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?