The Burqa and Individual Rights: It’s Complicated

“Burqa bans” are arising throughout Europe, with France voting their approval this past Tuesday. But many are concerned that the prohibitions limit the individual rights of Muslims.

It’s complicated.

First, the garment itself limits individual rights – women’s. Second, to what extent is the burqa wearer exercising actual choice? Finally, is a ban the best way to go?

Let’s start with the question of women’s choice.

When a society’s way of seeing becomes our own – even when it harms us – the belief is “internalized.” My interest in this phenomenon was sparked by my upbringing. In the early years of the feminist movement women from my church were bused to various conventions to vote down things like equal pay for equal work. I spent afternoons listening to women in my church talk about keeping battered women’s shelters from opening. They were against women receiving priesthood authority, and they were for male leadership in the home.

I didn’t understand why they worked so hard to disempower themselves, their daughters, and other women. But people don’t tend to question the taken-for-granted notions of their culture. It’s simply what you do.  So choice disappears.

The same phenomenon arises in other settings. Saudi women say they don’t want to vote or drive. Many 19th Century American women didn’t want the vote, either. In North Africa women defend the genital mutilations that kill and cripple them.

Burqas limit women’s autonomy and power. Yet some women voluntarily don them, keeping with their culture.

Burqas – or niqabs (face coverings) – prevent wearers from gaining driver’s licenses when they are strictly worn, since identity can’t be confirmed via picture ID. When a city or village lacks public transportation it is hard to get around without a car. That makes it tough to get a job.

Even with transportation it’s not easy finding work in a facemask. The mask seems dehumanizing and eerie, as does the subjugation it represents.

But ethnocentrism is thought weightier than sexism. “Isms” that affect men seem more important than those that affect women – even when women are harmed, as when a female German judge denied a Muslim woman’s appeal for divorce, claiming that being beaten was part of her culture. 

Did women have equal power to create the cultures that harm them?

Some women do resist, but feel pressured, as one of my Muslim students told me when we discussed the matter of covering.

But bans may not be the best way to deal with burqas or niqabs. Bans can backfire since people cling more tightly to their groups when they feel persecuted. As restrictions go into effect more women might actually embrace the burqas that limit them.

A better way may lie in creating conversation so that different cultures can consider a variety of perspectives. I am sure that Westerners and Muslims can learn from each other and our different ways of seeing.

Georgia Platts

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5 Responses

  1. Well Georgia, I am so very glad you brought it up. Let’s start with the question of women’s choice – I agree women don’t tend to question the taken-for-granted notions of their culture and choice disappears.

    What galls me is our culture, our liberal women who have gone over to the antithesis and actually think that was and is their choice. What started out as liberation from being told to cover up has resulted in our 8 year olds walking around looking like hookers and here we sit talking about Burka’s?

    About 30 years ago I started my thesis -The Sexualization of America: Taking women from Apron strings to G-strings.

    Our children over the course of the last 30 years have been normalized by the media – by everything around them – and everywhere they look-and everything they read or hear tothink of females more and more as sexual objects.

    So- how is that any different from the original subject? It isn’t! In one culture we cover it up because we are ashamed of and punish the objectification and sexualization of the female and in the other we cast caution to the winds and celebrate that our females are objects of pleasure.

    But back to your question- can we open a dialog regarding different ways of seeing? Sure but only if we allow in the perspective I just added and seek to eliminate objectification completely. This is not a matter of religion this is a matter of misogyny and sexism.

    • I understand your point I do..but we can’t compare Muslim girls who are forced to cover under threat of life to girls who uncover because of things like peer pressure and media advertisement.

      The debate is about choice NO?
      Who has the choice?
      Hand in hand with the covering up of the female is a long list of human rights violations that need to be addressed right along side the covering up debate.
      While I detest both forms of objectivity I honor the choice of the girl to say NO and I speak for the girl who has NO choice.
      As with all it’s about education. We can in a free society educate our daughters on their sexuality. But how do educate a daughter when your sexuality is what oppresses you?

  2. …I didn’t understand why they worked so hard to disempower themselves, their daughters, and other women.”

    Hello! Because the MEN insist they do to gain favor with them. These are caring people who don’t wish to upset their men…until one day the veil of stupidity is ripped from their eyes as they discover their men playing them for fools.

  3. I am trying my best here but this is hard.

    .
    “Burqas – or niqabs (face coverings) – prevent wearers from gaining driver’s licenses when they are strictly worn, since identity can’t be confirmed via picture ID.

    An ID? Where are you talking about? It’s hard to follow your “Culture theory” when you don’t identify if the Muslim woman lives in an Islamic country whereas women have no rights because her religion enforces the “state laws” of Shariah or if your talking about Muslim women in non Islamic countries who have no rights because of their religion but do have rights because the state gives them rights and there is no Shariah law.
    If you’re talking about Islamic countries. Women can not drive for a host of reasons..an ID is the least of them.
    Why Saudi women can’t drive…
    A report on Saudi Arabia by the UN’s Committee on Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, which contains the responses from a Saudi delegation to various questions posed by the Committee.

    It’s fairly heavy going (if you’re feeling ambitious it’s available online), a section towards the end where the delegation helpfully explain why women are forbidden to drive in Saudi Arabia:

    “With regards to the issue of driving, in the early stages of Islam, there were no cars, and women rode camels or donkeys, and participated in all walks of life. This was history, and could not be forgotten. The matter was not related to Sharia.(BS) However, the problem was not related to the laws of the State, it was a matter for society. When people and the mentality are ready, then women would be allowed to drive cars. Once there was a need for women to drive, then it would be permitted. The Government was worried about women, and this was why those who were responsible were against the idea of women driving cars.”

    (Worried about women Yeah sure)

    Since women in many Islamic countries are denied an education and are forbidden to travel without a male family escort driving with or without a burqua is not one of their problems. Read it as there is NO need for women to drive because driving requires skills that women do not possess.

    Again, where are we talking about when you say
    “Some women do resist, but feel pressured, as one of my Muslim students told me when we discussed the matter of covering.”

    Feeling pressure in a Islamic country is very different ie “the religious police” than peer pressure or family pressure in a free country.
    Please identify where the Muslim woman lives it may make it easier to understand.

  4. Wishing for a dialogue but I am only responding
    to myself.

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