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Ban the Burqa? The Argument in Favor

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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The Grounds for a Burqa Ban

There are a multitude of specific problems associated with the burqa and niqab. To begin, full-body and face-covering attire hides the wearer’s gender. In October 1937, Hajj Amin Husseini, mufti of Jerusalem and Adolf Hitler’s future ally, fled Palestine donning a niqab as did one of the July 2005 London bombers.[69] From a security point of view, face and body covering can facilitate various acts of violence and lawlessness from petty crime and cheating to terrorism. This danger, which has been highlighted by a number of experts, notably Daniel Pipes,[70] has been taken very seriously by Muslim authorities, who have banned the burqa on precisely these grounds.

In Bangladesh, the largest state-run hospital banned staff from wearing full-face burqas after an increase in thefts of mobile phones and wallets from hospital wards.[71] In a number of Egyptian universities, women were barred from covering their faces during midterm exams and were prohibited from wearing niqabs in female dormitories after it transpired that men had snuck in disguised as women.[72] Abu Dhabi, meanwhile, has banned the niqab in all public offices to fight “unrestricted absenteeism.”[73]

There are also numerous cases of bans for security. In Kuwait, for example, female drivers are barred from wearing the niqab for “security reasons.” The regulation came into effect about ten years ago when the authorities were pursuing sleeper terrorist cells and feared that individual cell members could use the niqab to slip through checkpoints unnoticed.[74] Saudi Arabia’s antiterrorism forces have begun a battle against the niqab after discovering that many “Islamic terrorists have used it to hide in order to commit terror attacks.”[75] These concerns are not difficult to understand given the widespread use of the burqa and niqab for weapons smuggling and terror attacks, including suicide bombings in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Palestinian territories, among other places.[76]

Beyond these abiding security considerations are equally compelling humanitarian considerations. André Gerin, a French parliamentarian, has described the burqa as a “moving prison.”[77] This is an apt definition: In a burqa, the wearer has no peripheral and only limited forward vision; hearing and speech are muffled; facial expressions remain hidden; movement is severely constrained. Often, no eye contact is possible; niqab wearers sometimes wear dark glasses, so that their eyes cannot be seen.

A burqa wearer may feel that she cannot breathe, that she might slowly be suffocating. She may feel buried alive and may become anxious or claustrophobic.[78] Just imagine the consequences of getting used to this as a way of life. But perhaps one never gets used to it. Many Saudi and Afghan women toss their coverings the moment they leave the country or enter their own courtyards.[79] For example, an unnamed Saudi princess describes her experience of the Saudi abaya as follows:

When we walked out of the cool souq area into the blazing hot sun, I gasped for breath and sucked furiously through the sheer black fabric. The air tasted stale and dry as it filtered through the thin gauzy cloth. I had purchased the sheerest veil available, yet I felt I was seeing life through a thick screen. How could women see through veils made of a thicker fabric? The sky was no longer blue, the glow of the sun had dimmed; my heart plunged to my stomach when I realized that from that moment, outside my own home I would not experience life as it really is in all its color. The world suddenly seemed a dull place. And dangerous, too! I groped and stumbled along the pitted, cracked sidewalk, fearful of breaking an ankle or leg.”[80]

The burqa is harmful not only to the wearer but to others as well. The sight of women in burqas can be demoralizing and frightening to Westerners of all faiths, including Muslims, not to mention secularists. Their presence visually signals the subordination of women. Additionally, the social isolation intrinsically imposed by the burqa may also be further magnified by the awkward responses of Westerners. Several Ivy League college students mentioned that classmates in burqas and dark, thick gloves make them feel “very sad,” “pushed away,” “uneasy about talking to them.” “When one woman is asked to read aloud, she does so but her heavy gloves make turning the pages slow and difficult.” The students feel sorry for her and do not know how to relate to her.[81]

A burqa wearer, who can be as young as ten years old, is being conditioned to endure isolation and sensory deprivation. Her five senses are blocked, muted. Sensory deprivation and isolation are considered forms of torture and are used to break prisoners. Such abuse can lead to low self-esteem, generalized fearfulness, dependence, suggestibility, depression, anxiety, rage, aggression toward other women and female children, or to a complete psychological breakdown.

Wearing the burqa is also hazardous to the health in other ways. Lifetime burqa wearers may suffer eye damage and may be prone to a host of diseases that are also related to vitamin D deficiency from sunlight deprivation, including osteoporosis, heart disease, hypertension, autoimmune diseases, certain cancers, depression, chronic fatigue, and chronic pain. It is ironic that women in the Middle East, one of the world’s sunniest regions, have been found in need of high levels of vitamin D supplementation owing to their total covering.[82]

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