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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Saturday, May 1, 2010

The dichotomy of the burkha

It turns women into highly potent symbols of the faith even as it renders them invisible

The incessant coverage of the Ban-the-Burkha row that erupted after President Nicolas Sarkozy spoke in favour of outlawing the offending garment in France and the decision of the Belgian Parliament to outlaw the burkha in public, put me in mind of an email that a friend forwarded to me a few months back.

There was a photo attached to it, featuring a group of eight women, standing in front of a shopping mall, while a young man crouched in front of them with a camera, all set to take their picture. All the women were wearing black burkhas so the only thing you could see of them was their eyes peering out from behind the nikab.

The caption of the photograph read: What is the point of this picture?

Call me politically incorrect – or something stronger, if you will – but I must confess that the mail made me chuckle.

I mean, seriously, what is the point of clicking someone’s picture if you can’t even see who it is in the photograph? And given that there was no way to tell who the women were behind the burkhas, why bother with a picture at all?

Surely, the point of holiday snapshots is that we can look at ourselves later and relive the memories of days spent on vacation. But is there any point of taking a picture in which you can’t identify anyone in the frame?

See, that’s the thing about the burkha.

It robs a woman of her identity the moment she puts it on. In a sense, it turns her into a non-person, cloaking her in anonymity, rendering her all but invisible in society.

But that’s just on one level. On another, it also makes a woman more visible than ever. She may be obscured from our view as an individual but as a symbol she becomes more evocative than ever.

And as a symbol she evokes myriad responses. To some, she is a vision of the purity of Islam. To some, she is an embodiment of the medieval obscurantism that plagues that religion. And to some others, she is simply a victim of gender injustice.

The image she presents is more political than it is personal. And that’s because in a very real sense, we don’t actually see the woman beneath the burkha – she is devoured by the imagery that her dress conjures up in our minds.

And that, in some ways, is the central dichotomy of the burkha. On the one hand, it bestows anonymity on women and on the other it turns them into visible and potent symbols.

There are many layers to the burkha debate. Muslim women may claim – as many do – that they wear it out of choice. That they feel safe behind its all-enveloping embrace. That it is their choice to cover themselves just as many Western women choose to reveal themselves in public. But for every woman who says and believes all this, there are many who are forced into wearing it because of parental or societal

So, should a government ban this garment from public life so that those women who do not desire to wear the burkha don’t have to?

There really are no easy answers to that one. There are feminists who will argue for one position and liberals who will make a convincing case for the other. And both will have compelling arguments to buttress their beliefs.

But even though at a visceral level I believe that no government should legislate what women should or should not wear, I have a sneaking sympathy for Sarkozy’s view of the matter.

Because what the French President is talking about has as much to do with women’s rights and gender equality as it does with the right of a nation state to define its own cultural mores and its societal values, to create its own distinct identity which all citizens are expected to conform to.

Calling the burkha a sign of subservience rather than a sign of religion, Sarkozy told the French Parliament: “It will not be welcome on French soil. We cannot accept in our country, women imprisoned behind a mesh, cut off from society, deprived of all identity. This is not the French Republic’s idea of women’s dignity.”

And quite frankly, I can’t see much wrong with that statement. Shouldn’t France have a right to stand up for the cultural values it believes in and which are enshrined in its Constitution?

Think about it. If a French woman were to be seen in a sleeveless blouse or even with no headscarf in such Islamic states as Saudi Arabia and Iran, she would be arrested by the religious police and thrown into jail.

The rules in these countries are very clear. If women want to visit or live here they have to follow these rules – or else. Even the intrepid Christiane Amanpour has to cover her head with a scarf when she is reporting from Iran.

Everyone falls in line when it comes to respecting the cultural mores of Islamic states. So, why this hue and cry if Western countries try to impose their own cultural ethos on immigrant communities that have made their home in their midst?

After all, rather than being stigmatized as outsiders, these communities are being asked to assimilate, to respect the host culture, to become one with it rather than flaunt themselves as the Other.

What could possibly be wrong with that?


Anonymous said...

Great views Seema, and put together really well. But even when they say that they wear it coz they feel safe behind them, it shows how unsafe we feel out in the open. It is again a kind of societal pressure forcing them to cover themselves.

Burqas are just a lame way to make you feel safe. Question here is the same old one, why can't we feel safe the way we are and the way we want to be?

shonit said...

Hi Seema,

Your views on the topic are so bang on target! There are 2 views which are perfectly logical and I think most of us will agree on both solutions. Here are just my view on the topic

Yes, once we live in a foreign country, it is right to follow the cultures and traditions of the host. You don't need to follow all of them (the opposite is a popular belief) but you shouldn't have a problem either. You are an alien in the country after all. Same problem faced when Indian parents abroad want their kids to be more Indian than French/English or American. Why stay in such an environment when you cannot adjust with it? It's same as the old saying of have one's cake and eat it too. If you so strongly believe in your customs and traditions that are disliked by a larger community in the host nation, then sorry. Pack your bags and go back home! When in Saudi Arabia, all foreign nationals, especially woman are told to wear their traditional clothes and they oblige (hopefully you also received an email on Japanese woman wearing burkha and clicking pictures :)). Christiane Amanpour did it? She doesn't seem to have a problem with it isn't it? The reason being we respect such openness more than the Arabs? We are willing to bend our comfort zone because we know that at the end of it I am still an Indian, American, Japanese? Why doesn't this go well with the Arabs in general? Yes the question is about female rights and not to be treated as a second class citizens but then thats how they lived like that all there lives. Same is the case with Indian women just that they wore colorful sarees. They may have misinterpreted the Quran about to treat a women because when I was in UAE, I realized that in order to ask a lady for a cup of tea, the way you have to ask for her permissions is so delicate and wonderful. I think there is just a class of citizens in the world that don't evolve their customs and traditions with changing times (and places). I believe, let them be like that until there is no harm done on a person or the society. Let them wear their burkhas if they like (maybe like a hybrid model which pacifies both the Arabs and French govt, maybe Gucci can style it ;)) and if they are being forced on someone then deport them or jail them. Banning anything is no solution as there are Muslims that are French citizens. France was made for French people and their customs but then there was no concept of immigration back then. Things have changed so should the mindset of people and the rules and regulations too to accommodate globalization . I think now we should write on the situation in India. Our beloved president is just short of covering her face with the Saree's 'padar' ;) although Indian women covering their and almost there faces is very much rampart in India too. But we have no complains against that as they are sarees not Burkhas.