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Sep 29 2013

Progressive Liberal On the Niqab

There is a faulty piece of thinking.

Something detrimental in another culture cannot be condemned or criticised and it’s women will never appreciate what you do for them when you argue against such a detrimental practice.

I am speaking of the Niqab and the Burkha.

There is no doubt that both the burkha and niqab have an Islamic basis. This cannot be denied. Both have been commonly practised and recognised by Muslims throughout history. Islamic texts make it very clear that the hijab is compulsory for Muslim women to observe and is near universal. Consequently, Islamic scholars have agreed that both the burkha and niqab are part of Islam, but have differed as to whether they are also compulsory or optional acts of virtue.

To the Novice this may sound like gobledeygook. The Hijab is just a headscarf. The face is exposed. The Niqab covers the face except the eyes and covers the entire body and the Burkha consists of a total veil with no visible eyes.

Now there are two arguments here.

1. These are devices designed to alienate women from the wider community by turning them literally into faceless, shapeless and silent members of the community by cutting out major methods of communication.

2. Many women find them empowering.

I am of the former view. Because the problem with the latter is (and women will come and get mad at me for saying this) is explained by a simple proverb.

A bird with clipped wings thinks the bird without has freedom despite both being in the same cage.

The women who think the Niqab and Burkha are empowering are those who willingly chose it. They saw nothing good in our ideals and decided to adopt the clothes of bedouin women. These women live knowingly (and usually) under the wings of our powerful secular society and so can wear these clothes and not be or feel oppressed because they know that should they call the cops, they will help her out rather than treat her like a pariah.

To them the very fact that they can reduce their own freedom at whim is an act of supreme freedom and IMHO no different from the reason why many powerful men and women often find “loss of power” attractive in BDSM relationships. Because the ultimate power is being able to give up power at whim and pick it up again at whim. That is real power. You are so powerful that you can temporarily weaken yourself.

Real power is losing a fight to a 3 year old because you are so powerful that losing doesn’t mean anything to you. To many of the women and indeed feminists who think the burkha and niqab are fine and dandy things and even wear them to see what it’s like, these people do not realise that they can put away the Niqab at the end of the day.

Every time I read of someone defending it or their choices to wear it I have to remind others that it was a choice to wear it.

And there are a fair few defences against our ideas.

Muslim women who choose to wear the burqa do so out of their own free will, believing it is an act of worship and a form of liberation from the objectification of women in modern society. In fact, preventing Muslim women from practising their religion is what is truly oppressive.

I often say this. Free Will is a Lie.

Oh we are free to do what we want to do. However there are consequences. Why do the GLBT hide? Why are they so reluctant in our free society to declare themselves for what they are?

Because there is a consequence of bigotry against the GLBT that they fear. Their “Free” will is tempered by real circumstance.

A Muslim woman may truly chose to wear the Burkha or Niqab. But many do not have true choice. Many are told that in order to be a “Real” or “Good” Muslim they have to wear this. And while objectification of women in society is an evil, do you think women are less objectified in Islam?

No. You see, you don’t need to objectify women in Islam because they are already treated like property. They are objectified in a different manner. After all objectification of women has had different trends over the ages.

And I don’t think we should ban the Burkha or the Niqab.

We should kill the very idea of the Niqab and Burkha. To destroy the practice we must make Muslims who promote this think like those who don’t. This means decoupling Islam from the Niqab and Burkha.

Remember, you cannot be a “good” Muslim without doing this. So even empowered enlightened women will be willing to wear something that at a fundamental level dehumanises and alienates the wearer.

Niqab is a very liberating and empowering experience. It allows me to realise my goals by having a career and going to school without worrying about the prying eyes of men. It forces people not to judge me based on my appearance, but on my thoughts and character. 

This argument is similar to the one above. People (AKA Men since women can see under the Niqab/Burkha) judge me for my thoughts and character.

A lot of our communication is vocal. That is true.

But even more is visual. We look for visual cues. We are social monsters and our faces are incredibly expressive.

This is the Motor Homunculus

Terrifying isn’t it? We are mainly Faces and Hands. Our body and legs combined is equal to our faces and our hands. The brain is our “soul” all that chemistry that controls us? Most of it controls our faces and hands.

These are vital to communication. To simply cut someone off from so much expression is to cripple communication to begin with.

Now the thing is the women inside the damn thing don’t have any problem seeing our communication cues. The problem is we cannot see theirs and this makes conversation weird for us since we are heavily reliant on those.

And the funny thing is that the Burkha and Niqab are used to judge women by their appearance by Muslim society. A “good” Muslim woman  wears it doesn’t she? If parts of your religion require specific outfits then you are judged by the appearance of said outfits.

And if  the Niqab and Burkha made men think about women by their thoughts and character then this would be the norm across Islamic culture but one notices that Islam only thinks about women’s thoughts and character when said thoughts and character lies anti-thetical to Islam’s ideas.

The burqa is not part of a short-lived fashion trend. It is a religious garment and act of worship which is not subject to time and therefore, does not become outdated. In fact, the burqa is gaining much popularity in modern societies, especially amongst Western convert women.

Many Sikhs do not carry their knives. They may wear the Turban and the beard but their knives stay at home. It is to make others feel more comfortable. And in our modern world the knife of self defence and defence of others has been replaced by knowledge and words. It’s a knife that can only get sharper and never really dull. They think about knives instead. The knife is in their head.

To be proud of the adoption of such a backward culture rather than adopt the ideals of the Burkha just shows how inflexible Islam is. The “true” Muslim has to jump through such terrifying hoops to keep being a Muslim. And that means defending an outfit that is frankly ludicrous.

You heard me. I know my traditional religious gigantic snake man outfit is stupid as hell. Even the sherwani has been changed to more modern cuts. The sari may be traditional and cumbersome but women wear it in different ways for different work.

Working Wear

It’s the same damn length of cloth

Some sari don’t even change the material to change from “sexy” to “sensible”. And no one is forcing them to wear this, it’s a choice and indeed more of one than the Niqab.

Many western women wear Saris, doesn’t mean the sari is not ridiculous. We can use a male example too.

This is a pretty traditional Sherwani

There are more sensible ones these days too

It’s still pretty rad

But there is nothing in the Burkha or Niqab that’s progressed apart from the material being nicer.

It has not evolved to make life easier for the people who wear them. In fact it’s usage has ensured women’s effectiveness in the workforce is compromised. And all of the above are choices.

While the burqa may appear intimidating to some people, it is not worn with the intention of being threatening or frightening. People are often intimidated by what they have no knowledge of, and the burqa is a piece of clothing which should not warrant fearful reaction. Underneath the burqa is a person simply trying to practise their religion. It is interesting to note that other forms of dress and appearance are no longer considered intimidating, as they have become accepted by the wider community. Tattoos, extremely short dresses, revealing clothes, body piercing and outlandish hairstyles are all examples of this phenomena.

Except the Tattoo was associated in western Europe with lower classes and became more popular with the adoption of OTHER tattoo aesthetes which improved and changed the ideas associated with tattoos. There were also major counter-culture movements that lead to it’s normalisation since those “counter cultures” grew up and didn’t see anything wrong.

Islam has had no progressive counter-culture. In fact it’s had regressive ones such as the Salafists and Wahabbis.

And you have to agree that I am demonstrating a rather diverse amount of knowledge over the practice here.

Short Skirts were not considered intimidating, they were considered a moral repugnance because women’s knees would drive men to insatiable lust and cause us to rape women. Turns out men are pretty much either not going to rape women no matter what or don’t really care about what the women is wearing when they have rape on their minds. Rape is not rare in the Middle East, its common enough to be considered normal and therefore “not rape”.

And I will say this to you. Many places do discriminate against people with obvious and visible tattoos and “stupid” outfits and hair. And I repeat, none of these things were forced on those who wore them. Punks did not go around forcing people to wear mohawks and listen to the Sex Pistols. You didn’t wake up late at night to hippies massaging rogaine into your scalp. There in fact is no code among metal heads that suggest you cannot show up to the mosh pit with a buzzcut and a blazer. The dress codes identify you but do not define you.

The burkha defines you as a Good Muslim Woman in many cases (remember the choice caveat).

Wearing the burqa does not in any way suggest that women are inferior to men. Claiming that the burqa is a symbol of male domination goes against the fact that many women voluntarily wear the burqa, even though some have no male relatives, or wear it against their male relatives’ wishes.

Yes but how many don’t wear it voluntarily?

And it does. If there was any serious benefit to wearing a Burkha  then men  would be putting the damn thing on.

There is nothing in the burqa that prevents a woman from interacting with other members of society, or from participating in the community. In fact, neither the hijab nor the burqa are required when among women only.

As I said. It interferes in actual communication and the width and breadth of normal communication is denied to the non-burkha/niqab wearer.

And women and men have to communicate. Now here is where the arguments for these fall apart. Women and Men HAVE to communicate in our society. Both professionally and socially. To simply say “well you don’t need to wear this ridiculously restrictive outfit when around women only” is just madness.

Wearing a burqa does not stop a woman from contributing to society or from pursuing higher education. There are many women who wear the burqa and are very highly educated, or lead very successful careers.

Yes. I agree. It doesn’t stop them. Women get those things inspite of the Burkha or Niqab. And education doesn’t mean you don’t fall for “tricks”. Why Steve Jobs was highly educated and highly intelligent and he still thought that starving himself fights cancer. The man who made your iPhone made an error as bad as making an anti-shark  suit made out of bloody seal meat.

And I bet if we compare women in Islam who do and don’t wear the Niqab the ones who don’t will be more involved in contributing to society and pursuing higher education and are more likely to have a career.

Burqas are no more of a security risk than a motorcycle helmet, big fashion sunglasses, or a big beanie, and can be removed when identification is required for security reasons. Of course, the request for removal should be done by another woman and not in the presence of men

Yes, but people who wear Motorcycle Helmets, Balaclavas, Gigantic Sunglasses or Big Beanies (really? sure… why not) take them the fuck off. They don’t require another motorcyclist, skier, footballer’s wife or beanie aficionado to be present during an identification.

And let’s get this clear. The Burkha or Niqab

The problem with the Niqab is that it sets specific rules that make it harder to deal with security on our end. The rule is simple, no one walks into a bank covered up like that. There should be no exceptions. We shouldn’t have to make special rules for a “choice”.

Unless it’s not a choice. And I am afraid in our society men and women are equal. The request for specific genitals on the people you truly can interact with to the exclusion of others to me is…

Childish. I thought like this when girls were icky. We all were kind of like that growing up where our friends were BOYS/GIRLS and we did BOY/GIRL things. But to bring that attitude to such an age? It’s just really childish.

Unless it’s not a choice at all.

Wearing the burqa does not go against acceptable community values. Community values necessitate that people should not be judged by what they wear, nor discriminated against or mistreated, based on their choice of clothing or appearance.

Unless said outfit is forced on a rather voiceless part of the community and by it’s nature is designed to discriminate.

We are forced to have this polite discussion about the Niqab because we are talking about bans. I don’t think it should be banned, but I don’t think we should respect the garment or the ideology behind it. As I said, to destroy the practice we must Kill The Idea of a Niqab.

I don’t think any woman (and Islam actually agrees with me) should be allowed to stay veiled in court even if Islam said no. I don’t think we should discriminate against the Niqab unless the Niqab is specifically a daft idea. I don’t think Muslim women should be exempt from “bare below the elbows” rules of Medicine. Islam can take a hike, bacteria don’t care about how devout you are or whether or not your outfit makes you a real Muslim. They will grow on it just fine. Infection control is clear on this. Likewise? It is not the outfit for industrial work.

But by being a compulsory outfit and an outfit that automatically makes you incapable of doing certain jobs it is by it’s very nature discriminatory.

The Niqab and the Burkha are ridiculous ideas. A specific gender has to prove it’s faith by effectively crippling social communication and paying lip service to an ethic that despite all claims has been proven to be incredibly sexist. Many women have died for the right to wear what they  feel like and we are more prone to listening to people who live in our secular paradises insisting that we not condemn such an outfit for what it really is.

Oh you get people like Pat Condell who demand it be banned or refer to it as headsacks or whatever. He isn’t right. I don’t think we should ban an outfit such as this. On a pragmatic note? The martyrdom complex  would be so high  you could power emo music for a generation. But also because we shouldn’t ban an outfit just because we don’t like the idea behind it. I don’t like the Klan but I think they should be allowed to  dress like pointy ghosts.

The Niqab and Burkha do none of the things they are alleged to do. You are not more free by “voluntarily” choosing to dress like that. You do not gain agency (unless as I pointed out you had enough agency to chose to wear it and know you have enough to chose to not wear it) through it. It does not make you a better Muslim, it does not make you a better person. It does not stop sexual harassment.

In most of the world it does not make you safer. In fact it has been statistically associated with more oppression across the globe and even in western nations where a lot of the abuse is not catalogued because it’s silent abuse. The women are silenced and alienated and so cannot seek help. What’s worse is that seeking help is in itself “bad behaviour”.

However there are rules.

Niqab cannot and should not be compulsory. It cannot be part of a school uniform let alone one that belongs to a school getting taxpayer money. It cannot be used to hide while giving evidence. You cannot wear it around a doctor who is trying to help you. You cannot wear it in a bank and you have to be willing to unveil in places where security is involved.

And yes the Niqab is a barrier to communication. I cannot imagine a patient would be pleased with me showing up in my giant snake man outfit complete with scowling mask to a patient appointment no matter how traditional and indeed how endangered such an outfit and artform is. No patient would feel comfortable discussion anything intimate with me. And how would a be-Niqabed doctor work? Only seeing female patients? Even Obs/Gynae have to talk to men (the husband). How would such a doctor deal with a male patient? How would she deal with a male patient who wished to discuss something too risque? Does this doctor only deal with “clean” material?

And there is the matter of trust. It’s impossible to trust someone you can’t see and don’t know what they look like. And a lot of what I do is based on trust. You trust me enough to let me do things. You wouldn’t let your plumber visualise your cervix (Unless you live in a world where your plumber is also a gynaecologist) but there is a good chance that should I get the right qualifications you would let me do so because of initial faith and trust that I build through interactions.

And part of that is seeing my face and realising that I am a human being.

I think the niqab and urkha will only ever be a free choice if Islam no longer is sexist. When its women have the real choice of wearing the Niqab or not. When they have the “power” of the women who willingly chose to wear the Niqab knowing that they can cast it aside at any time.

But for that we must destroy what the Niqab means. For that we need to let these women come and learn. So that we can “poison” their minds with education and such notions that the clothes they wear doesn’t determine who they are and how that works both ways. How “goodness” isn’t determined by  what they wear but what they do. Of what “real” freedom is. Not by forcing these women to stay at home.

I am a pragmatist. I know that to fight the practice we must discuss the issue of sexism among the Muslim community and religious sexism at that. For that we must listen to different voices and not demonise those who wear the Burkha but engage the Muslims in a dialogue that leads to changes being made.

They are British too you know.

Important!

If you haven’t heard already, I have agreed to be on the FTB – Light the Night Fundraiser Team along with Greta Christina, PZ Myers and Ed Brayton.

I assume I bring youth, vibrancy and a funny sounding name to the team…

But we are here for two reasons. One to think about pledges for forfeits and two to drum up money!

It’s for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and this mainly applies to “Americans”.

So first things first. Let’s set some goals.

Our overall goal is $10,000. Ed Brayton, PZ Myers and Greta Have all been asking for ideas of what we should do.

So let’s set forfeits at $2,500, $5000 and $10,000. My e-mail is down the side, you can suggest things.

If you wish to donate specifically to all of us then use the main FTB donation page. If you want to donate to me and me alone then use the user specific pages on that or go here.

9 comments

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  1. 1
    A. Noyd

    I’ll judge the shit out of people for what they wear when what they’re wearing supports misogyny. Like the kid in the “cool story babe, now make me a sandwich” t-shirt I saw a few weeks ago. I have no sympathy for women who truly do choose to wear the niqab or burkha. Like that shirt, they are inherently misogynistic garments. As you say, they’re designed to discriminate.

    I disagree on not banning the KKK’s pointy sheets (in public), though. They’re worn specifically to terrorize people of color and to protect the wearer’s identity against facing consequences for his terrorism. It’s nothing like the made up connections between terrorism and niqab/burkha or taqiyah (or Sikh turbans). Terrorism is their primary purpose. The sheets are not imposed on a wearers to subjugate them, and a ban would not keep KKK members from getting college educations or jobs.

  2. 2
    Tsu Dho Nimh

    2. Many women find them empowering.

    Only if it’s hiding weapons.

  3. 3
    Mary in Austin

    Here in Central Texas, I have once seen a woman wearing niqab in a public park. No person wearing niqab or a burkha could expect to be admitted to any bank, shop, post office, or even public library, because the risk of armed robbery is deemed too great; under the cloth could lurk a male with a pistol. (These places normally sport placards which do not mention Islamic ladies’ wear, but one extrapolates from the prohibitions on face-concealing sunglasses, hoods, and similar items.) I hope that for conservative Muslim women who come to this area, the need to carry out the usual activities of life, not to mention stir-craziness, will win out in the end.

  4. 4
    S Mukherjee

    Growing up in India, I used to watch films and hear of news where men would wear burkhas for concealment in carrying out wicked deeds or escaping justice. j

    Funny story: my univ classmate’s mum (in India) went to the local health centre and was waiting for her turn to see the doctor. In the waiting room she struck up a conversation with a burkha clad woman (full face covered) who was excited to talk to someone who could speak the same language (Bengali). When they parted, the burkha clad woman invited my friend’s mum to come and visit her home at her convenience. My friend’s mum later remarked to my friend, ‘but how on earth would I recognise her if I met her again, I didn’t even see her face!’

  5. 5
    cityzenjane

    It doesn’t interfere with communication or freedom?

    Make men wear them for a year and say that again.

  6. 6
    Ysanne

    Mary,

    I hope that for conservative Muslim women who come to this area, the need to carry out the usual activities of life, not to mention stir-craziness, will win out in the end.

    guess what, usually it just means that since women in their Niquab can’t do the usual activities one goes out for, there’s one less reason to let them go outside.

  7. 7
    Bukhari Muslim

    Salaam,

    ALL Ugly & Fat women should be forced to wear Burkha!

  8. 8
    Ani J. Sharmin

    A Muslim woman may truly chose to wear the Burkha or Niqab. But many do not have true choice. Many are told that in order to be a “Real” or “Good” Muslim they have to wear this. And while objectification of women in society is an evil, do you think women are less objectified in Islam?
    No. You see, you don’t need to objectify women in Islam because they are already treated like property. They are objectified in a different manner. After all objectification of women has had different trends over the ages.

    And the funny thing is that the Burkha and Niqab are used to judge women by their appearance by Muslim society. A “good” Muslim woman wears it doesn’t she? If parts of your religion require specific outfits then you are judged by the appearance of said outfits.
    And if the Niqab and Burkha made men think about women by their thoughts and character then this would be the norm across Islamic culture but one notices that Islam only thinks about women’s thoughts and character when said thoughts and character lies anti-thetical to Islam’s ideas.

    ^This is what I keep saying. There’s this weirdly ironic thing where people accuse others of judging women on appearance while praising themselves for judging women on their ideas. While there are people who say Islam judges women based on their gender and praise Western society for equality, there are Islamic apologists will say that Islam values women for their thoughts and ideas, whereas Western culture values them for their appearance (e.g. fashion magazines). But, really, they are just ignoring the way they themselves also judge based on appearance. And in the case of Islam, there are societies where women can face violence for not wearing certain things. If they value women for their minds and ideas so much, why don’t they let women be the religious leaders, have the same positions of power (including positions of power in jobs above men), let women sit in front, etc.?

    When I went to Islamic Sunday school, one of the (many) things I hated about it was that I felt people were judging me based on clothes. One day, I forgot to bring a headscarf (as I don’t wear it at home) and had to borrow one from the school. My hair is long, so it still showed, and someone commented on that. Another time, my pants were about an inch short (showing my ankle bone) because I had grown a bit taller, and someone commented on that. Everything was based on me being female. There was never any interest in anything I or the other girls had to say, unless we were reciting prayers or something. As much as I felt an outcast at my (secular, public) school for a variety of reasons, at least there actually were some people there who valued my ideas and hard work.

  9. 9
    Avicenna

    If the Burkha was so amazing, more men would wear it.

    Anj, if you don’t mind would you like to write about your experiences in that?

    A

  1. 10
    Guest Post – Dressing For (Divine) Success » A Million Gods

    […] my own experiences with them, specifically in Islam (as that is the religion my family belongs to). Avicenna graciously asked me to share my experiences after I commented on a recent post of his, Which motivated me to move this essay to the top of my list of planned writing. There are, of […]

  2. 11
    Ani J Sharman – Dressing for Divine Success » A Million Gods

    […] On the Niqab”. Posted on 29 September 2013 at A Million Gods. Retrieved on 4 October 2013 from http://freethoughtblogs.com/amilliongods/2013/09/29/progressive-liberal-on-the-niqab/. ii Sharmin, Ani J. “The Divine Languages” Posted on 6 July 2012 at The Eternal Bookshelf. […]

  3. 12
    Dressing For (Divine) Success: A Shallow God and Coercion | The Eternal Bookshelf

    […] my family belongs to). Avicenna graciously asked me to share my experiences after I commented on a recent post of his,[1] which motivated me to move this essay to the top of my list of planned writing. There are, of […]

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