I am a Muslim, I am a feminist and I detest the full-body veil, known as a niqab or burqa. It erases women from society and has nothing to do with Islam but everything to do with the hatred for women at the heart of the extremist ideology that preaches it.
We must not sacrifice women at the altar of political correctness or in the name of fighting a growingly powerful right wing that Muslims face in countries where they live as a minority.
As disagreeable as I often find French President Nicolas Sarkozy, he was right when he said recently, “The burqa is not a religious sign, it is a sign of the subjugation, of the submission of women. I want to say solemnly that it will not be welcome on our territory.” It should not be welcome anywhere, I would add.
Yet his words have inspired attempts to defend the indefensible — the erasure of women.
Some have argued that Sarkozy’s right-leaning, anti-Muslim bias was behind his opposition to the burqa. But I would remind them of comments in 2006 by the then-British House of Commons leader Jack Straw, who said the burqa prevents communication. He was right, and he was hardly a right-winger — and yet he too was attacked for daring to speak out against the burqa.
The racism and discrimination that Muslim minorities face in many countries — such as France, which has the largest Muslim community in Europe, and Britain, where two members of the xenophobic British National Party were shamefully elected to the European Parliament — are very real.
But the best way to support Muslim women would be to say we oppose both racist Islamophobes and the burqa. We’ve been silent on too many things out of fear we’ll arm the right wing.
The best way to debunk the burqa as an expression of Muslim faith is to listen to Muslims who oppose it. At the time of Mr. Straw’s comments, a controversy erupted when a university dean in Egypt warned students they would not be able to stay at college dorms unless they removed their burqa. The dean cited security grounds, saying that men disguised as women in burqa could slip into the female dorms.
Soad Saleh, a professor of Islamic law and former dean of the women’s faculty of Islamic studies at Al-Azhar University — hardly a liberal, said the burqa had nothing to do with Islam. It was but an old Bedouin tradition.
It is sad to see a strange ambivalence toward the burqa from many of my fellow Muslims and others who claim to support us. They will take on everything — the right wing, Islamophobia, Mr. Straw, Mr. Sarkozy — rather than come out and plainly state that the burqa is an affront to Muslim women.
I blame such reluctance on the success of the ultra-conservative Salafi ideology — practiced most famously in Saudi Arabia — in leaving its imprimatur on Islam globally by persuading too many Muslims that it is the purest and highest form of our faith.
It’s one thing to argue about the burqa in a country like Saudi Arabia — where I lived for six years and where women are treated like children — but it is utterly dispiriting to have those same arguments in a country where women’s rights have long been enshrined. When I first saw a woman in a burqa in Copenhagen I was horrified.
I wore a headscarf for nine years. An argument I had on the Cairo subway with a woman who wore a burqa helped seal for good my refusal to defend it. Dressed in black from head to toe, the woman asked me why I did not wear the burqa. I pointed to my headscarf and asked her “Is this not enough?”
“If you wanted a piece of candy, would you choose an unwrapped piece or one that came in a wrapper?” she asked.
“I am not candy,” I answered. “Women are not candy.”
I have since heard arguments made for the burqa in which the woman is portrayed as a diamond ring or a precious stone that needs to be hidden to prove her “worth.” Unless we challenge it, the burqa — and by extension the erasure of women — becomes the pinnacle of piety.
It is not about comparing burqas to bikinis, as some claim. I used to compare my headscarf to a miniskirt, the two being essentially two sides to the same coin of a woman’s body. The burqa is something else altogether: A woman who wears it is erased.
A bizarre political correctness has tied the tongues of those who would normally rally to women’s rights. One blogger, a woman, lamented that “Sarkozy’s anti-burqa stance deprives women of identity.” It’s precisely the opposite: It’s the burqa that deprives a woman of identity.
Why do women in Muslim-minority communities wear the burqa? Sarkozy touched on one reason when he admitted his country’s integration model wasn’t working any more because it doesn’t give immigrants and their French-born children a fair chance.
But the Muslim community must ask itself the same question: Why the silence as some of our women fade into black either as a form of identity politics, a protest against the state or out of acquiescence to Salafism?
As a Muslim woman and a feminist I would ban the burqa.
Mona Eltahawy is an Egyptian-born commentator on Arab and Muslim issues.
Courtesy New York Times