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Ban the Burqa? The Argument in Favor

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Posted on November 11 2010 9:00 pm
Phyllis Chesler is an Emerita Professor of Psychology and Women's Studies at City University of New York. For extended biography visit The Phyllis Chesler Organization.

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Originally published in the Fall 2010 issue of The Middle East Quarterly.

Should other Western states follow the Belgian and French examples and ban the full Islamic body and face-covering veil—or more specifically, the burqa and the niqab? In other words, should the West ban any and all clothing which obliterates one’s identity? Most Europeans, according to recent surveys, seem to think so.[1] Still, significant numbers, especially in the United States,[2] and including quite a few feminists,[3] have viewed such a ban as religiously intolerant, anti-woman, and anti-Western. They maintain that the state has no place in deciding what a woman can and cannot wear—it is her body, not public property; [4] that given the worldwide exploitation of women as pornographic sex objects, wearing loose, comfortable, modest clothing, or actually covering up, might be both convenient and more dignified;[5] that because of the West’s tolerance toward religions, the state cannot come between a woman and her conscience for that would betray Western values;[6] and that women are freely choosing to wear the burqa.[7] Some Western intellectuals oppose banning the burqa although they understand the harm it may do and the way in which it may “mutilate personhood.”[8] Algerian-American academic Marnia Lazreg, for example, implores Muslim women to voluntarily, freely refuse to cover their faces fully—to spurn even the headscarf; however, she does not want the state involved.[9]

The phrase "the Islamic veil" refers to variety of female clothing that differs from country to country and from century to century. The "veil" ranges from hijab, or headscarf, which does not cover the face (and is not the subject of this article), to a full head, face, and body covering (burqa, niqab). The Afghan burqa, for example, covers the entire head, face, and body and has webbing or grille work over the eyes that allows the wearer no peripheral vision. Another version of the burqa exists (or existed) among Arabs in southern Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar, which covers the mouth, part of the forehead and lower jaw, and the head. The niqab can cover the entire face with a small space cut out for the eyes. It can also cover the lower face, but leave more room for the eyes. In Saudi Arabia, women wear the burqa and the niqab in a variety of forms. The chador (in Iran) and the abaya (in Saudi Arabia) are not synonymous with a face-covering. In Iran, women do go in public with their faces unveiled. Add-ons to the chador and abaya may cover the face, especially in Saudi Arabia. Many online websites offer examples of these garments.

It is arguable that the full body and face cover is not a religious requirement in Islam but represents a minority tradition among a small Islamist minority; that it is not a matter of free choice but a highly forced choice and a visual Islamist symbol—one that is ostentatiously anti-secularist and misogynist;[10] that the Western state does have an interest in public appearances and, therefore, does not permit public nudity or masked people in public buildings; and that it is strange that the very feminists (or their descendents) who once objected to the sexual commoditification of women “can explain to you with the most exquisitely twisted logic why miniskirts and lip gloss make women into sexual objects, but when it comes to a cultural practice, enforced by terror, that makes women into social nonentities, [they] feel that it is beneath [their] liberal dignity to support a ban on the practice.”[11] To this may be added that face-veil wearers (“good” girls) endanger all those who do not wear a face veil (“bad” girls). But before addressing these arguments at greater length, it is instructive to see what political and religious leaders in the Muslim world, as well as Muslim women, have to say about the issue.

The House of Islam Unveils Its Women

The forced veiling and unveiling of Muslim women, both in terms of the headscarf and the face veil, ebbed and flowed for about a century as Muslim elites strove to come to terms with the demise of the Islamic political order that had dominated the Middle East (and substantial parts of Asia and Europe) for over a millennium. Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, for example, generated a new and vibrant brand of nationalism that sought to extricate Turkey from its imperial past—and its Islamic legacy—and to reconstitute it as a modern nation state. Iran’s Reza Shah distanced his country from Islam for the opposite reason, namely, as a means to link his family to Persia’s pre-Islamic imperial legacy, which is vividly illustrated by his adoption of the surname Pahlavi, of ancient Persian origins,[12] and the name Iran, or “[the land] of the Aryans,” as the country’s official title in all formal correspondence.[13]

During the 1920s and 1930s, in this new international environment, kings, shahs, and presidents unveiled their female citizens, and Muslim feminists campaigned hard for open faces in public. They were successful in Egypt, Lebanon, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Turkey, Pakistan, and Iran, to name but a few countries.

As early as 1899, the Egyptian intellectual Qasim Amin published his landmark book The Liberation of Women, which argued that the face veil was not commensurate with the tenets of Islam and called for its removal.[14] According to photographs taken by Annie Lady Brassey in Egypt in the 1870s, Egyptian women wore heavy, dark coverings with full niqab (face covering) or partial niqab when possible.[15] In 1923, the feminist Hoda Hanim Shaarawi, who established the first feminist association that called for uncovering the face and hair, became the first Egyptian woman to remove her face veil or niqab.[16] In the following decades, the veil gradually disappeared in Egypt, so much so that in 1958, a foreign journalist wrote that “the veil is unknown here.”[17]

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