I am woman, hear me roar

November 18, 2011

Why I supported the burqa ban

Filed under: Feminism,Uncategorized — Nabiha Meher @ 8:42 pm
Tags: , ,

I wrote this very biased piece based on anecdotal evidence for CHUP.

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?

9 Comments »

  1. I have always been torn on this issue. On the one hand, I totally agree with you about burqa not being a choice but rather an indoctrination. On the other, if women are going to continue to wear them and suffer in doing so, tau that “right” should not be taken away from them.

    Eventually I realize I have to stand on one side of the fence but there it is.

    Thank you for sharing about your grandmother. It helps people see just how varied our Lahore, and our society is. :)

    Comment by Naveeda — November 18, 2011 @ 9:34 pm | Reply

  2. I enjoyed reading this, particularly the bits about your family’s exemplary approach towards women.

    The burqa ban has become an interesting debate for me since it happened right after I came to the UK. Consequently, my identity politics switched quite suddenly and I was forced to confront some bitter truths.

    For example, the ban is not a ‘plea to assimilate.’ it is a political move aimed at curbing the rising political power of France’s Muslims, where praying on the street or covering up is a direct political action. As one French right-winger put it, Islam is a political party in France. Now the question is why don’t these guys join a conventional party, or indeed, assimilate?

    The problem is that asking a group who have not been assimilated politically, socially or economically to culturally assimilate is unfair and frankly impossible.

    The situation in UK is much better that way but casual discrimination in institutional practices is still common. For example my wife and I are looking for a flat right now, and landlords keep asking for a guarantor as soon as they see us, despite a letter from our agents attesting to our stellar credit history and tenancy record. I wouldn’t have made much of it had I not seen an agent ask us for a guarantor thrice (we have one and kept telling her we did but she wouldn’t listen) right after telling a White couple they could move in as soon as they paid a deposit.

    Perhaps it’s the persecution complex but my own agent told me they avoid the ‘wrong kind of people, you know the ones who bring their whole families along’. Whether that’s true is debatable but it’s a lazy and dangerous generalisation.

    As a theological debate I welcome a remaining of the burqa enforcement. But given the context of this ban I find it very troubling.

    As as an aside, the Shia community in the UK was particularly ambivalent about opposing this ban, because it was viewed as a further endorsement of Wahabi-st tendencies. However, that concern was outweighed by the fact that for non-Muslims, these distinctions between Shias and Wahabis are non-existent, and hence supporting this stance does not in any way help in dispelling the generalised phobia directed towards them.

    Most of us thus find ourselves between a rock and a hard, inflexible place.

    Comment by karachikhatmal — November 18, 2011 @ 9:39 pm | Reply

    • Thank you for your comment & perspective. You make some very valid points. Islamophobia is alive & well. It is taking its toll and I’m very sad to hear about what you are going through simply to rent a flat!

      I realise it may be easy for me to make this judgement & it’s not very fair to the immigrants since I don’t know their reality. I’ve personally never experienced a burqa or how it feels so this piece is very biased, like I’ve admitted to.

      I agree that there should be a theological debate. Muslims feminist scholars are doing some amazing work & I hope it pays off. Reading them really made me realise that religions can evolve if we want them to.

      I’m considering writing about my family actually. Their story really challenges the stereotypical view of the oppressed Muslim woman.

      Comment by Nabiha Meher — November 18, 2011 @ 9:48 pm | Reply

  3. I loved this! I started off, like you, in favour of the ban, but later on I realised my liberal tendencies wouldn’t allow me to support the denial of a basic right for a section of population. Arguing against rights to a burqa in France sounded too much like arguing against gay rights in a place like Pakistan to me. Bad analogy. But anyway.

    I like your points however and I do agree that the burqa is a symbol of oppression, the revival of an extremely patriarchal tradition and as such should be highly discouraged. I also agree that the ‘choice’ to wear one isn’t a choice at all, but the result of some serious indoctrination.

    I loved the story of your grandmother too. ^_^ Good to be reminded that such strong muslim women existed, and may the tradition continue.

    Comment by bakedsunshine — November 23, 2011 @ 9:42 am | Reply

  4. Subhan’Allah. What a munafiq.

    Comment by Iris — November 29, 2011 @ 9:37 am | Reply

  5. I absolutely love it when the word “fierce” is used to describe a woman. I’ve used it a lot, most as an adverb to intelligence or independence, but don’t you just love the sound of it? If I had one reason to describe (If I had only one) why I fell in love with my wife, it was for her fierceness too :)
    Your grandmother looks beautiful. Imagining her with a sword in hand in riding boots is a beautiful image.
    Few people understand my love for Kill Bill, but I am sure you would. You grandmother would give my lovely Uma a run for her money if she has a Hanzo sword.

    Comment by Barooq — February 2, 2012 @ 9:02 pm | Reply

    • You posted the comment again but I’m only approving this so it doesn’t repeat. I moderate comments so if you can’t see yours, it’s because it’s pending moderation. Be patient. I’ve switched my email notifications off because they get annoying. As a result, I only approve/moderate comments when I’m logged on from a computer.

      People often describe me as “fierce”. I get that from this grandmother!

      Comment by Nabiha Meher — February 3, 2012 @ 3:39 pm | Reply


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