The burden of the burqa

My spring adventure to the Middle East opened my eyes to Islamic culture. A month of travel was barely enough time to scratch the surface of this fascinating mix of chaos and beauty but it was, nonetheless, an unforgettable experience. While the four countries I visited (Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Turkey) varied considerably in their cultural norms, one thing that stuck out like a sore thumb to my Western eyes was the presence, albeit the vast minority, of niqab or burqa-clad women. I do hope the rectangular peep-hole from which they view the outside world obscured their vision enough to prevent them from noticing my ignorant stares of curiosity. Is this bold fashion statement a demonstration of religious freedom and devotion, and a feminist rejection of objectification, or is it good old-fashioned female oppression under the guise of a woman’s right to choose?

It is hard to fathom that any person would ever choose, under one’s own freewill, to wear long black garb from head to toe, thus intentionally depriving oneself of the simple pleasures of the senses. It seems unreasonable that one would choose to never look another in the eye, never exchange a smile with a stranger, never feel the wind in one’s hair or the sunshine on one’s face. Doing so to avoid objectification is counterintuitive; is it not easier to objectify a woman who looks more like an object (specifically a tent) than a human being? Changing ones dress to accommodate men is a sign of weakness rather than strength. It is also making the unfair accusation that men are some kind of animal who cannot control themselves in the presence of a woman’s face.

While some women make the impractical, yet personal, choice to wear the veil, surely not all those hidden faces are a demonstration of girl-power. At least this did not seem to be the case for the Egyptian woman who was denied entry on the ferry to Jordan when she failed to provide proof of identity. Witnessing this humiliating situation (as translated through my Arabic-speaking boyfriend) left me feeling sad and confused. This woman stood in silence while her husband explained that it was okay to let her in as she was “his wife”, as though he was claiming an untagged piece of luggage. Fortunately, for safety’s sake, the Jordanian authorities did not take his word for it. I couldn’t help but cringe at the submissive nature of this woman who was literally neither seen nor heard.

It is these concerns over the degradation of women and fears of potential safety threats, that has resulted in countries, primarily France and Belgium, banning, or pushing to ban, face-covering garments in public. Some Muslim groups in Canada and around the world are in support of this legislation, stating that Islam does not prescribe this arguably oppressive dress code, but rather it is the unfortunate choice of the extremist minority. While I am not opposed to banning “the mask”, we must remember that humans are funny creatures; forbidding a behaviour often leads to more people doing it. We must also think through the possible repercussions of such a ban. If it becomes illegal to cover one’s face in public, then perhaps these women will not be allowed to leave their homes at all. While such a law may have good intentions, it is important to hear all perspectives to ensure it would not be punishing the victims.

In a nation that encourages individualism and strives for gender equality, it is understandable why so many Canadians view the burqa as one giant leap backwards for women, if not all of humanity. If we could be convinced that these women are not being coerced to cover themselves, that they are free to speak their minds and choose their religion, and if they would willingly unveil when necessary to comply with standard safety procedures, then perhaps we would be more inclined to live and let live. For the time being, I remain unconvinced.

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