The burka debate

by Zubeida Mustafa

IT is a debate that is unending and can go on ad infinitum. The object of this global controversy is the contentious hijab that has had as many supporters as detractors. The arguments draw references from religion, culture, social norms, human rights and, above all, feminism.

Last week, Canada’s largest circulated newspaper, had a catchy headline for its lead story: ‘Hijab or dejab?’ Women who defended the hijab asserted they were not coerced by their male relatives. To cover their hair was purely their own choice — an act of defiance, a political statement or a spiritual awakening.

Those who had let go of the hijab said they had felt suffocated by it. Others said after wearing it for some time they had found their identity being defined by the little piece of cloth and they found that unacceptable. Others found nothing to defy because no one ever looked at them “strangely” when they covered their head. One said her school friend had described it as an “interesting fashion”.

So why does the brouhaha go on? It is not clear what Tariq Ali, the author and activist, was referring to when he said at the annual Marxism festival in London, “I’ve spoken to many young women who wear the hijab and aren’t even religious — they do it because they’re told they can’t do it. In France particularly this is the case.”

To the best of my knowledge, no one has been stopped selectively from wearing a hijab in public places in any country — if we follow the finer definition of the term. The hijab, the most popularly worn by Muslims in the West, just covers the head and neck. Since 2004, French public schools have prohibited the use of all religious symbols — the hijab, the crucifix and the Jewish yarmulka — on their premises.

They militate against the constitutional secular traditions, the French claimed. What has, however, been the subject of a ban in France is the niqab that veils the entire face with a small area around the eyes left uncovered and the “most concealing” burka that “covers the entire face and body leaving a mesh screen to see through”.

The law that came into effect in April 2011 in France does not target the wearing of a headscarf, hijab or sunglasses “as long as the accessories do not prevent the person from being identified”, the French interior ministry said in a statement. It is the all-concealing head coverings, the niqab and the burka, that are the focus of the law.

Critics have interpreted the law as an expression of Islamophobia and are now waging a battle against it. Those so shrouded — and I had seen quite a few in the pre-ban years in France — have virtually disappeared from public view. There have been a few protests but they have not created more than a few ripples. I chanced to see one burka-clad woman being booked in a metro station in Lyon. Her face was fully concealed and obviously she could not be identified. She was probably testing the waters. The police requested her to step aside and she was probably fined.

What is intriguing about the spirited defence of this act of defiance is that this adolescent behaviour has no takers back home among those professing progressive views. Many of us hardly see it as a human rights issue.

For us, security is more vital and today an individual shrouded in a burka can be an unsettling sight even though women in all-concealing garbs have been a part of our cultural environment for ages. That tolerance has melted away ever since Maulana Abdul Aziz tried to escape disguised as a woman in a burka from the besieged Lal Masjid in 2007. Masked men committing crimes have also contributed to the fear of the burka.

Security concerns should require everyone to be identifiable. Of what use will the cameras installed on street corners be if all they can film — when they are working — are hooded women (presumably) in niqabs? If you can have laws prohibiting people from riding in vehicles with tinted glass, how can masked people not be considered a security risk?

For many years now, guidelines issued by Britain’s education department have not allowed women in burkas in educational institutions. Apart from security concerns, the court upheld a school’s argument that “the veil made communication between teachers and pupils difficult and thus hampered learning”. It was said that “teachers needed to be able to tell if a pupil was enthusiastic, paying attention or even distressed, but full-face veils prevented this”.

Nothing wrong with that if we really care for education. Some of our teachers have expressed similar views. In a lecture in Karachi a few years ago, Prof Pervez Hoodbhoy argued that he considers eye contact with his students essential for him to connect mentally with those he is teaching. Isa Daudpota, another well-respected teacher, says, “Good sense demands modesty from both sexes everywhere. Proper communication in society, and especially in an educational environment, requires that facial expressions are not hidden”.

Those arguing for the rights of Muslims will have to reconsider some of their strategies. The burka debate can be counterproductive. As for countering Islamophobia which is on the rise in some western societies and manifests itself in many undesirable ways, it is important that Muslims move out of their seclusion and try to intermingle with people of all races at a social level. Thus alone can barriers be pulled down.

Source: Dawn

28 thoughts on “The burka debate

  1. Slms,

    Author.. What do you mean by inter mingling?

    This article only promotes women into behaving like the west.. I beleive we should deeply have knowledge on the subject before we start producing baseless verdicts on matters we don’t have any knowledge about..

    Women don’t have to unveil their privacy because its making other people insecure.. What of her security?? Yes, unless forced to do so against her will, for that she is not accountable..

    If you see history.. If you’re a person who observes, then i beleive and it really is that the more women are into unveiling themselves the more they are closer to the devil and And more trouble in life are they having.. More are they ruining their Akhirah..

    There is a reason why the Prophet S.A.W, commanded our women to cover themselves.. Its part of faith.. Its all about being steadfast in the religion.. No matter what.. Even the devil will betray you the day of resurection.. So whom are you going to blame? The government? The feelings of people? The devil? Friends? I think the answers are just within ourselves.. Just have to open our eyes.. Wallahu A’LAM….

    1. If that is what some people believe, they have a right to believe what they want. But please stay home in your own coubtry and don't intermingle with anyone if you think the devil will spare you there.

    2. There is no special requirement in the holy book which only applies to women and not to men. The holy book addresses all people of faith to follow the prophet. Burka was a utilitarian requirement at the time and a need of the society as it was. Not a dictate for all times to come.

  2. I do believe that the burqa originates in the sandy desert of Saudi Arabia, and in other deserts it is the same. All men and women cover the face to prevent sunburn and sand from getting in the nose. Burqa is an Arab thing from the desert. So leave those clothes there. Please do not bring their clothes here. Wear our clothes and keep your own culture. Are you a saudi colony? Look at indonesia, they follow islam but keep their own hindu culture with sanskrit names.

    1. burqa was invented in the late nineteenth century in india when women started going out-later in 1930 the two piece black burqa was invented which became the fashion-my mother noor us sabah begum also started wearing this new burqa in delhi-she was in the pakistan movement.before going to delhi she did not wear the burqa in the car which had purdah – installed even at the back so did not need to wear the burqa.earlier women travelled in horse buggies which were called shikrams- the open one was called victoria.
      in madina there was no burqa-do remember that there were no toilets in the house so women went out for this purpose.then women covered themselves with a chadar.
      hazrat omar used to come and read the letters of the soldiers to their wives and also wrote their answers.

  3. burka is not a manifests in undesirable ways, it is order of Allah for muslim women and a gift a islam for only muslims women. we should remeber that muslims women are not "commonwealth" every muslim can tell you the name of their father but it is abuse to ask in western societies. The muslim have family system and islam is a complete code of life. islam protected women and gave them respect while the western societies are using women as a way of income. we should must read islamic education before pointning.

  4. The ban on hijab or burqa against the free will of a citizen. The world has change after 9/11, so is the defination of freedom of expression, human rights. Now in the US the authorities can hold a person under detention for over six months without trial. Its the right of any woman whether she wants to wear Hijab, burqa or skirt or jeans. How can we support the ban If we believe in freedom of expression and right to free will. mazhar

  5. A very carefully crafted piece , however marginally appears to favour the religious right whose influence starts from such issues like Burka and reach as far as burning girls schools. Killing other expressions of faith even Muslim, destroying the cultural icons of other religions as the Taliban did in Afghanistan.
    Only yesterday in Rawalpindi a group of young men violated the sanctity of a girls school, in the name of a protest ,though it was more of an expression of thuggery , for or against some religious stand point.
    What bothers me is the utter ignorance of these well fed ignoramus, who never worked for a living. They do not have any knowledge of the issues. There has never been a time in Islam, when protests were tolerated, in the sense as these hoodlums do. There is no Islamic country today that will tolerate such protests as part of a normal behaviour.
    They have no ability to argue the case to promote Islam, hence the violence. The symbolic leaders like the Maulanas ,who sit in the houses of the legislature only speak to the converted and encourage rebel rousing , they do not have the courage to enter a debate,where they are not surrounded by the hooligans to back them up with unruly behaviour. When some very convinced, of the superiority of the their religious text ,enter a debate in a neutral venue , they end up making a fool of themselves.
    In a debate in UK on TV, a Maulvi Sahib tried to describe heaven. He did it in such a way that it raised a lot of laughter, it sounded hilarious to those of another faith or did not recognise the Maulvi Sahib as such a scholar.
    There is an exhibition of Islamic achievements in the Los Angles today. What a fantastic way of presenting to the world what the Islamic civilization achieved.
    However two things are not focused:
    What has modern Islamic world achieved? Dictatorships and misery for their populations.
    The second that all these achievements were only possible when Islam did not have such a Saudi Arabian hue of myopic world. Most of these achievements were possible in a cultural harmony and peace in the area ruled by the Muslims. Enormous tolerance was shown to other religions in the Ottoman Empire, same was true in the Spainish period of the Muslim rule. Many of the scholars were not Muslims, however their knowledge was not rejected.
    Burka was not a vogue though the Women were few and far between amongst the high achievers.

  6. You are a Pakistani lady with very little understanding of Islam and its values, If you want to intermingle go ahead do it but don't advice others what to do, others are better educated then you.
    For your and your your nation have very little understanding of Islam, your ugly sight is not respected by anyone in
    the world at large.

  7. When a person argues that nobody forced them to wear a certain piece of clothing and that it was their own free choice, I feel sceptical. Choices are so often determined by a number of things – families, culture, religion, economy, politics so the coercion may not be open; rather, it is built into the system and things we think are based on free choice may in fact be the result of long indoctrination, subtle coercion etc. Keeping in mind what the hijab, niqab and burka stand for and who insists upon their use and their history, I consider it a coercion that is subtle and indirect. We all are, after all, products of our upbrining, class background, location etc. What in any case is free choice? Rubina

  8. AOA ZuBeira,

    I read your articles with great interest. You really help explain

    Muslim adult issue with Quranic reference. It really helped couple

    Of my personnel issues!

    Can you please extend your current article on “hijab” to explain what is

    Appropriate to cover whole face or just whole head with Quranic reference?

    I think it’s a great topic and will help number of us living in west.

    Seems there is a huge issue. I am in Chicago and I may share a perssonal

    Experience if you would like to write further on that. I stay in touch with

    Cowasjee sahib via email. He liked my story and I may send it to also.



  9. Every ban can be counter productive. Does it mean nothing should be banned? Ideally yes but we have to live with other faiths. French are entitled to their culture in their ouwn country as are the Muslims in whichever country they hail from. If the Muslims don't like the ban, they can go back. Unless ofcourse they find a way to subdue French.

  10. "The great Burqa revelation"
    Burqa or Hijab have nothing to do with the religion (Islam). Islam was originated in desert (Middle East). Burqa was in that part of the world before even Islam proclaimed. It was necessity for the desert people to save them from sand storm in that part of the world. Ladies wear Burqa where as Gents wear Burqa like dress to save them from sand storm. That was and is natural dress for Arabs.
    Now a days, by wearing Burqa terrorist try to smuggle them selves (Like what one of the Gazies of RED MASJID did).

    The same way head coverings like turban, hijab, cap or any of the dress codes also has nothing to do with any of the religions. Head coverings like turbans are necessary to protect from head injury where as hijabs, caps etc are protecting falling hairs in sacred places as well as in kitchens. These were and are develops as per necessity of the humankind as per environmental situations and working conditions. In hot weather people loves loose dresses for comfort whereas in cold weather tight dresses are the necessity.





  12. Dear Mrs. Mustafa, I enjoyed reading your article as always and though I am pressed for time, for once I am compelled to engage with your thoughts. The veil that is often considered, or was considered through a large part of the 20th century, a public extension of the harem has been a target of modernity over a long time. Women's seclusion whether in the harem or through the barrier of the veil has always inspired some sense of mystery and not infrequently disgust when looked at disparagingly. The homosocial world of women that these barriers kept from interception have been narrated over centuries in a million ways; of note is the eroticization of women's worlds in harems and behind veils by several centuries of European orientalist writers. Indeed, the narrative of unveiling and thereby emancipating women was not absent from the justifications of colonial interventions in Morocco, Egypt, Algeria, and many other countries in the first half of the 20th century. It is very easy for us to temporally localize security, that we are just threatened these days, and that this problem of security did not exist before. Security for whom though remains a question. Disciplining women and making them more visible cannot be equated to emancipation. Nor are these arguments very different from the colonial narratives of the 1900s. France, particularly, with a large Muslim population that hails from its many former colonies, should be more sensitive to how it tells its national narrative and who it excludes. French law makes exceptions, but not for its former colonial subjects. In Alsace-Lorraine, the Alsatian local law with a past of a couple of centuries that allows for religious public schooling is still very much implemented. And French tax money pays for Christian and Jewish public schooling in this German speaking province that France kept losing and reacquiring from Germany. The story of secularization that the French state tells of itself has many loopholes. I am short of time and I won't proceed…. but merely trying to underscore that much more goes into these justifications than just some abstract notion of security, that somehow what cannot be seen (in this case facial features) is necessarily threatening. Apologies for a response that is far from comprehensive. But I hope to email you some references… some good reads may be Afsaneh Najmabadi, Marnia Lazreg, Seyla Benhabib, Saba Mahmood….
    Hope you are doing well! Mehwash

  13. I think the focus of the burqa issue is in the Muslim world where most of the muslim women live, not the west and how it affects these women's education.

    In India it is very common for young muslim girls to go to their friend's house, take off the burqa and go to the movies or shopping or just hangout.In fact, I know of one girl, who would stop at my cousin's house every morning, take off the burqa, go to college, stop again in the evening, put on the burqa and go home. All of them complain about their uncles, older brothers who make them do it. On the other hand, in New York, I find a lot of women from middle east wearing a full burqa and chain smoking. Not sure, what is worse, burqa or cigarettes.

    There was a tremendous improvement in women's education in India. The most attributable cause is – availability of sanitary napkins for young girls. The second reason was the willingness of the society to get rid of purdah. We are hindu and my grand mother's generation did not have either. Today, there are equal number of male, female graduates every year. Often, the real factors that promote these tremendous changes are not sexy enough to be written about or publicized. It is quite possible that women's education and rights will also improve in the muslim world if burqa requirement is removed in Pakistan.

    Burqa was a necessity in the deserts of Arabia to protect from sandstorms. Even today Arab men wear the long burqa like clothes with head covering et al. It doesn't make sense in hot humid climates like India or Indonesia or Pakistan.

  14. there is no word in arabic for woman-the word is 'aura' which only means
    some parts of the face-so in haj and umra the women wear a burqa but the
    face is open-uncovered-so when i went for my umra with my better half
    she took out
    her old burqa which after her marriage to me she just packed it some where
    -but as she is short and i am tall she used to ask me to stand in a
    prominent place but she and all women keep their face uncovered.
    do you get me.

    samin khan.

    1. "Burqa" is not a kind of wearing stuff, it is an order of our creator for Muslim women that has been changed its form and now known as burqa,
      Muslims always sincere with islam and want to follow its education that's why Muslim made "Burqa" easy to wear and well covered. There is no need to study the history of "Burqa", that when and where it discovered but we should implement the order of our creator. Quran tells us the veil for voice of muslim woman and we know modesty is jewelry for a muslim woman. there are a lot of reasons to not to veil but a single reason for having veil that is "Fear of our Creator".

  15. Thanks for sharing your piece. I had read it in Dawn this morning. Today's paper also carries a somewhat similar piece by Rafia Zakaria. Being a proud father of two daughters while I am a strong believer that matters of Purdah or the way one dresses cannot be decided by anyone but the individual herself, I resent the fact that the Maulvis and the Islamophobes are crowding out bigger and more sublime matters by keeping us bogged down in thinking about Burqa, Niqab, Hijab. Thanks

    Shahzad Sharjeel

  16. I wanted to draw attention to the part that says "to the best of my knowledge, no one has been stopped selectively from wearing a hijab in public places in any country." I hope the author is talking about France, otherwise I would have to ask whether the author looked into the headscarf bans in Tunisia (where women who refused to take their headscarves were "punished" through acts that were as extreme as rape) or the situation in Uzbekhistan or Turkey… I personally am agaist the practice of wearing the burqa, however, if it is for security reasons, should we also stop people from wearing hooded tops, caps and sunglasses at the same time, or is identification not an issue if western clothing is an issue… I still would like to think it as a human rights issue. We have no right to judge other people's clothing and we definitely have no right to force people to wear or take off hijab. Personally I see no difference between forcing women to wear hijab like in Iran or Saudi Arabia or forcing them to take it off like the cases of France, Tunisia and Uzbekhistan, etc.

  17. Hi mam..i do second your views about the security concerns and surely everyone to be identifiable. The negative impact of burqa is nicely explained here. However intermingling of muslims with other races is discussed here in absolutely ambiguous manner. To what extent this intermingling must be?e.g. I dont prefer vegetarian stuff and needs some meat stuff in my food. Hence i cant go with my colleagues to their favorite plce for lunch or dinner. How can i send my daughter/son to enjoy (need to define enjoyment) the weekends with her/his peers.Do you think is it possible for our typical middle class families living abroad. I think we can intermingle just to certain extent only.

  18. I think it is important for Muslims to intermingle with people who follow other faiths to let them personally experience and appreciate the positive side of Islam. You bring up issues which really should not prevent such socialisation. If your dietary habits are different you can surely find some common grounds. Eat what you like when you are with your own family. Similarly youngsters can also find activities they can engage in together which both do not find unacceptable. Actually one has to respect one another's beliefs and culture. We need to do that in our own society as well. As for migrants, it is their primary duty to study the society and system of the country they want to migrate to. If they find it too incompatible they might as well stay home. It is not right to go and create ghettoes in other countries and then create unnecessary friction that only hurts everyone..

    1. @ Zubeidamustafa

      Apart from the above requirements there is one requirement also not to enforce others to join your faith/community. Recently there was a news report that KALASH community is being forced to embrace ISLAM. The best method (as you have hinted above) is to display your positive sides, goodwill and culture so that others may get attracted to join/change religion voluntarily.

  19. Respected Zubeida Mustafa,

    Assalmu alaikum,

    After reviewing comments of people I would like to share some information about "Burqa".
    Allah ordered all Muslim men to keeping down their eyes from "Na mehrms" (See surah e noor verse 30). And in next verse Allah also ordered to all Muslim women to not to show themselves before "Na Mehameen", (see surah e noor verse 31),

    Allah has also told us about "Maharim" in detail, if those people who don’t know about the reality and education of Islam say that "Allah didn’t order for veil and women can show their face, hands, feet & hairs etc to everyone", then they should be cleared their minds after reviewing above verses those are telling us the clear order of veil.
    Allah ordered Muslim woman to veil herself from some of her relatives then what about the remaining people?
    Should a woman have to show herself before everyone?
    And if the answer is yes then what about the above order of our creator?
    After our beloved prophet, In governance of Hazrat Umar r.a ordered Muslim woman to not to come in mosque for performing namaz, it means not that Hazrat Umar r.a was a conservative or extremist ruler but his act was just for securing the Muslim women from the "Pirates of nobility".
    We observed that we are gradually losing our Muslim tradition and culture and they like to follow the culture of Christ and Jews whereas they have changed their religious education. This is just not because of our inspiration from them but the main reason is distance of time from those holy rulers.
    We may also observe the PTV of today and PTV of 15 years ago.
    Islam do not discourage for education of women, we need women doctors, lawyers, teachers and engineers but we do not need prostitution of women, Islam is a complete code of life and a Muslim woman is a "Queen of her home", we may also review (Surah Ahzab verse 33).

    Azeem Hussain

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