Women unheard in the din about burqas

Burqa on the Hogeweg, Flickr image by CharlesFredIn France on 26 January 2010 a cross-party parliamentary inquiry, set up six months ago to investigate the full veil, handed down its recommendations. It recommended first that a parliamentary resolution be adopted stating that wearing the full veil is contrary to Republican values. It went on to condemn discrimination and violence against women.

Despite the inquiry's position that as yet there is insufficient general consensus in support of a ban of the full veil in public spaces, the parliamentary leader of the ruling party, Jean-François Copé, has submitted a draft law stating that 'nobody, in places open to the public or the streets, may wear an outfit or an accessory whose effect is to hide the face'.

The draft law, which would apply to both the burqa and the niqab which fully obscure a woman's whole body and face and leave only a small slit or mesh for the eyes, has created ripples of both outrage and support across the world. Those who support it cry that countries must protect themselves against insidious non-democratic practices. Those who condemn it argue that to target Islam for its religious dress culture is a racist violation of cultural rights.

In the debate, the concerns that supposedly started the whole shebang — women's rights, their protection and promotion, and the complex implications of Islamic dress practices — have been obscured. Instead, women, and women's bodies, are yet again being used as the battleground for a culture war.

The sad irony is that a ban on women wearing the full veil in public places will not liberate women, but further constrain and even endanger them, regardless of their motives for wearing it.

If a woman has freely chosen to wear the full veil, then a law overriding that choice in public places is a clear curtailment of her civil and political rights. Those in the West who argue that women, even through the exercise of their own choice, should not be entitled to put themselves in a position which potentially demeans them, would do better to fight against violent pornography and unregulated prostitution.

If a woman has been forced to wear the burqa or the niqab, then it is barbaric to ostracise her socially, criminalise her, and restrict her access to public services. To isolate her further from the broader society and to discriminate against her while she is vulnerable, in the name of protecting her rights to be free from violence and discrimination, is nonsensical at best, dangerous at worst.

If the focus on the full veil is removed, the underlying sentiments of the French parliamentary inquiry — that women are equal citizens, that cultural practices which discriminate against them are wrong, and that violence against women should be condemned — are sound.

But only about 1900 women in France wear the full veil. In contrast, the number of prostitutes is estimated to range from 20,000–40,000. Many are trafficked, abused, and on the streets.

Domestic violence is also a huge problem. The French Ministry of Health reports that of the 652 women homicide victims in Paris and its immediate suburbs between 1990 and 1999, half were killed by their husbands or partners. France's sixth periodic report to the Convention on the Elimination of Violence Against Women finds that in metropolitan France on average one woman dies every four days as a result of violence from an intimate partner. It's been estimated that one in every ten French women is a victim of domestic violence.

Problems of domestic violence and prostitution aren't confined to France alone — Australia also has high rates of domestic violence — but they do offer some perspective on the debate over how best to protect women's rights. If attempting to combat discrimination and violence against women really is at the bottom of the debate over the burqa, then why not focus on domestic violence with the same hysteria?

This is not to say that there is no place for a discussion over what the burqa or the niqab mean, and what place they have, and should have, in modernity. From its practical problems to its symbolic implications, the issue of the full veil is loaded and sticky.

Too often, however, the role of women and the way they dress in society is constructed as a debate between right and wrong. It leaves no room for the multiple experiences of the world in which real women live, and the complex factors which influence the way in which women dress.

Tellingly, the French parliamentary inquiry was sparked by President Nicolas' Sarkozy's speech in June 2009 in which he stridently declared that the full veil was not welcome in France. Sarkozy wanted a debate, a political podium to yell from, and that's what he got.

But real understanding of what lies behind women's choices requires a conversation where women's concerns are listened to and acted upon. Polarising political hysteria whipped up by politicians, where women go unheard in the din, will not do.

Ruby J. MurrayRuby J. Murray is a writer and researcher currently living in Jakarta, Indonesia, where she works in media and communications. She is co-founder of The Democracy Project. Ruby's blog

Topic tags: ruby murray, burga, niqab, full veil, france, nicolas sarkozy, islam, women, feminism



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Existing comments

Ruby one of the glaring issues regarding teh wearing of the burka is connected to your last paragraph about the choices woman make regarding their clothing. The question is: Do many of these women actually have a choice? As adults, have they felt the warmth of the sun and the evening breeze on their faces? Or is their manner of dress prescribed for them - predominately by their menfolk, supported by religious figures and custom; all designed to keep women in a subordinate position where the domestic violence which you rightly decry can occur in secrecy.
pirrial clift | 11 March 2010

Ruby, you are to be congratulated. In this week of International Women's Day, it is good to see that a 'reform of the reform' is being called for and to take this issue, which is at 'arm's length' to most of us, is the shock tactic that is needed.
Fr Mick Mac Andrew Bombala-Delegate NSW | 11 March 2010

Yes - it is one of the greatest scandals that feminists have been silent about the high rate of domestic violence in Islamic societies. It is as if they only comment on what happens to women close to home [who have welfare services who try to help] and don't care about those further afield - which is very myopic in the end.

Where domestic violence is concerned, Muslim women have it worse as the Islamic writings seem to sanction it. [At least the Bible does not sanction it] Pamela Bone, feminist and writer who died recently lamented the lack of care in western feminists for their battered Muslims sisters who suffer among other things 'honour killings, the giving away of little girls to settle a family's blood debt, sex-selective abortions or the murder of newborn girls because of a cultural preference for sons, the stoning of women suspected of adultery.'


Abuse of women is terrible wherever it occurs, but why not look at where it is part of a way of life? The wearing of the veil is part of this way of life - a horrendous attitude to women - speak to any women who have left Islam and they will tell you -it is a mysoginist comment on the face and hair of a woman and not in keeping with western democratic ideas. It is not tolerance to condone intolerance.
Skye | 11 March 2010

Well said Ruby.
Helen Bergen | 11 March 2010

" The strident debate over Islamic dress is again barreling through western democracies. If attempting to combat discrimination and violence against women really is at the bottom of the debate, then why not focus on domestic violence with the same hysteria? "

Indeed, why not more focus on domestic violence & violent pornography & unregulated prostitution in western societies.

Why not, more important in terms of numbers suffering, focus our energies on the damage death and destruction, caused by Australia's unwavering support of wars of Occupation, visited on innocent burqa wearing women by our favourite allies, - USA and Israel - in for instance, Iraq, Afghanistan and Occupied Palestine?

DAVID A HICKS | 11 March 2010

I have to agree with Pirrial Clift below - a) Is there really free choice for these women in the decision whether or not to wear a burqa? A Palestinian girl whose brother I grew up with left her family when faced with a choice between their cultural/religious expectations and her very ordinary Australia way of life. There was no real flexibility/choice for her. And b) Women wearing burqa's belong to a religious culture which permits: 'honour killings, the giving away of little girls to settle a family's blood debt, sex-selective abortions or the murder of newborn girls because of a cultural preference for sons, the stoning of women suspected of adultery.'

I'm opposed to burqas, (just as I am to many edicts of Catholicism) but not to the extent women should lose their right to wear them. Nevertheless is it fair to ask, as I feel you do, that we shouldn't discuss the sexual inequality represented by a burqa while-ever there are prostitutes still on the streets?
Ben Davies | 11 March 2010

The real problem is the tension between culture and Religion. The history of the Church shows the ability to flourish in all cultures without losing core values. The trouble with both Islamic and Christian "Fundamentalism" is to confuse the two. In the 19th century many missionaries thought they had to impose Western Dress and other customs onto people with a different cultural background. Thank God churches in Africa and Asia can flourish without losing cultural traditions that don't conflict with the basic truth of the gospel.
John Ozanne | 11 March 2010

Once again Ruby Murray gets to the heart of things. I agree that there's a place for a discussion of the place and significance of the burqa and niqab in modern society, but surely the women who wear it should be in the forefront of such discussion? It doesn't appear that the French government has taken much notice of this group - a minority becoming even more marginalized. Definitely nothing to do with women's rights!
Joan Seymour | 11 March 2010

Quran 4:34:? Men are the maintainers of women because Allah has made them to excel over the others and because they spend out of their property; the good women are therefore obedient, guarding the unseen as Allah has guarded; and (as to) those on whose part you fear desertion, admonish them, and leave them alone in their sleeping places and BEAT them;then if they obey you, do not seek a way against them; surely Allah is High, Great."

Where is there any room for a woman to give her side of the story, if this verse from the Quran is followed? She does as she is told by her husband. Full stop. No further discussion need be entered into because Allah has says that this is the way it is.

There is no room for arguing about fundamentalism with Islam because the Quran contains Allah's own words which are valid for all times, people and places.

If a woman wants to wear a burqa, I don't really care too much. However, as others have said here, I wonder how much of a choice many Muslim women have exercised in the whole issue.
Patrick James | 12 March 2010

To me this is not a religious issue...personally I find the look of a burqa abhorrent but that's because I was brought up in a christian country...as a biker though I have to remove my helmet and or balaclava before I am allowed to enter any business or government building if I don't do that I am in serious trouble...Islamic women should be made to remove their face coverings just like I have to...that is called equality and everyone being treated the same...if they want to wear that style of clothing out on the street not a problem but the law should apply to everyone across the board.
Mark Finnie | 14 March 2010

Well, you have to go step by step. You have to get the main and what significant.

I personally believe that if authority doesn't intervene, there will be no change. I don't mind where they want to start. As long as, they are logical and respective, then we should feel fine with that.

But it's always difficult to approach without strategy. Direct approaches are never wise.
AZURE | 01 July 2010


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