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Unveiling the burqa

How much of a threat can fully veiled Muslim women pose? 

In recent times, a great deal of controversy has centred around the burqa. In 2011, France banned the niqab and burqa. Bulgaria, Egypt and Chad, among others, also banned the burqa, with Morocco banning the sale, import and manufacture of burqas in 2017. The reasons behind the ban have been varied, with security concerns being an overriding contributor to the decision to ban the garment.

However, there are other concerns as well. The French National Assembly concurred with the ban, citing the need to preserve French individualism and human dignity as the reason behind its decision. With the rise in immigration in Europe over the previous few years and the refugee crisis which resulted in greater numbers of refugees entering Europe, there have been concerns over cultural integration and assimilation into the host state’s society. Further, as pointed out by Isobel Coleman, the Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program, these bans seek to reduce the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Europe. However, she does point out that whether this is what the ban hopes to achieve, or whether it is to ‘fan the flames of Muslim alienation’ remains to be seen.

It is not surprising that when news of such bans on the burqa spreads, there is a sense of unease in the global Muslim community, for it applies directly to Muslim women and arguably impeaches upon an individual’s freedom of expression. In assessing the ban on the burqa, we must first address the role of the burqa in Islam.

Surah 24 verses 30-31 of the Quran state that Muslim women are to lower their gaze, and that they should not display their beauty and should place their khumur over their chests. As per theAl-Munjid, a popular dictionary in the Arab world, the khumur refers to a cloth which covers the woman’s head. Further, in Surah 33 verse 59, women are to let down upon themselves their ‘jilbab’, which is usually defined as a loose, outer garment.

Now, what is the burqa?

It is the most concealing of all Islamic veils, covering the woman’s entire body, head and face, with only a mesh screen to see out of. It is usually made of several yards of light material which is pleated around a cap which fits over the top of the woman’s head.

When looking once again at the burqa and niqab bans discussed above, is the ban on any veil concealing a woman’s face or does it extend to other veils as well—for example, any veil which covers all save for a woman’s face? Say, for example, a woman wearing a jilbab and a khimar? If the objective is to eliminate any security threats, it can be argued to be a justified measure taken by different countries, to ban the burqa and the niqab, so as to ascertain an individual’s identity by ensuring that the face is not entirely or partially covered at all times.

Problematic, however, are the other reasons put forward for the ban, which are cited by not only government officials but by all supporters of such a ban. On one hand, there is a school of thought within the Western first world feminist movement which states that veils such as the burqa and the niqab infringe upon a woman’s rights. However, there is yet another school of thought within the same movement which points out that a woman’s appearance ought to be dictated by her own wishes and if a woman, out of her own free will, chooses to cover herself in a full-body veil, then it is not a sign of oppression or misogyny.

Other arguments have been presented against burqas. There is one argument which states thatburqas restrict vision and movement and have adverse effects on the health, such as Vitamin D deficiency or even the mental health of a woman. To this, writer Martin Robbins whimsically notes that movement is restricted by corsets and heels as well and he further points out that Vitamin D deficiency also arises from wearing trousers, coats and hats. As for mental health, he points out that adverse effects on mental health have more to do with a certain oppressive environment and not necessary with the clothing which a particular woman chooses to wear.

There are other critics of this ban as well. Craig Considine, speaking in the Western context, points out that this ban will not assist in ensuring that Muslims integrate into Western societies. Rather, it will force a woman to abandon her culture and traditions and it will not help in achieving gender equality. Doing so, he argues, will pressurise a Muslim woman to conform to the objectification of women’s bodies in the West and while he argues against any government demanding that women wear the burqa, he strongly supports a woman’s own free choice to wear a full body veil.

The European Court of Human Rights upheld the French ban on burqas, yet, many criticised this judicial decision that the standards of human rights as enshrined within the European Convention on Human Rights applies only to a particular set of people. This ban is argued to breach certain key provisions of this Convention and this judicial decision is thus criticised for selectively enforcing the application of the human rights within the Convention; Article 8, for example, can be seen as protecting and respecting a woman’s right to her personality and Articles 9 and 10 confer upon all European women the right to the freedom of expression. Article 14 stipulates that all individuals are to be protected from discrimination on religious grounds and other discriminatory grounds.

Further, it is widely noted that a very small number of Muslim women wear burqas, especially within Western societies. France was concerned about burqas and niqabs posing a threat to French culture and values and this concern has been voiced in other predominantly non-Muslim societies as well; yet, how much of a threat can a few hundred, or even a thousand fully veiled Muslim women pose?

Ultimately, while the ban may be sensible in light of security concerns (an example being of Chad, which enforced the ban following two suicide bombings), the other reasons pushed forward to support the ban seem unconvincing. For, as Considine points out, a full ban on burqas is as deplorable as the Taliban demanding that women entirely cover themselves up. The question, he argues, to be asked is, ‘Are we actually like them?’

Ali, Yasmeen. Unveiling the burqa. Pakistan Today, January 16, 2017.

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