BAN THE BURQAH NOW: A Muslim Woman’s Point of View

By Mona Eltahawy

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


Filed under Islam, Women, World

12 responses to “BAN THE BURQAH NOW: A Muslim Woman’s Point of View

  1. Qandeel

    What about burkinis?

    I don’t know if you’d call this piece of candy wrapped or not. But you can’t call this servility or erasure of identity.

    There is no such thing as what Islam or Quran says; there are just interpretations. Whose do you follow? The burqa will stay, and they will find ways to make it more hip and “free”. But the question really is: how much can you impose your interpretation on the values of the state you have chosen to live in. It is a battle of identities; both sides not wanting theirs to be diluted by the others influence.

  2. There must be something that should not be sacrificed at the alter of political correctness.

  3. Anwar

    Since most Muslims follow Arabs blindly, it would be nice if Mona lectures Mubarak instead of Sarkozy to make any difference…

  4. Salman Aziz

    I don’t think Burqa is a requirement. My thought on this subject is if a women chooses of her own free will to dress in this manner that is her choice. We should not downgrade her because of this. There are many more important issues which need addressing.


  5. Zel

    I agree that it is a womans choice to dress in this manner on her own free will. But in the state or place that she lives in, when she needs a picture identification (drivers license, passport, etc), or when peace officers need to confirm her identity, she has to strip down to her neck.

  6. Salman Aziz

    Some states in the US have allowed driver license without pictures. There are always exceptional circumstances. I would think if a women is that particular she will only go out when necessary.
    So again let the women decide and handle the situation as they arise.


  7. updike

    Is a muslim woman free to decide? Really? What does a muslim woman have to face if she does not comply? Congratulations and bouquets? Have muslim women not been reduced to pleasure-givers, house-maids and reproduction-machines in some (most, overwhelming most) muslim societies? Violence/threats/intimidation/manipulation in the name of god (a 7th century arab god-concept) has become common practise among muslims. How many muslims (esp. women) can escape that? Can they escape only through emigration? How many can emigrate?

  8. aisha r.t

    hi. im aisha and i m 13. my mother wears the abaya and i wear the hijab and i would totally disagree with your view upon the hijab/burqah. the burqah’s job is to preserve the beauty and elegance of a woman so basically it is actually protecting you from dangers. allah looks upon both man and woman as equal but they have decided to protect the beauty of a woman. and in mi opinion that is absolutely acceptable. also, u shud check out the stats. there are few muslim gurls who get raped…. so i wud indeed say it is beneficial.

  9. Pingback: BAN THE BURQAH NOW: A Muslim Woman’s Point of View (via Pak Tea House) « MUSING BY MOONLIGHT

  10. I think this is thought-provoking piece. I suspect that the real debate is within Islam, not outside of it. Having said that, I did a repost since I believe it is a thoughtful addition to the debate.

  11. Hayyer

    Dear aisha r.t

    “the burqah’s job is to preserve the beauty and elegance of a woman so basically it is actually protecting you from dangers.”

    The burqah actually hides things. So, one cannot say what is beneath, a woman or a man, and if it is assumed that the wearer is a woman whether she is beautiful or elegant or both. Being a woman is not enough to qualify for those human value judgments that comprise beauty and elegance. Whatever those terms may mean they are not synonymous with being a woman.

    “allah looks upon both man and woman as equal but they have decided to protect the beauty of a woman.”

    Do you think that all beautiful and elegant women in the rest of the world get raped because they do not cover their faces? Further do you think it possible that women don’t complain of rape in fundamentalist Muslim countries because they cannot prove it without the witnesses, and are therefore liable to be stoned to death for adultery.

    “u shud check out the stats. there are few muslim gurls who get raped…. so i wud indeed say it is beneficial.”

    Are there any stats about women in Africa say who go about bare breasted, or practically naked in parts of south east asia and Africa , or used to if not now, and have never complained of rape. Between women forced to cover themselves and afraid to complain of rape, and women who are practically naked but hardly ever get raped where does the balance of belief lie.

  12. Thank you for such a well-informed editorial. As someone who was raised in western society, I’ve always wanted to hear from someone who truly walks the walk rather than someone who just has an opinion. I appreciate your candor.

    As for the 13-year old girl, she is repeating what she has been taught…she is young and doesn’t understand that rape happens everywhere, in every culture, in every socio-economic group, and in every religion. It is a crime of anger and hatred, not of sexuality…sexuality is just the weapon.