Late last week, I provoked a bit of a Twitter outcry by supporting the call (by Allison Pearson in the Daily Telegraph) for a burqa* ban.
I was accused of ignorance, of condemning a practice of which I know nothing. I was told that the burqa is a matter of personal choice and that by advocating the removal of that choice I was being illiberal, racist and oppressive. I was told to do my research before voicing my ‘ill-informed’ opinion in future.
Fair enough. I’ve spent the weekend reading countless arguments for and against the burqa, listening mainly to Muslim voices. I’ve read newspaper articles, blogs, comment streams, opinion pieces and watched televised debates. Some of the material I’ve read was sent to me by the very people who attacked me on Twitter, so I can safely assume it presents the definitive Islamic position. Now, having spent many hours immersed in the subject, I feel able to give my considered and informed view:
The burqa is a vile, degrading and oppressive garment that should be banned in Britain.
Being a little claustrophobic, the thought of being trapped in a mobile prison of black polyester fills me with horror. I struggle with over-warm clothes on hot days and can barely imagine the misery of a black tent over that clothing, especially were the heat of our gentle British summer to be magnified to that of Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan or Iran.
Wearing a burqa would mean never properly seeing the colours around me, experiencing birdsong or the wind in the trees as a muffled echo, not being able to smell flowers, the roasting of coffee or bread baking. It would mean never being able to run, swim in the ocean, cycle down a country lane, walk through the meadows with my dog, or chase my child around the park. It would mean not being able to dance in public, or eat in a restaurant without the revolting prospect of food smeared around my veil and face, having my every utterance coming back at me in a fetid haze of warm breath. It would mean being unable to communicate properly with the people around me, engendering distrust and intimidation simply by walking amongst my own kind.
Exactly this life is imposed upon millions of women around the world in the name of religious observance.
It is a false imposition. The burqa has no basis in the Quran. (I’m grateful to my Muslim correspondents for confirming that.) It has been described by British Muslim Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, a passionate anti-burqa campaigner, as ‘a perversion of (the) faith.’
Here’s the actual verse:
“O Prophet! Tell your wives and daughters, as well as all believing women, that they should draw over themselves some of their outer garments (when in public): this will be more conducive to their being recognised as decent women and not molested.” Quran 33 – 35
This is nothing more than a call for modest and appropriate dressing and, on this, I am 100% on the side of the prophet. Who doesn’t dread the sight of the middle-aged, male torso, tattooed and sun-burned, waddling along the sea front? What sensible woman doesn’t feel a moment of silent despair at footage of intoxicated girls, tottering along high streets in short, tight skirts and low-cut tops?
Greater modesty, of both men and women, would hugely benefit our western society, but modesty does not require a black shroud. I’m a big fan of the shalwar kameez, traditionally worn by women in south and central Asia. It is elegant, graceful, feminine and completely comfortable. (I have one, I know what I’m talking about) It can be dressed up with sequins and embroidery to express God-given individuality, or be in a somber, plain fabric for the less assuming. It protects from the sun (and in a heavier fabric from the cold too) Above all, covering as it does, the entire body apart from the hands, feet and face, it surely offers modesty enough to satisfy the most hardline Islamist.
But no, it doesn’t. Nor does the more moderate hijab. Hard-line fundamentalists will be happy with nothing less than the complete imprisoning of the female body because it says, as little else can, that a woman is inferior, deserving of a less full life. That a woman is the possession of a man, to be unwrapped by him alone. That a woman is a living embodiment of temptation to evil, and should be invisible in mainstream society.
This is the reality of the burqa in the world today.
And yet there are women in Britain who insist upon their right to wear it. I feel sure they must be few in number, but they are wheeled out whenever the issue is debated. These women, invariably young, intelligent and articulate, have made this choice for themselves and we are told that, in a free and liberal society, that choice must be respected.
Well, I won’t respect it. These young women are thinking only of their own rights and wishes. They are not considering either the impact upon the societies around them, the message they are sending around the world, or the suffering of others. “I don’t care how you feel,” said a disembodied voice below a pair of brown eyes in a video I watched. ‘I have a right to do this and I will.’
They are blinkered (literally) grasping at the rights that a free and liberal society bestows upon them, but refusing to recognize that such a society entails responsibilities as well. In free societies, the opinions of other people have to matter and, in the west, innumerable people find the sight of a veiled woman disturbing and intimidating. Society is an inevitable compromise between personal freedom and collective responsibilities. Most adults accept this. It is time these women started behaving like adults.
In this excellent article, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown lists sixteen reasons to object to the burqa and I agree with all of them:
For me, though, the most powerful argument should be that women who veil voluntarily are condoning the imposition of the burqa (the most obvious manifestation of the oppressive side of Islam) on millions of their Islamic sisters worldwide. Why should anyone object to the burqa, religious leaders in Iran can rightly claim, when women in the west wear it by choice? Yet, educated women in a free society can remove their veils at any time. Their sisters in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran, beaten and tortured for the smallest sartorial transgression, cannot. Where is the conscience of a woman in Britain who thinks only of her freedom to annoy and frighten those around her, regardless of its implications for others?
I would even go as far as to say that women who wear the burqa by choice are dishonouring their mothers and grandmothers who underwent huge personal suffering to win them greater freedom.
I’ve spent many hours in the last few days trying to understand why women choose to behave in this way, why the entirely sensible and moderate hijab isn’t enough for them to demonstrate their faith and, frankly, I see only one argument: “I am doing this because I can. It is my right.”
Well, I too have a right. The right to tell you what I think and here it is: The battle against the burqa isn’t really about you. It isn’t even, primarily, about the people you intimidate or the culture you are rejecting. It’s about millions of women around the world, of your own faith, who don’t have your rights, who don’t have your choices and who don’t have people like Allison Pearson and Yasmin Alibhai Brown to speak up for them.
You might like to think about them, next time you veil up.
* For the sake of brevity in this article, when I say burqa, I mean both the niqab (covering the whole body but leaving eyes visible) and the burqa (covering whole body and the face with mesh, so even eyes cannot be seen)