burka1shorts

During the whole Stephen Harper burqa or nikab (face covering worn by some Muslim women) controversy, friends and acquaintances often asked me my opinion on the matter. I assume this is because I write about political and social issues. But it is likely also due to the fact that I am of Middle Eastern origin and was raised by Muslim parents.

While I do have an opinion on the matter I have purposely stayed away from the topic for a few reasons. The main reason is that I am not a proponent of identity politics and am not really able to comment on, or even think about, single issue politics (in this case, “women’s issues”) without a broader look at the political, economic, and geo-political factors involved. Second, as a staunch critic of Empire,  I cannot comment on the issue without eventually commenting on the history of imperialism in the Muslim world, and that may get a bit wordy for some people’s tastes (and for a single article).

Moreover, I would not want my personal opinion on the burqa to be unwittingly used—as some female Muslim commentators’ views have been—to feed or justify some disingenuous imperial pretext of opposing and destabilizing Muslim countries in part to “liberate” oppressed Muslim women. As noted scholar and author Leila Ahmed argued in her work entitled “The Discourse of the Veil,” western imperialists (she was writing about the British Empire in Egypt) do not care about women’s rights anywhere, including in their own countries. They simply use the liberation of veiled Muslim women as part of an excuse to invade, occupy and exploit certain nations. [1] 

I. My Views on Burqas (as a secular or non-practicing Muslim) [2]

The third reason I had stayed away from this topic is because my personal opinion may offend some people. But writers should not censor their writing simply to avoid possible offense. This is an issue that women from Muslim cultures, especially, should comment on. So here it is. As a woman and a human being, I am philosophically opposed to the burqa. At the same time, I am uncertain about using the Law to restrict it. One can be opposed to something but still respect others’ choice to do it, I guess. In the case where women are forced to cover their face, such as in countries like Saudi Arabia, I am wholly opposed to the practice. And where women consciously choose to cover their face, I feel it may be a misguided choice.

For me the trouble with the burqa is that, unlike the covering of the head and hair with the veil or hijab, the burqa erases one’s identity and humanity. People without a face, symbolically, cease to exist as individuals.

Whether it is worn in western countries or in the Middle East, for me, the burqa or nikab is just too “extreme,” and it makes me quite uncomfortable, not least because of what it connotes–faceless women without an identity or public presence. While it may be intended to reduce the sexual objectification of women, the burqa results in a different type of objectification altogether, for a faceless human being all in black garb, becomes little more than a moving object in black. As the Billy Idol song–which is based on a French horror film–goes: “Eyes without a face; you’ve got no human grace…” While Idol did not have the burqa in mind when he wrote those words, for me, the burqa is at once both dehumanizing and objectifying.

Moreover, it is debated among many Muslims whether the burqa is actually part of Islam. The burqa it is not explicitly specified in the Quran and may be traced back to Wahhabi (a very orthodox and oppressive, especially to women, form of Islam found in Saudi Arabia) Muslim hadith, a saying by a Muslim scholar or apostle (I am not a scholar or expert on Islam, if I am wrong, please correct me). There are many Muslims who do not support the idea and practice of the burqa. My own father, who was an observant Muslim, was categorically opposed to the burqa (but not to the hijab or head scarf).

It is interesting, and ironic, to note that the burqa is not allowed to be worn during Hajj in Saudi Arabia.[3]  Hajj is the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, where Muslims walk around the  Kaaba (among other things). If it is not allowed in what Muslims consider be the most holy of places, why is it acceptable (and in some countries forced) in public places?

Whether I am in downtown Cairo or downtown New York, when I see a woman covered from head to toe in all black, with nothing showing but her yes, I get uneasy. It is just too much and too out of context, especially in non-Muslim countries and especially for official or business interactions; and it is not Islamophobic to say that. One might expect to see it in a mosque or some other religious space (umm, except for Hajj, that is) but it is just too “extreme,” for lack of a better word, for Sunday afternoon at the grocery store or while taking a stroll in a city park.

II: Burqas and Butt cheeks: Two Sides of an Extreme Coin

butt cheeks-grocery   bums2

At same time, I feel the exact same way about strolling down the street or through the grocery store and seeing a woman in shorts so short that I can see her butt cheeks literally hanging out of the shorts, or in tights so tight (i.e., the infamous yoga pants) that she appears to be nude or to be wearing body paint. I am prepared for and okay with this on a beach or at a nightclub, but in certain day-to-day contexts (i.e., at the grocery store, while having a business lunch on a patio, etc.) it is just too “extreme” and, much like the burqa, it makes me feel uncomfortable. This is where I may lose some readers, but stay with me for a moment as I explain.

While on the surface burqas and exposed butt cheeks are polar opposites, what they share in common is that they are both just too much for day-to-day life. Moreover, while the former may seem oppressive to women and the latter a sign of female liberation, I feel that both ultimately serve to overly objectify women, reducing them either to sinful bodies (and faces) to be covered up or sexual objects to be overly exposed. While they do so in opposite ways, by tending towards an extreme obsession or emphasis on the female form, both end up reducing women to the physical.

When I see a woman in a burqa, it is hard to see (literally and figuratively) the human being behind the veil. And when I see a woman or teen “super exposed” or overly sexualized at the grocery store or in the mall, it is hard to see the human being beyond the flesh. That is not to say that sexy attire does not have a time and place, as a woman I feel it does. But in the wrong context (the class room, a public space, etc) it can be a bit much. Beyond the beach or night club, shorts that look like underwear are just too in your face.

In the end, both the burqa and the public display of butt cheeks represent extremes that can make onlookers uncomfortable, albeit in very different ways. They each lack a sense of moderation or balance that ironically situates them at two sides of an extreme coin.

As I said at the beginning of this post, as a broad spectrum observer and a staunch critic of Empire, I am not keen to comment on the issue without also looking at the broader picture, and the politico-historical context of radicalization, etc. I will leave it here for now, but in a future post I will discuss the role of western imperialism–allied with countries like Saudi Arabia–in the rise of radical or fundamentalist Islam (and how this was done partly in an effort to undermine Russia-the Soviet Union, partly to appease the Wahhabi oil hegemon Saudi Arabia, partly to shore up Israel’s agenda and its status as the only self-proclaimed democratic country in the region, partly to destabilize the region and disrupt Arab unity, partly to redraw the map of the Middle East, partly to spark  a “clash of civilizations”, partly to stunt Arab development, self-reliance and secularism, etc ).

Stay tuned…

 

Notes

[1] The same is true today. Liberating women (from the burqa, etc) was part of the pretext for invading Afghanistan after 9/11; yet the women there are as veiled as ever at present.

[2] Some argue that there is no such thing as a secular/non-practicing Muslim or secular/non-practicing Christian or Jew, etc, since the act of not-practicing makes one not of the religion. That debate is beyond the scope of this article. Perhaps the term is “cultural Muslim”, since religious practices and events (such as a religious holiday and the cultural events associated with it), do culturally impact on a secular person’s life if they are from an observant family, community, country, etc.

[3] …”if she was wearing Niqab, the one with the openings for the eyes during the Hajj and gloves, then in this case she committed what we call something of Mahdthurat Al-Ihram ‘things that a Muhrim or the pilgrim should not do…'” http://www.justaskislam.com/169/can-women-wear-niqab-at-hajj/

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