Should America Ban the Burqa?
Pajamas Media 03 July 2009
By Phyllis Chesler
Earlier today, Muslims demonstrated in Antwerp to oppose the banning of headscarves in two schools–and the new Swedish head of the European Union, Justice Minister Beatrice Ask, stated that the “27 member European Union must not dictate an Islamic dress code…(that) the European Union is a union of freedom.” As my readers know, yesterday, al-Qaeda threatened France because President Sarkozy had called for a ban on the burqa.
Clearly, this is a major issue in Europe where anywhere from 30-50 million Muslims live. Paradoxically, various European countries have banned or restricted the far less restrictive headscarf (hijab) in schools, universities, and courtrooms–but have not yet restricted the far more smothering burqa. Perhaps hijab is seen as the “nose of the camel,” a garment which, if allowed, will lead Europe right down the slippery slope to more oppressively restricted clothing for Muslim-European women.
Could this issue arise in America with its much smaller Muslim population? Is this an issue we must address?
America is a nation of immigrants, one that is dedicated to freedom of religion and to the separation of religion and state. Thus, most Americans are probably inclined to accept that wearing the Islamic burqa (full-face-and-body shroud), niqab (Islamic face mask), and hijab (Islamic headscarf) is a religious choice and should therefore be protected as a religious right. If not, it is feared, other religious symbols and practices might also be banned; and America would be indulging in religious persecution.
For the moment, I do not want to discuss the politicization of Islamic female attire as a visual statement on behalf of Islamist supremacism and jihad, nor do I want to focus on the headscarf (hijab). In fact, I do not yet want to address whether such Islamic female attire ( burqa, niqab, hijab) is a free or a forced choice and whether or not it is mandated by the Qu’ran.
Religious Muslim scholars and other experts disagree profoundly about this. Some say that such attire is merely a pre-Islamic, desert-based custom that has nothing to do with Islam. For example, in 2009, the Muslim Canadian Congress (MCC) urged Canada’s government to ban the burka. Mafooz Kanwar, a professor and an MCC director stated: “The burka is not mandated by Islam or the Qur’an and is therefore not religious and protected under the Charter. In Canada, gender equality is one of our core values and faces are important identifying tools and should not be covered. Period.”
Other Muslim scholars insist that such attire is an Islamic custom (if not an actual law) which women must follow in order to be “modest.”
World-wide, many Muslim women do not mask their faces, shroud their bodies, or cover their hair–but many do, especially if they have been threatened with beatings or death if they are not sufficiently “covered.” An increasing number of Muslim women in the West, including educated women, claim that they are freely choosing to wear hijab, the headscarf.
In 2007, Middle East scholar, Daniel Pipes called for a ban on burqas and niqab –not on headscarves. Pipes views the burqa as a security risk and cites literally hundreds of cases in which both common criminals and Islamist terrorists were able to commit robberies, make their escapes or blow themselves and others up, both in the West and in the Muslim world, by wearing a burqa. Male criminals and terrorists did this far more often than their female counterparts. Pipes concludes:
“Nothing in Islam requires turning females into shapeless, faceless zombies; good sense calls for modesty itself to be modest. The time has come everywhere to ban from public places these hideous, unhealthy, socially divisive, terrorist-enabling, and criminal-friendly garments.”
I concur. But I would like to explore some other grounds for such a potential ban.
According to French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the burqa is a “moving prison.” French-Muslim Minister of Cities, Fadela Amara, views it as “a coffin that kills individual liberties,” and as proof of the “political exploitation of Islam.”
In a burqa or chadari, one has no peripheral and only limited forward vision; one’s hearing and speech are muffled. One’s facial expressions remain unknown; no eye contact is possible. Movement is severely limited. A first-time burqa wearer may feel that she cannot breathe freely and that she might slowly be suffocating. She may feel buried alive and may become anxious, claustrophobic. (Try on a burqa, this experience is easy to confirm). Imagine the consequences of getting used to this as a way of life. But maybe one never gets used to it. I have heard many descriptions of what Saudi women do the moment their aircraft leaves the Kingdom’s terra firma: they immediately fling off their “coverings.”
A burqa wearer, who can be as young as ten years old, must surely experience both isolation and sensory deprivation which are, essentially, forms of torture which can lead to depression, anxiety, even a psychological breakdown. According to my colleague, psychoanalyst and Arabist, Dr. Nancy L. Kobrin, the burqa may “create an artificially induced autistic-like environment.” Covering up the five senses is harmful to the woman in the burqa; making it impossible to recognize or identify such a woman is potentially harmful to others.
How can that be? The sight of women in burqas and niqab is demoralizing, frightening, to Westerners of all faiths, including the Muslim faith, as well as to secularists. First, their presence signals the visual subordination of women; the fact that these women acquiesce and collaborate in their own subordination is also alarming, a bit terrifying. One knows that the people who do this also publicly whip, cross-amputate, hang, stone, and be-head human beings. And, if the “ghosts” are here (my own name for burqa wearers) they are meant to remind us of just such practices. Pipes’s “faceless, shapeless” women are meant to terrify, disturb. And they do.
Niqab, which allows the eyes to show but masks the face, reminds Westerners of how a masked robber or a Klu Klux Klan member looks. This is not a friendly face in the crowd!
Many Westerners, including Muslims, ex-Muslims, and those Christians and Jews who have fled Muslim lands, may feel haunted, “followed,” when they see burqas and women wearing niqab on the western streets. Is their presence a way of announcing that Islamist supremacism and jihad have arrived?
In the West, the isolation intrinsically imposed by the burqa may be further magnified by the fearful or awkward responses of others. Several New York City Ivy League college students have described to me how a single classmate in a heavy burqa and wearing dark, thick gloves makes them feel: “Very sad.” “Pushed away.” The other students tend not to talk to the burqa wearer. “When she is asked to read aloud she does so but her heavy gloves make turning the pages slow and difficult.” The students feel sorry for her and do not know how to relate to her.
Any religious headgear or garments that do not cover the five senses is obviously permissible. Thus, a nun’s long, dark habit and headgear; a Hasidic Jewish woman’s wig, headscarf, and long, dark, clothing; a Muslim woman’s headscarf (as well as various male Sikh, Hasidic, and Hindu attire) all allow the wearer to breathe, hear, see, smell, and speak. Those who wear such attire are easy to recognise and identify. They can move freely and see clearly. This is not true of the burqa wearer.
Wearing the burqa (and niqab ) may also lead to health hazards. Lifetime burqa wearers may suffer eye damage and may be prone to a host of multi-factorial diseases which are also related to Vitamin D (sunlight deprivation ) deficiency e.g. “osteoporosis, heart disease, hypertension, autoimmune diseases, certain cancers, depression, chronic fatigue, and chronic pain.”
I therefore suggest that we begin a national conversation about whether Americans should consider banning the burqa not only for security-related reasons but on the grounds of human rights/women’s rights and for health-related reasons.
I would like to conduct a poll among my readers. Please vote “Yes” or ‘No” to the proposition that America should consider banning the burqa.