, the judgement by which all women become sexualised in one way or another – for example the way in which women politicians are judged by their looks first, policies second in the media. There is no call to prohibit the male gaze, there is a call to stop the patriarchal indoctrination which creates a society in which women are judged as objects by ‘the male gaze’. An alternative way of putting this would be ‘patriarchal view’. However, I chose the term ‘the male gaze’ in this instance because it is a genderised situation; Islamic women are not prohibited from being viewed by females (as is shown by the fact they can have their identity proven by showing their faces to female Police officers for example). To society at large, the ‘patriarchal view’ is one in which women are objectified by all genders. Women as well as men, transgender or cisgender, are purveyors of this view.

      The only way to get rid of such patriarchal oppressive attitudes is to address the inequality in society. There is nothing wrong with sexuality nor expressions of one’s sexuality, or with attraction and being attracted. There is a lot wrong with that being the criteria by which women are judged in all walks of life.

      • OK, let me rephrase. How is trying to force women to wear burka notably different than trying to force men to treat all women the same regardless of clothing. Both attempts to modify human behavior have the affect of denying women agency in their clothing choices. Burka deny agency by denying choice. Treating all women the same is denying agency by denying any meaning to the choice.

        Forcing women to wear bikini would be forcing women to present as sex objects. Forcing women to wear burka would be forcing women to present as asexual objects. Women can choose to wear bikini or burka. Women have the choice to advertize their sexuality in a bikini or hide it in a burka. There are millions of choices in between. Why are we arguing about if we should objectify women by denying choice or if we should objectify women by denying meaning? Why are we not trying to empower women to make meaningful choices on how they will present themselves to the world?

        • I’m arguing precisely the opposite – I’m arguing that banning the burqa is wrong. I’m stating that being banned is the same thing as being forced. Isn’t that what you are saying too?

          Where is it being said that men should be forced to treat all women the same? I’m saying that patriarchy objectifies women and puts the responsibility for patriarchy on those oppressed by it, not those privileged according to it. I am saying people should be treated with equality; equality doesn’t mean ‘same’. It means, to me, not discriminating against any group or person according to arbitrary and irrelevant factors such as gender, sexuality, disability, religion, and so on.

          How does working towards stopping the objectification of women by patriarchal attitudes and subsequent discrimination perpetuated through the same have anything to do with denying women agency in their choice of clothing?

          I’m not sure where you are coming from, or how you are reaching this interpretation.

          • You are arguing that banning the burka would be wrong. This is the reason I’m asking YOU these questions. You seem to understand the nature of agency. We agree that no choice is no choice. If someone is advocating no choice about burka, it really doesn’t matter what “side” of no choice they are arguing, they are arguing no choice.

            Who is arguing that we treat all women the same. I’m doing a poor job of articulating my points. There are many people that argue that nothing about a woman’s choice in clothing should ever be considered. That this choice is meaningless.

            http://poisonedwell.wordpress.com/2013/09/06/clothing-choices-and-objectification/

            This is a post on my blog doing a side by side of “men’s professional clothing” and “Women’s professional clothing”. Important to this conversation is the comment about “She should be allowed to wear a bikini if she wants”

            Last thing. It is rather hard to understand your replies. The words “Patriarchy” “Privilege” and “Oppression” have been so absolutely loaded with meanings that they have become meaningless. Can you rephrase your post without these words?

          • It’s not giving me the opportunity to reply directly to you (this must happen when trains of reply get too long – first time it’s happened on my blog, and I am finding this an interesting discussion so thank you for engaging). I hope you see this reply, as I’m not sure you will be notified of it!

            I misunderstood, I did not realise you were directing the last two questions at me in particular, I read them as rhetorical. Dialogue through written word only is difficult, and I thank you for helping me to understand what you are saying and clarifying.

            Which post would you like me to rephrase with those words? They are words I use often in my discourse as they specify what I mean, but of course that is within my understanding of the terms is which contextualised within my own experience. It might help if I define my understanding of them (and the Who Am I? post in my blog gives my background which may also help the reader put me in context).

            Patriarchy – the heirarchical system of gender definition and social interaction, which creates and perpetuates sexism in society.

            Privilege – the advantages which a person may be granted in society according to the discrimination within that society i.e. cisgender/cissexual privilege in a society which discriminates against transgender/transsexual/intersex/hermaphroditic people, or heteroprivilege in a society which discriminates against non-heterosexual people (asexual, bisexual, homosexual, lesbian, pansexual, etc).

            Oppression – the enaction of discrimination in a broad, macrosocial way within a society, through law, social interaction and inherent factors in such things as the education system, penal system, workplace and so on.

            I may be being too wordy again. I have a habit of that. Please do keep asking questions.

            I’ve read your link now, and I agree, men are limited in their choice of clothing. Men are just as limited within patriarchal systems as women. No feminist I know of would argue that men are not defined by and limited within patriarchy. But it is still patriarchy. The women you write about in the post are wearing clothes which you have deemed professional, but that does not mean they are not objectified as women and within the professional roles they hold. Men may have to wear fairly similar suits, but those suits do not define them or restrict them nor are they objects within them. Men have male privilege within patriarchal societies. They may have pressures on them within that patriarchy, but their roles are not limited by their gender in the same way that women’s roles are. There are of course intersectional discriminations which act to limit or enhance male privilege – racism, disablism etc. But in the strict confines of discussing gender, sexism is perpetuated by and perpetuates male privilege.

            Out of interest, how do you define Patriarchy, Privilege and Oppression? It may be that we are using different definitions and therefore coming from different perspectives.

  4. you gave me a lot to think about here- and I like that I’m questioning my own preconceptions about the burqa- really thought provoking. Thank you!

  5. delilahsangels permalink

    This is absolutely amazing! I read it twice and then immediately showed my parents who are strictly pro-ban. Not only are your points incredible but you’re also a really bloody good writer, I am envious of your vocabulary! Looking forward to reading more of your stuff 🙂

    • Thank you so much, what a lovely thing to say! I hope your parents listened, even if they didn’t change their minds.

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