Lifting the veil from the burqa

2009-07-06 00:00

LOCAL Muslim women say they are “disappointed” by French president Nicholas Sarkozy’s ­recent call for the banning in his country of the burqa, which he said undermines the dignity of women, cuts them off from all social life and deprives them of identity.

“We live a full life,” said a 45-year-old Pietermaritzburg Muslim woman who made a decision about five years ago to add the face veil or niqab to her black burqa. “We are not ­stifled or oppressed by the burqa. I can go anywhere I like, within reason, and there is no compromise to my life,” she said. “I’ve joined an [all-women] exercise class and lead a wonderful life,” she said.

Another, who donned the niqab voluntarily at the age of 14, said: “I even took my driving lessons and test in my burqa ... Far from oppressing me, my husband is always encouraging me to do things independently.”

A 29-year-old mother and part-time dietetics student said she found it “odd” that society could accept near-nakedness in women but find covered women a problem. “A woman in a skimpy bikini is considered perfectly normal, but a woman covered is seen as oppressed. For me, it’s the woman who is selling her body who is oppressed.

“But, ultimately,” she said, “this is a personal thing.”

The women were adamant that men and women were equal in Islam. Although the man was deemed to be the head of the household and the breadwinner, that position came with significant responsibilities. “He has to provide everything and I am the queen of my home. Unlike my husband, I am under no obligation to share my wealth,” said one.

The part-time student said wearing the burqa had never presented problems for her at university and she didn’t anticipate any problems when she finds the work she hopes for in a public hospital. “My gynaecologist wears a burqa; that doesn’t stop her from delivering babies,” she said.

All the women said the decision to wear the burqa and niqab was purely a personal one, and not prescribed to them wholly by their religion, which stipulates only that they should “guard their modesty”, draw veils over their bosoms and refrain from displaying their beauty to men outside of the family.

And the burqa doesn’t have to be black. “But the point of it is really to avoid drawing attention to yourself, so black is preferred,” said one of the women. She said the garment had the positive effect of rendering them “anonymous”. “For us, there’s a reversal of emphasis. We beautify ourselves not for strangers, but for our husbands at home. The burqa doesn’t make us complacent about our looks. We take pride in ourselves,” she said.

The lack of prescription by the Qur’an on the issue has been highlighted by Muslims groups in the UK in the wake of Sarkozy’s comments, with the chairman of the Muslim Educational Centre of Oxford coming out in praise of Sarkozy for initiating what he called “an essential public debate about the non-koranic burqa and niqab.” He said his organisation has championed the right of Muslim women not to wear either the hijab (headscarf) or face covering (niqab/burqa) in the light of pristine Qur-anic teachings.

All three women from Pietermaritzburg said their decision to wear the burqa and niqab was entirely voluntary and even went against the expectations and conventions of their families.

But for them, the benefits of the garment were palpable: they said it brought them closer to “the Almighty” and, offered a greater sense of personal security.

One of the women said she donned the veil after being stalked and propositioned by a male stranger, while another said she became increasingly self-conscious about attracting the stares of passers by while out walking for exercise. “I wasn’t forced. My conscience simply didn’t feel quite right. I thought about my decision deeply.”

She said while donning the burqa has necessitated some changes to certain activities, such as eating in public, it hadn’t stopped her from ­enjoying the beach where she finds a secluded spot in which to swim. “The Burqa has become part of my life. I feel naked without it,” she said. Following their own decisions to start wearing the veil, many of the other women in their families, they said, had taken up the veil, suggesting a growing tendency — certainly locally — towards the practice.

Local Muslim resident Abdullah Saeed said it was “disingenuous and absurd” to link a piece of fabric to women’s oppression or subservience.

“The veil or burqa is one of the most conspicuous and misunderstood piece of clothing of Muslim women. In Islam, no woman is brought up feeling inferior or subjugated,” he said.

“The belief that any Muslim woman who wears the burqa is forced to do so is totally false and demeaning. Wearing the veil/burqa is a religious duty and a personal choice.” He added that Muslim men, too, are required to be modest and to conduct themselves responsibly. “Both men and women are equal and are equally accountable before Almighty God,” he said. “In Islam, males and females have an equal right to own property, travel, receive education and seek employment, as long as the guidelines of Islam are followed.”

Saeed said that Muslim women were unfairly labelled as oppressed. “In the Christian tradition, Paul ­ordered women to cover their heads and, until the sixties, no woman would be seen in an English church without a hat and gloves. Likewise, orthodox Jewish women have traditionally worn wigs or hats over their real hair to conceal it from men who are not their husbands. Yet, only Muslim women seem to have been described as oppressed on account of their religious clothing.”

He added that the hallmark of civilisation is to have mutual respect and consideration for diverse cultures, communities and religious beliefs.

What is the burqa?

THE burqa is an enveloping outer garment worn by women in some Islamic traditions for the purpose of cloaking the entire body. It is worn over the ­usual daily clothing and removed when the woman returns to the sanctuary of the household.

The burqa is usually understood to be the woman’s loose body-covering (Arabic: jilbāb), plus the head-covering (Arabic: hijāb), plus the face-veil (Arabic: niqāb).— source: Wikipedia.

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