Beginning on April 11, France began enforcing the controversial burqa ban, fining and arresting women who fail to comply and continue to wear the burqa or the niqab – the full face veil. The country is now the first European Union nation to enforce the ban, and the law as well as the corresponding debate have ignited supporters and critics on either side. Below, Nabiha Meher Sheikh, a freelance writer based in Lahore, explains why she supports the ban:
I support the burqa ban. There, I said it. As someone from a Muslim family that banned any sex segregation or dress code four generations ago, this ban is a positive development. Allow me to use my own family’s example to explain why.
My grandmother belonged to an ancient Muslim family, known as the Mian family of Bhagbanpura, who claim they arrived here in the 8th century. They were also known as the Mad Mians due to their eccentricity and the fact that the birth of a baby girl was at times celebrated with more gusto than a boy. The family has been called “matriarchal” because of the overwhelming amount of strong women who cannot be told what to do. It is shocking for those who have never seen a family where women are not secondary to the men, where even inheritance is divided equally and not according to patriarchal norms.
According to sources, the Mians settled in Lahore over a thousand years ago and until today, are all buried in an ancient graveyard behind the Shalimar gardens in Bhagbanpura. I’ve always admired them because they have never been afraid to evolve and adapt. Moreover, unlike relatively recent converts, the Mians never felt the need to “prove” how Muslim they were. They were, and still are, safe and secure in their identity.
However, this wasn’t always the case. The Mians, like most Punjabi families, were once deeply patriarchal. The women were kept in the home, married off very young and were expected to be breeding machines for the clan. They were silent, hidden away, and voiceless. In contrast, the Mian women today aren’t faced with the same pressures of marriage and children. We are educated, empowered, and highly independent. The men in the family do not believe they have the right to control us or tell us what to do.
All this changed because of one simple broken tradition: banning the veil. In my opinion, the veil is a symbol of patriarchy, of male dominance and is based on the principle that women’s God given bodies are not meant to be seen for they will lead to chaos. The presence of women in the public sphere threatens patriarchal symbols and patriarchal norms. The easiest way to oppress us is to lock us away or make us invisible under burqas if we dare invade that space.
My grandmother had as many rights as the men in her family. In the 1940s, she married a man she chose, one who treated her as his equal and not his subordinate. She was also more educated than the vast majority of women in India at the time. She was fierce, strong and independent, riding horses in breeches, sword in hand. She had the freedom to do things that arguably many in burqa do not. They do not get to feel the wind in their hair. They are faceless objects of patriarchy’s triumph over women.
The burqa, in my opinion, is indoctrination and not a choice. Someone who is brainwashed to believe that it is a choice will always maintain that it is. I say this because it’s not an Islamic requirement. As a Muslim feminist, I believe that in order to get ahead, we have to constantly reinterpret for ourselves. The re-emergence of the burqa should be condemned in the loudest possible terms. We should not let anyone take us back to where we become objects to be concealed instead of active citizens. While I know my views may be controversial, I believe that encouraging the burqa drags us back into the past.
France is a secular democracy. The people have spoken, Islamophobic or not, and their message is loud and clear. It is not the “we don’t like your kind” message propagated by those with a persecution complex, but a plea to assimilate and become part of French culture instead of living in isolated bubbles. The world is tired of our persecution complex and I don’t blame them. I have to go through demeaning visa processes in order to prove my innocence thanks to these privileged Muslims, citizens of the first world, who can travel where they please.
Am I saying that Islamophobia doesn’t exist? Of course not. But I can also guarantee that in France, if you act like someone who is receptive to their culture, you will be treated quite well by the vast majority of the population. But if you choose to walk around in a tent, which even to me represents oppression, then you will in effect further perpetuate Islamophobia.
What is the burqa but a symbol of indoctrination? Islamic history is full of strong women who defied the patriarchal norms, but sadly, all this information has been suppressed & hidden from history. By examining Muslims herstory over history, we can clearly see that veiling isn’t an essential practise; it is a choice.
So what is my problem with choice then? I realize it is anti-feminist to judge a woman based on her dress. However, I echo commentator Yasmin Alibhai-Brown when she said, “Why should society be tolerant of a mark that women are evil temptresses or packages whose sexuality has to be controlled?… There is self-segregation going on and this garment is a symbol of that.” I know I will be judged as “illiberal” but the woman who dons a burqa also looks down on the woman who is “immorally” dressed. She judges me for living in “male” clothes. She thinks, and sometimes says, that I’m destined for hell. Pray tell me why I should respect such a woman? Pray tell me why I should be tolerant of the intolerant?
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