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Why Banning The Burqa Is A Step Towards Women's Liberation

24/12/2015 8:11 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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A woman wearing a burqa talks on a mobile phone during the 'Uprising in the Muslim World' Khilafah Conference 2011 in Sydney on July 3, 2011. Around 1,000 Australian Muslims attended the conference hosted by the controversial Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir which called for the creation of a global caliphate or Islamic government. AFP PHOTO / Torsten BLACKWOOD (Photo credit should read TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP/Getty Images)

This November, Switzerland followed in the footsteps of France and overwhelmingly voted to ban the burqa in the region of Ticino, instating a £6,500 fine for women who continued to wear this garment. As expected, accusations of Islamophobia have started flying thick and fast, and my fellow feminists will probably soon be writing editorials on the right to choose. I beg to differ. I don't think that wearing a burqa is a viable choice at all.

A symbol of oppression, not identity

The burqa to me is neither a cultural or religious symbol nor a simple piece of clothing. It doesn't form a part of somebody's identity because you cannot identify a person whose face cannot be seen. It reduces women to cargo -- Muslim cargo if you will. It only identifies human bodies as Muslim women. There was a time in India when untouchability was practiced, and traditional sweepers would walk around with a broom tied on their back like a tail. It was meant to identify them as "low caste."

"[The burqa] doesn't form a part of somebody's identity because you cannot identify a person whose face cannot be seen. It reduces women to cargo -- Muslim cargo if you will."

A woman saying that the burqa is part of who she is the same as the "untouchable" sweepers of yore saying that the broom tied to them is a part of their identity. Imagine if Dalit activists argued: "Let's give them the right to choose whether they want the broom to be tied on their back or not. Banning the practice is Dalitophobia!"

Let's call a spade a spade. Let's call the burqa what it really is -- a horribly regressive religious practice meant to oppress women. It is a symbol of violence. We banned Sati. We should ban the burqa. Both are forms of violence, albeit in varying degrees. Sure, the burqa cannot kill someone, but is that an argument? Should we condone violence that doesn't kill?

As feminists we always look at the "history of oppression" or the "historical context" of rituals and practices. That's why we believe that even though Karva Chauth appears harmless today, its historical context and origins mark it as an oppressive practice. This argument magically disappears when it comes to the burqa, which is quickly dissociated from its origin and historical context and seen merely as a cultural symbol, a piece of clothing, a woman's identity embraced by her for ages. Strange inconsistency in arguments.

Right to choose a regressive practice but no option to give it up?

The other argument, and the most common one, is that of choice: "A ban is not the solution let's give women the right to choose whether to wear it or not." But I thought that choice was already there, right? After all there is no law in any secular democratic country that declares "all women must wear a burqa"; this means that wearing one is a woman's choice. But what have they done with that choice? It is 2015, women are still wearing it. Shouldn't they be giving it up already? Why are they still wearing it? Either they really, really love it, which would mean they derive masochistic pleasure from oppressing themselves or that they are brainwashed and socially pressured to do so.

Even if we accept that it is a matter of choice for some, what about others who don't have an option? What about those women who want to get rid of the burqa but are unable to do so because they do not have a law to back them? What choice do they have? Their only recourse is to beg and plead with their male guardians to allow them to give it up. If these powerful male members don't allow her to discard the burqa, what can she really do? She can't very well drag them to a police station.

It is like marital rape. Women feel violated by it, but can't do anything about it because it is not yet considered a crime. We seek to ban marital rape. But when it comes to banning the burqa, we think it should be left to a vague, volatile and highly speculative idea of women's free choice.

"What about those women who want to get rid of the burqa but are unable to do so? What choice do they have?"

Some people assume that Muslim women love the burqa and will be devastated if they are not allowed to wear it at all times. Others assume all Muslim women hate it and are happy to be liberated from it. Which assumption is true, nobody can tell. So shouldn't we go with the one that is likely to bring some positive change rather than the one which is likely to maintain the status quo? The argument, however, seems to be "let's give some of them the "choice"to continue with a regressive practice, but let's not give any of them the option to get rid of it.

So if a woman wants to wear the burqa, she has blessings from all quarters -- religious extremists, moral police, self-appointed custodians of culture and delusional feminists who thinks it is her choice. But dare a woman decide to not wear one? Then she is left to her blasted fate and ability to negotiate.

The idea of choice itself is questioned by feminists on several occasion. We think we have a choice but choice is never free from context, social pressure and expectations. Women are rarely 100% free from social constructs to make a really independent choice. That's exactly why we counsel women who believe living in subjugation and tolerating violence is their duty and who claim they do so out of choice. Why does this rationale not apply to the burqa?

A burqa ban is not patriarchal

One argument against such a ban is that it is replacing one manifestation of patriarchy with another. How is it patriarchy? Patriarchy is when men hold the power to decide. In the case of a law made by referendum how is it patriarchy? It is replacing a religious insanity from primitive times by modern values.

The right to suffer violence?

Even assuming women can make a choice, there cannot be any question of choice in matters of violence and human rights violations. We don't give her a choice to decide if she is ok with domestic violence or rape or murder. Why does the question of choice only come up in the debate about burqas? Why not in case of other reforms?

"We are apologists for religious bigots who connect the burqa ban with an attack on their religion and then justify jihad and terrorism..."

Whenever laws that go against religious stupidity are made, they are met with resistance. The ban on Sati also met with resistance from Hindu fundamentalists. But reforms are important, we changed Hindu religious laws to give women equal share in property, we got rid of polygamy, we gave them grounds to divorce, we are talking about abolishing verbal triple talaq. Abolishing the burqa is an act of reform. We should embrace it.

No, banning it doesn't cause terrorism

Truth is we are scared to take the religious nuts head on. The debate over the burqa is muddied by the fear of hurting religious sentiments. We are apologists for bigots who connect the burqa ban with an attack on their religion and then justify jihad and terrorism by pointing fingers at the West. We live in the fear that if we attempt to reform their religious practices they will turn into terrorists in retaliation. No wonder France today is being blamed for the attacks. Well, bad news, the burqa ban is not causing terrorism -- please give the terrorists a little more credit than that.

To conclude, in Superland there were 100 women. Fifty of them loved wearing the burqa, and other 50 hated it. The President of Superland went ahead and banned the burqa. Fifty women wrote protest letters saying "we want choice to be regressive." Another 50 sent letters saying "thank you for releasing us." I am the President of Superland, and the next thing I'll ban is the ghoonghat that covers the face, followed by Karva Chauth!

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