The following question was put to me today:
“Himmat, I’m talking to a friend and he says that we should ban burqas because they are oppression. It’s wrong but I don’t really have the words to say to him.”
Oh baby, do I have the words.
First, this is not the first time I have been asked this question and given the content of some of those prior conversations, I want to make a few things clear so that we are all talking about the same thing:
These five items of clothing are four different things. The first two are burqas (the black one without a veil covering the eyes and the lighter silk one with the eye covering), the third is a hijab (and such a beautiful one at that), the fourth is a chunni and the last is my dastar or turban. The first three are items that mainly Muslim women wear. A chunni is worn by many women of many different faiths and even by some who profess no particular faith. The dastar is generally worn by people of the Sikh faith, both men and women. So, now that we know what we are actually talking about, let’s continue.
The most immediate issue to me – this is a male wanting to ban burqas, generally a form of clothing worn by women and girls because HE has decided that they represent oppression. He has good intentions (to liberate women from oppression by passing a law), he does and he’s a good guy who genuinely cares about personal freedoms (oh the irony).
Here’s the thing, guys. No.
That’s right. No. No, you do not get to decide what a woman wears. You do not get to decide that a woman needs to wear more clothing and you do not get to decide that a woman needs to wear less clothing. Those choices do not belong to you. Those choices belong to individual women.
Moving on to the burqas and hijabs. Yes, some women are forced by their husbands, fathers, brothers, and even their mothers, aunties and sisters into wearing these items of clothing. That’s oppression and oppression is wrong (more on that later). But some wear it because they want to. That’s right. They want to. Speaking to actual Muslim women who wear burqas (surprise! You can learn a lot of things by engaging in actual conversations with people who are in the know), they have a variety of reasons that they choose to wear burqas. Some have told me that they feel most connected to their faith and Allah in the burqa, others have said that they are extremely uncomfortable with men looking at them, others quote wanting to be modest and still others have told me that it is what they are comfortable with. There are also many women who choose NOT to wear burqas or hijabs, also for a variety of reasons. Don’t take it from me – read their own eloquent words here: Oumkheyr, Why we wear hijab, Why I Hate the Burqa, Muslim Women in Canada
Whatever their reason to wear the items or not, it is their choice. I stand behind a woman’s right to choose whatever clothing she wishes to wear.
I may or may not agree that a burqa can forge a closer connection to God. I definitely agree that if a man is ogling and leering, it is his fault and his issue and that I should not and will not change my clothes to accommodate his lack of self-control. I may or may not agree that a burqa is the best way to be modest or that they are comfortable. My agreement does not matter. Her choice is what matters and her choice is what I will give my life to support.
That includes supporting the fight against oppression of women everywhere, no matter the form that oppression takes. While I will support a woman’s right to choose to wear a burqa, I will also support my sisters who do not choose it but are forced or coerced into wearing it. It’s not a one-or-the-other situation because the issue is not the burqa. The issue is that some men believe that they can or must exert control over women.
Banning the burqa does not address the issue of oppression and therefore does nothing to liberate and stand up for the rights of women, as well intentioned as the idea may be to some (more on the other side of that later). It’s actually just another form of oppression. It is “we know best and we will tell you what to do”, classic, patronizing oppression. So no. Knock it off.
Another issue that arises is that we think we know best in the West. We’re just that freakin’ advanced that we should tell the world what to do to be as progressed and free as we are. Yeah, I’m going to have to say no to that as well.
It wasn’t that long ago when women in the west were told to wear dresses and skirts by the patriarchy. A woman in dungarees/pants/trousers challenged the status quo and was seen as dangerous, unprofessional, or even a criminal. In 1919, Louisa Capetillo was imprisoned for the crime of wearing pants in Costa Rica. Hillary Clinton is the first U.S. First Lady to have worn pants for her official portrait and only in 1993 were women permitted to wear pants on the U.S. Senate floor. 1993, people. 1993 and the patriarchy was still telling women what they could and could not wear. I was fired from my first job in 1984 for showing up to answer phones in a pant suit – a professional, clean, pressed pant suit that I purchased specifically for work from my tiny, little pay cheque only to be fired for wearing it. Even today, it is often taken as an insult to tell a husband that his wife “wears the pants” in a marriage and girls are still told what to wear to school so as not to cause distraction for the boys. Then there is this guy and the awesome reaction he generated: The Yoga Pants Parade
And the control over our bodies and our personal choices extends well beyond our clothing. We still have a substantial pay equity gap in the all-knowing, liberated, free West. Too many women have their physical bodies and health regulated by the state who allow abortions or do not allow them or allow only limited access to them. Some are told that birth control is a sin and that prescription birth control will not be covered by patronizing employers who believe they know better and wish to force that belief on the women who work for them.
The honest, whole truth is that, no, we DON’T know best. Not even close. That little nugget of truth might be a little hard to choke down but we have to do it. Though we have come a long way since women in the West have been allowed to wear pants, we still have a long row to hoe in regards to ending the oppression of women and ensuring their rights are as full as and equal to our brothers. So rather than diverting attention by focusing on what the ladies wear, let’s cut through the crap and face the real issue – equality.
Because I’ve had this discussion, a lot, let me just stop one particularly disturbing argument that is sometimes made for banning the burqa – that it is a security issue.
“I can’t just walk into a bank with a balaclava on!”, “Their faces are covered which disguises their identity!”, “They could commit any crime with that thing on!”, “THEY should adapt to OUR culture.”
Nope. That is Islamophobia at its finest. It is pure b.s. and we know it. Because we know that the truth is that you can walk into a bank with a balaclava on. You just can’t do it with the intention of or actually robbing the bank. That would be a crime. You can’t do that in a burqa either. It would be exactly the same crime.
A burqa does not disguise a person’s identity either because clothing is not the identity of a person. A person’s identity is (in terms of today’s technology) in their DNA, their fingerprints, their irises and on their faces. Covering the face in public does not prevent identification. Simple, straight-forward accommodations are available which would allow for facial and other forms of ID.
And crimes… really? Crimes are committed every single day in the West by people in skirts and pants, baseball caps and hoodies, sneakers and dress shoes, suits and uniforms. Should we ban baseball caps because they are a popular way of hiding a face from a security camera? Should we ban suits because bankers committed millions in fraud that led to the most recent financial crisis? Should we ban police uniforms because an officer murdered an unarmed, mentally ill black man? That argument holds exactly no water.
Do I have to explain how the last argument – that THEY should adapt – is also illogical and full of holes? Really? Okay… what culture are we talking about here that we must all adapt to? The multitude of aboriginal cultures that existed in the Americas before white folks arrived? The hip hop culture that has become popular? Alaskan wilderness, back country culture? New York City or L.A.? White culture, Hispanic, or African-American? Blue collar or white? The truth is that there is no such thing as a uniform, coherent, cohesive western culture and that is beautiful. We are incredibly different and, for most, free to be different. Diversity IS our culture and what makes us strong.
It’s okay to admit that we are uncomfortable with burqas. It’s even okay to admit that we are afraid of them. The cure for discomfort and fear has always been, still is education. To learn more (actual facts and not presumptions, myths and rumours) about the things that make us uncomfortable or afraid is to conquer our own limitations. What is not okay is oppressing women by banning them because we are uncomfortable or afraid.
A peaceful, democratic society based in real freedom demands no less of us.
Peace and love all,