In the ongoing controversy about the proposed burqa ban in France, the voice of one group of people is strangely obscured. Muslim women who do not wear the burqa or the headscarf do not feature prominently in this debate. We do hear a great deal about the importance of preserving the choice of Muslim women who want to wear the burqa. But in any community, the choices of some people impact the lives of others. The presence or absence of the choice to wear a religious garment that is meant exclusively for the female members of a religious group affects gender relations and gender hierarchy in the community as a whole.
I am a Muslim woman and I do not wear the burqa or the headscarf. The constant reference in liberal media to those women who choose to wear it has made it increasingly difficult for the countless Muslim women, such as myself, to express our discomfort with it. This is because any outright criticism of the garment comes across as an intolerant attack on the religion of Islam as well as the Muslim women wearing it.
The reality is that many women have reason to dislike the burqa even when they do not harbor any Islamophobic sentiments. The fact is that the burqa is often imposed on women by hardline states or religious groups. The Saudi Arabian government forces women to wear the burqa in all public places. It also prohibits women from driving or travelling without a male relative. The Taliban imposed the burqa on women when it controlled Afghanistan before 2001. Today, it forces women to wear it in areas it controls in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In societies in which women are punished severely for not wearing it, the burqa is a part of a range of laws and policies designed to suppress women. It is not hard to see why many women in these societies associate the burqa with a highly repressive patriarchal structure that subjugates and confines women in the name of Islam.
But then the argument goes: surely for the women who choose to wear the burqa, the garment is a choice not a tool for suppression. This argument obscures the fact that there is a pervasive, sexist propaganda in many Muslim communities in favor of the burqa. Many women are vulnerable to this propaganda and so their so-called choice to wear a burqa may not be the result of independent, informed decision-making. Moreover, even an independent decision to wear a burqa is not carried out in a vacuum. It is important to understand the effect of this choice on other Muslim women, many of whom may be trying to resist the pressure of their relatives, their community or their governments to wear the burqa. Their resistance is undermined when the burqa becomes increasingly common in public places, and becomes more closely associated with the religion of Islam.
But then wouldn’t the burqa ban be a major impediment to the freedom of women who feel compelled, either due to internal or external pressure, to wear it when they are out in public? Perhaps, but on the other hand it may provide much needed respite to the many Muslim women who are compelled to wear the burqa by their relatives, friends or religious figures in their community. The ban might encourage them to resist the pressure to wear the burqa. It might also encourage the Muslim community to think critically about the garment and whether it is compatible with modern, secular society in which women and men are equals.
Another important question that does not receive much attention in the media discourse about the burqa (perhaps because the answer may be too obvious) is this: why do many woman dislike the burqa? Why might some women consider the burqa to be an imposition on their freedom? The burqa is a big shapeless tent around a woman’s body. In the public place a woman wearing a burqa does not have an identity. When she walks down the street, you know you see a woman, but you know nothing more about her: what she looks like, whether she is smiling or frowning, does she seem kind or unfriendly. If you see the same woman the next day, you will not be able to tell it is her. In some sense, a burqa leads to the most perverse kind of sexual objectification – a woman wearing it is identified by absolutely nothing other than her sex: she is a nameless, faceless, shapeless “woman” and nothing more.
I do not mean to pick sides in the debate over the proposed ban on the burqa by the French parliament. The decision about whether to ban the burqa should be made in the context of French society and politics, and the positive as well as negative consequences of the ban must be carefully weighed. In any discussion of the ban, however, an important consideration must be the impact of the ban on all women in French society, including the Muslim women who want to resist the veil.