Bismillah

The burka is not a religious problem, it’s a question of liberty and women’s dignity. It’s not a religious symbol, but a sign of subservience and debasement. I want to say solemnly, the burka is not welcome in France. In our country, we can’t accept women prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity. That is not our idea of freedom.” – Nicolas Sarkozy.

Here we go again. After the hue and cry following the comments made by Jack Straw in 2006, another political statement made very publicly by a notable politician in Europe has sent the Muslim Ummah into a defensive global backlash and rhetoric. As for the tremendous vocal support Sarkozy’s comments have garnered, both from non-Muslims and secular-minded Muslims, it is indeed a shame, a staggeringly startling shame, for people who claim to be champions of ‘freedom’ and ‘equality’, to support any kind of ban on an individual’s choice of dress.

niqabi

Whether a woman chooses to don the burka out of cultural factors or religious ones, – what difference does it make? She is making a conscious choice to clad herself in this garment. For the onlookers to assume that she was oppressed into wearing it just screams of naïveté and a purported facade of concern. Also, if the burka is restrictive and isolating, isn’t that the wearer’s prerogative? Since when is it ‘unacceptable’ for a woman to choose not to mingle with men or roam around freely sans outer garments? If that is her choice: to be home-bound, largely unidentified and covered-up; can we not let her be!?

Perhaps not being offended by one’s wife’s nude photographs being auctioned off for thousands of dollars speaks more aptly of ‘freedom’, liberty and the pièce de résistance: women’s “dignity”? Since when is it “dignified” to peel off a woman’s clothing and commoditize her body for the world to ogle and wow at as a piece of artwork? What if a woman chooses to do the absolute opposite i.e. wear layers of clothing that gives this clear message to men: “hands off”, “eyes off” and last but not least, “back off”? That is a sign of “subservience and debasement”? Subhan Allah!

British Muslim Ms. Saira Khan, who was extremely vocal of her views about the burka in the UK in 2006, and reiterated her stance this year after Nicolas Sarkozy’s comments, claims to have once tried it on and found it to be “the most horrid experience. It restricted the way I walked, what I saw, and how I interacted with the world. It took away my personality. I felt alienated and like a freak. It was hot and uncomfortable, and I was unable to see behind me, exchange a smile with people, or shake hands.”

There are many other dresses that are equally, if not more, uncomfortable for woman to wear; that never stopped them from wearing them, did it? Be it the hideous combination of garish angel-wings, gaudy underwear and monstrous boots that starved, underweight, so-called ‘icons’ of fashion strut on the catwalk amid scores of cameras (where are the champions of women’s dignity now? Oh sorry, they’re probably drooling too profusely to be able to talk!), or the bandage designer dresses that fitness-freak celebrities squeeze themselves into for public events, or the voluminous swathes of fabric that Eastern women meticulously fold around their bellies every day, accompanied by a clinging excuse-for-a-blouse, to go about their domestic duties in this traditional sari, taking pains and tolerating discomfort to carry off their preferred choice of dress is something women have been doing since centuries. Trust me, donning a full-length cloak over loose, comfortable clothing and tying a piece of cloth over your face is actually much easier to carry off than those male designers’ couture creations for women, that are supposed to send us into frenzied, money-busting jaunts of retail therapy. It seems while Ms. Khan did endeavor to don the burka for a television programme, she forgot to cast off the walls of prejudice and disdain from her mind before doing it.

Whenever any person, be they the likes of Muslims like Saira Khan, or of prominent world leaders such as Nicolas Sarkozy, claims to have problems with women cladding themselves in top-to-toe religious garb that covers them completely, it is actually their own innate issues, having to do with Muslim faith, Islamic identity and assimilation into foreign society for the purpose of worldly gains, wherein lies the crux of the problem. They are not concerned about women being oppressed by men in the name of religion, restricted physically in bodily movement and outdoor recreational activities, or isolated socially by these layers of cloth, or about not being ‘equal’ and ‘free’ to do whatever they want in society. They are confused as to how other women can persistently carry off a garment which they have chosen to throw off or refuse to wear.

It is actually a major slap in their face to see Muslim women having the so-called freedom to take off their burka’s and sprint about in clothes worn by the people of their country, but choose not to; for them to have the legal and social liberty to laugh and mingle freely with men, shaking hands and cracking jokes, but choose not to; for them to have the power to exploit their feminine sexuality to garner monumental worldly gains, but choose not to. At their wits’ end, they write emotionally-charged articles and make flambouyant statements about so-called equality, freedom, dignity and liberation of women, because they can just not fathom why a woman in her right mind would choose to dress this way.

And yet, with each passing year, more and more educated, free and liberal-minded women are choosing to dress this way. Women who grew up in the culture of parties, drinking, casual dating and random sex. Women with jobs, active love-lives, careers and money. Women with loving families, husbands and/or children. Isn’t it worthy of reflection why a woman would give up so much to don a garment that the world adamantly insists on banning?

I have been wearing the burka for several years now, and over this time, have gained the friendship of an increasing number of educated, confident and devout Muslim women who dress the same way, whether in the East or the West. While its true that we made a conscious choice to start wearing this garment, what is worthy of taking note is that just deciding to wear it is not the tough part. The tough part is dealing constantly with the skepticism, silent antagonism and outright hostility that other Muslims – yes, Muslims –  show us time and again when they see us performing our daily lives in public with this garment on. A small number among them, sadly, are also those modestly-dressed sisters who themselves wear hijab, whom we mix with at parties and weddings, who can’t seem to fathom why we haven’t given up on the face-veil yet. They sometimes criticize the burka too, because according to them, much like some claims made by non-Muslims, it is not ordained anywhere in the Quran; else, they consider it sufficient to meander out of having to wear it by quoting scholars and jurists who emphasize how it is not obligatory. There are many things Muslims do for the pleasure of Allah that are not obligatory, so where’s the argument, really?

We do not want to enforce our choice of wearing burka on other Muslim women; what we would, however, appreciate is to be left alone to wear it if we have chosen to.

And don’t pity us, please. Pity the botoxed, image-obssessed teenaged girl with the eating disorder, roaming around barely clothed on the beach, wondering if the sun is highlighting her cellulite, or if her body is in anyway less than perfect for the world to judge.

Further reading: Niqabi, Interrupted by Na’ima B. Robert, and The Niqab, Fact v. Fiction, by Fatima Barkatulla.

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