The Burkha: Women as a battlefield
In this 2008 article written by Waleed Ali, The Burkha: Women as a battlefield, Waleed challenges a lot of assumptions than Westerners are again making in 2016 about the relative freedom of Muslim women who wear burkhinis.
No article of clothing so controversially evokes hostility and revulsion in Western societies as the headscarf, or hijab, worn by many Muslim women. Sampling the vitriol of a thousand talk-back radio callers, this cannot plausibly be denied.
Any hijab-clad Western Muslim can confirm it by painful, personal experience. A report in 2004 published by Australia’s Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission reported several distressing personal accounts from hijab-wearing women of the kind of abuse they had faced in the years since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
Most commonly, these included physical assaults such as being spat at, having objects, such as eggs,
bottles or rocks, thrown at them from moving cars, and having their hijabs pulled off. Other reports include people deliberately setting their dogs on Muslim women, punching them, attempting to drive them off the road or to hit them with a car, and threatening rape and extreme violence. Some of these events resulted in women being hospitalised. Often, these women reported that bystanders watched on, yet did nothing.
With these social dynamics in place, and with a long Western history of obsession with Muslim women’s attire, the veil, whether the face-covering niqab or the more common hijab, was always going to find its way into political discourse.
And indeed, recent years have evidenced such political fixation. The most famous example is the French law, first proposed in 2003 and passed in 2004, which bans students in state schools from wearing overt religious symbols. The ban is generic, but it was unquestionably directed at the Muslim girls who wear the hijab.
Rationalisations of the law were always destined to be unsophisticated. Take, for example, the argument I heard while watching BBC World in January 2004 that, because the French Government believed many Muslim girls were forced to wear veils, a law banning them in schools was a necessary response. Of course, even assuming the dress code of French Muslim girls is imposed upon them, forcing them not to wear veils is precisely the same oppression—it is just the opposite manifestation.
No-one to blame but herself. She displayed her beauty to the entire world… Strapless, backless, sleeveless, nothing but satanic skirts, slit skirts, translucent blouses, miniskirts, tight jeans: all these to tease man and appeal to his carnal nature.
Australia’s Sheikh Feiz Mohammad
In Australia, by August 2005, (then) Australian Federal Government MP Bronwyn Bishop had warmed to the idea, advocating a headscarf ban in Australian public schools. It was an especially provocative suggestion coming from a woman and a politician who, in other circumstances, is known to have a libertarian streak.
Here, she was clearly coming from a place of hostility, as her comments made apparent. ‘In an ideal society you don’t ban anything,’ she said. ‘But this has really been forced on us because what we’re really seeing in our country is a clash of cultures and indeed, the headscarf is being used as a sort of iconic item of defiance by the sort of people who want to overturn our values.’
Subsequently, on radio, Bishop would say that hijab-wearing women were ‘in a position of being a slave’ and ‘can’t deal with the choices that freedom offers’. She was unable to ‘accept someone who wants to be a little bit of a slave, or a little bit subservient’.
They were comments remarkable for their incoherence.
Somehow, we were expected to believe in the image of a Muslim woman who was simultaneously cowed, deprived of choice and enslaved, yet defiant and provocatively iconic. This internal contradiction never seems to have occurred to Bishop. Indeed, when confronted with the thought that many of the women she considered enslaved actually feel entirely free, she responded with even more rabid incoherence: ‘Nazis in Nazi Germany felt free and comfortable, but that’s not the sort of standard that I can accept as being free.’
But this was not about intellectual consistency. It was about hostility, and a broader prejudice, a fact only reinforced subsequently when Bishop clarified that her invective was not applicable to other forms of visible religious distinction, such as Jewish yarmulkes. For Bishop, no such ban was necessary because Jews did not use the ‘skullcap as a way of campaigning against the Australian culture, laws and way of life’. This was explicitly, specifically, about Islam.
The comments triggered a national debate that sought the views of almost everyone except headscarf-wearing Muslim women themselves. The Age in Melbourne ran a spate of opinion pieces on the topic over several days, but not one was from a woman who actually wears the hijab—despite the fact that such publishable pieces were submitted. This is a common feature of these discussions, and has been for centuries. Western politicians and commentators presume to tell us what the hijab symbolises and why women who wear it do so.
Only The Sydney Morning Herald published a single contribution from a hijab-wearing woman, Amal Awad. Her argument was clear simple and sincere. ‘I would ask Bishop how on earth she equates covering one’s hair with a form of suffocated freedom,’ she begins. ‘I am not locked in a golden cage and I am especially thankful that I am not imprisoned by prejudices.’
Awad’s exasperation with the dehumanising debate is clear: ‘Who cares that a headscarf does not preclude one from having interests and goals, and an intelligent mind to pursue them?’
On one level, it seems the political fixation with Muslim female dress remains alive and well. But on another, it has little to do with dress code. The Muslim woman, in her varying degrees of cover, has become merely a symbol: a battleground from a much broader polemic. She is not a person with interests, aspirations, struggles and feelings. She is a concept. And it is a battle many preachers in the Muslim world are all too happy to join. It is one of the saddest facts of contemporary Islamic discourse that Muslim women are so often reduced to the same symbolic function that they are in the Western conversation. Here, too, they are not people.
They are appropriated, usually by men, as symbols of Islamic identity, purity and resistance to Western cultural hegemony. And, just as in the West, the hijab has become the central, obsessive fixation of the discourse.
A potent example is Amr Khalid, the populist Egyptian preacher with a popstar following among Arabic-speaking Muslims across the world. Khalid speaks on a diverse range of topics, and has found favour particularly with the British Government for his ardent opposition to suicide bombing, whether in London or Tel Aviv. Yet, a large proportion of his preaching is focused on women. And such is the rhetorical environment in which he works, that it is possible for him to claim that ‘the most important thing in a woman’s life is the hijab’, without earning so much as a raised eyebrow.
Elsewhere, he elaborates further that for a woman to take it off is ‘the biggest sin, the biggest sin, the biggest sin’.
Some hyperbole is inevitable in Khalid’s televangelist style. But even so, this kind of discourse is deeply nonsensical. On no account is a failure to wear the hijab ‘the biggest sin’. That title could more plausibly be reserved for idolatry, murder or even adultery. And just as the common Western fixation on the hijab demeans Muslim women by reducing their significance to nothing more than a cloth, so too is it deeply degrading for Khalid to assert that the hijab is ‘the most important thing in a woman’s life’. It is as though education, health, love, family and spirituality are mere footnotes to the primary function of women as living mannequins. This is what her life has become.
Such, lamentably, is the prevailing nature of contemporary Muslim apologetics. Because it imagines itself in an enduring struggle for religious and cultural preservation against the forces of an invading Western culture, it regularly adopts a defensive, even patronising stance. And because it almost never comes from the mouths of women, it invariably expresses an inherently male perspective—one that assumes women must dress to accommodate the frailties of men. This finds its most contemptible expression in attempts to draw a connection between revealing clothing and rape:
A victim of rape every minute somewhere in the world. Why? No-one to blame but herself. She displayed her beauty to the entire world… Strapless, backless, sleeveless, nothing but satanic skirts, slit skirts, translucent blouses, miniskirts, tight jeans: all these to tease man and appeal to his carnal nature.
The comments belong to Australia’s Sheikh Feiz Mohammad and unleashed a fierce outcry when they became public in May 2005. He earned a swift scolding from a broad range of Muslim organisations. Outraged Muslims swarmed talk-back radio to register their anger for the public record.
And rightly so.
Mohammad’s rhetoric finds a frightening echo in the work of Muhammad Saalih al-Munajjid, a popular Saudi imam whose website contains a bank of thousands of responses to questions submitted from around the world. Asked why it is necessary for Muslim women to cover themselves, he resorts to misogynist type:
‘When women go out showing most of their bodies—as the questioner mentions—this is one of the greatest causes of crime and corruption of men’s morals, and of the spread of immorality …. What does a woman want when she shows her body and exposes her charms to onlookers? Does she just want them to look and stare, and what is the affect [sic] of that on rapists and the foolish? How are you going to stop them from getting what they want by attacking you and trying to rape you?
Are you going to show some meat to the hungry and then try to stop them from eating it?’
Suddenly, women are captive to the impulses of rapists. It is as if the rapist is the victim of the devious taunts of uncovered women. His behaviour is presented almost as the inevitable, even if foolish, response to sexual stimuli. As inevitable, at least, as a hungry person feeding on meat. We are invited to conclude it is unreasonable to expect men to resist raping uncovered women. In this way, rape is normalised, and it is women who must pay the price for such criminality by modifying their appearance and behaviour.
But it is also an intellectually ridiculous argument. It makes the ignorant and infantile assumption that rape is a sexual crime, when this is almost never the case. Rape is about power and violence. It is most commonly committed by people who know the victim; not strangers aroused by revealing clothing.
Ninety-year-old women living in nursing homes get raped. Are we to believe this is a product of sexual enticement? Can we possibly be stupid enough to believe that a hijab would have made any difference? It certainly hasn’t prevented the rape of countless women in the Muslim world.
It is one of the saddest facts of contemporary Islamic discourse that Muslim women are so often reduced to the same symbolic function that they are in the Western conversation. Here, too, they are not people.
They [the symbol of the hijab and the burkha] are appropriated, usually by men, as symbols of Islamic identity, purity and resistance to Western cultural hegemony.
Yet, this kind of argument is not as rare as it should be. It was almost precisely replicated by Australia’s Sheikh Taj al-Din al-Hilali in an infamous sermon that exploded into international scandal in October 2006. After asserting that, in the case of adultery, ‘the responsibility falls 90 per cent of the time with women’ because they possess ‘the weapon of seduction’ al-Hilali indicated that such seduction could end in rape.
Not surprisingly, such a discourse is notably at odds with the messages that tend to come from Muslim women on the rare occasions their view is sought. In the midst of the storm surrounding al-Hilali’s remarks, several female Muslim voices managed to find their way into the public space in protest.
Saara Sabbagh, a youth and cross-cultural community worker who has studied Islam formally in Syria, remarked that al-Hilali’s comments demonstrated he was ‘truly out of touch with … the reason we wear a head dress’. Sabbagh insisted it ‘has nothing to do with conservatively dressing to prevent men from targeting [women]’.
Sherene Hassan, speaking as a board member of the Islamic Council of Victoria, insisted that ‘men do not enter the equations. I don’t [wear the hijab] to hide from men’. Her hijab was primarily about her ‘devotion to God’. Maha Abdo of the Muslim Women’s Association in Sydney, reiterated the point: ‘The hijab is not a tool to be a deterrent for sexual assault or any assault, or physical assault, for that matter. It is a spiritual connection between myself and God.’
These attitudes reflect the findings of a September 2006 study published by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, which examined the reasons why hijab-wearing Muslim women in Germany choose to dress as they do.
The survey of 135 religious women of Turkish extraction elicited an emphatic response: 97 per cent said they wore the hijab as a religious matter—not as a matter of cultural resistance or to protect themselves from rape.
Ninety per cent said they felt the hijab gives them self-confidence. Most said their decision to take to the hijab was purely a personal one not influenced by their father, husband or brothers. Indeed, the study found that female role models in the family more often provided the inspiration.
Obviously, one should not read too much into this. It is only one study with a small sample of a Western Muslim population with a single ethnic background. It is unlikely to tell us a great deal about the reason women in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia or Uzbekistan wear the hijab. But the point is that while a flood of outsiders are keen to speak unflatteringly on their behalf, few people seem eager to ask Muslim women. We might be surprised at the responses if we did.
In my conversations with hijab-wearing women, I encounter a startling diversity of motivations for their dress. Some echo their German sisters, viewing it purely as a private religious matter with no deliberate social meaning. For others nit is nothing more than a cultural practice. A few consider it an important part of their identity. Most draw on a combination of reasons, which might change over time. None tell me they wear it to avoid rape. None tell me they wear it on the instruction of men.
In fact, it is far more common for their husbands and fathers to put pressure on women, not to wear the hijab, but to remove it.
Such perspectives go missing when outsiders monopolise the conversation, speaking for Muslim women they would apparently prefer to remain voiceless. In purely Qur’anic terms, there is little justification for popular sexualised rationalisations of the hijab. It is true that the verse widely considered to mandate the hijab explains that it is for women’s protection; so they are ‘not harassed’. But it also explains that the prescribed dress code is designed so that Muslim women will be ‘known’.
This indicates that the Islamic modes of dress were introduced as a means of identification. In truth, the sexualisation of the hijab is more male than divine. It is a product of its male appropriation in a struggle for identity. Muslim thinkers who promote such apologia have far more in common with hijab-fixated Western commentators than either cares to realise or admit. Both take a simple piece of cloth, and transform it into an apocalyptic cultural struggle.
Both use it to assert the superiority of their cultures. Each, in the process, shockingly simplifies the culture of the other and even themselves. Both dehumanise the women they have appropriated as symbols by presuming to reveal to the world the single true meaning and significance of the hijab on behalf of those who wear it. Both are deeply entrenched in nonsense. This is bad enough when confined to the level of cultural polemic. It is positively disastrous when it seeps into the realm of public policy.
Burqas found their way into feminist theatre, such as The Vagina Monologues, where Oprah Winfrey lifted the garment off an Afghan woman to reveal her face to the world. The symbolism is discomforting.
The Afghan woman’s rescue would be performed, not by her own will, but by her American saviour.
The Reverend Fred Nile suggested that Muslim women should be prohibited from wearing their loose-fitting religious dress in public. This was necessary, he argued, on security grounds: he was convinced there was a danger Muslim women could hide weapons beneath their concealing garments.
This suggestion, and the assumptions on which it was based, were obviously preposterous. If taken seriously, it would also have implied the prohibition of winter coats or barristers’ robes. But then, weapons could equally be hidden in shoes or bags. The logical extreme of Nile’s absurd proposal was enforced public nudity—at least for Muslims.
And so the regression was complete. The veiled Muslim woman had already moved from a seductress of loose moral virtue, to the embodiment of sexual and social repression. Now she had become a security threat. But just as Muslim women can become the symbolic target of much political venom, so too can they suddenly find themselves at the centre of self-described political benevolence.
Indeed, if we are to believe the rhetoric of Western political leaders, they are so concerned by the plight of Muslim women, in particular, that it shapes their foreign policy. They are prepared to go to war to liberate them if necessary.
In a statement for Women’s Equality Day in August 2002, then US President George W. Bush claimed credit for ‘restoring fundamental human rights to Afghan women’ by toppling the Taliban, who ‘used violence and fear to deny Afghan women access to education, healthcare, mobility and the right to vote’. Some nine months earlier, just after coalition forces had invaded Afghanistan, President Bush relinquished a regular radio spot reserved for an address to the nation, handing it instead to his wife, Laura. It is safe to assume she was acting on her husband’s request when she used this forum to:
… kick off a world-wide effort to focus on the brutality against women and children by the al-Qa’ida terrorist network and the regime it supports in Afghanistan, the Taliban … Afghan women know through hard experience, what the rest of the world is discovering: The brutal oppression of women is a central goal of the terrorists …
Three days later, Cherie Blair, wife of [then] British Prime Minister Tony Blair, reinforced the first lady’s sentiments, telling The Guardian that ‘the women of Afghanistan have a spirit that belies their unfair, downtrodden image. We need to help them free that spirit and give them their voice back’.
Around the same time, but almost certainly not coincidentally, the US Department of State issued a Report on the Taliban’s War Against Women. Written in a highly editorialised style, it briefly describes the horror of life as a woman under the Taliban, relaying stories of women who were beaten or shot for being alone in public. That said, the content of the report is unsurprising: the misogynist brutality of the Taliban is well known and beyond question. But the report is remarkable for its existence. The US Department of State does not often publish such passionate assessments of women’s rights.
As Australian social scientist Shakira Hussein notes in this context, typically, gender justice issues are either confined to the domestic political arena, or as is often the case for conservative politicians, excluded from the political conversation altogether. Indeed, it is fair to say that neither Blair nor, especially, Bush have strong reputations as champions of women’s rights. Yet, suddenly these rights had risen to political prominence.
For the first time in living memory, gender justice had made its way onto the foreign policy agenda. ‘Because of our recent military gains in much of Afghanistan, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes’ said Laura Bush in her radio address. Making the foreign policy link explicit, she continued: ‘The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.’
Around the same time US secretary of state Colin Powell promised that: ‘The rights of women in Afghanistan will not be negotiable.’
Not only were women’s rights a concern; they could be invoked as part of a legitimate pretext for going to war. Western politics had managed to get in touch with its feminist side. Afghan women were entitled to wonder what they did to deserve such special magnanimity.
After all, people in search of a women’s rights cause are hardly bereft of options. The world is tragically full of them. As new converts to feminism, Western politicians could well have declared a war on child sex slavery in Thailand, dowry burnings in India, or the selective abortion of females that occurs throughout the world, but especially in India and China. Yet, there was no activist foreign policy to eradicate female genital mutilation in sub-Saharan Africa.
Nor have we heard a word against breast-ironing – a horrific practice particularly common among Christian and animist communities in the south of Cameroon, where a fire-heated stone is pressed hard on the chests of young girls to stunt breast growth as a way of making them less sexually attractive and protecting them from sexual harassment. It can cause severe pain and abscesses, infections, breast cancer, and even the complete disappearance of one or both breasts. As many as a quarter of Cameroon’s teenage girls suffer from this practice.
Central in the Afghan war, once more, was Muslim women’s dress. The burqa, an all-covering garment with a mesh patch over the eyes to allow for vision, became the defining image of the downtrodden Afghan woman and, by extension, the war. The US Department of State’s report told stories of women ‘donning the tent-like burqa’. Hussein recalls that, in the United States, the Feminist Majority Foundation cut burqas into blue squares, and sold them for US$5 for people to wear as a ‘symbol of remembrance for Afghan women’. Remembrance!
Burqas found their way into feminist theatre, such as The Vagina Monologues, where Oprah Winfrey lifted the garment off an Afghan woman to reveal her face to the world. The symbolism is discomforting. The Afghan woman’s rescue would be performed, not by her own will, but by her American saviour. Defeating gender injustice is not merely an intellectual exercise. Often the most brutally misogynist practices arise only in regions of high illiteracy and intergenerational poverty.
Accordingly, they are not confined to national or religious borders: honour killing, for example, where a woman is killed by her family members on suspicion of even the mildest form of sexual impropriety for bringing shame upon them, is found among Sikh and Hindu communities in the subcontinent, Christian communities in the Middle East, and even Greek and Italian migrant communities in Britain. These communities span a broad range of religions, but tend to have poverty and ghettoisation in common. Clearly, there is more to misogynist brutality than religious, cultural or ideological identification. It is a sociological phenomenon as well.
Certainly, though, the intellectual battle is indispensable for change. But it is a battle that must be won in the West as much as the East. Only when Muslim women are treated as human beings whose views matter and who are valued in their own right, will we have cause for optimism.
As long as they remain symbols, and as long as those symbols are invoked by opposing sides in obnoxious rhetorical wars of culture, they will continue to be little more than a battlefield. Relentlessly discussed, never consulted, invariably exploited.
Previously published in Kindred magazine, September 2008, and extracted from People Like Us: How arrogance is dividing Islam and the West by Waleed Aly, published by Picador, Pan Macmillan Australia, 2007.
Waleed Aly is an author and a lecturer in politics at Monash University, and works within that university’s Global Terrorism Research Centre. Previously, he worked as a commercial lawyer, and he also has experience in human rights and family law.
Since this article was published in 2008, Walid Ali has become one of Australia’s most respected commentators, and has won numerous journalism awards, including the 2016 Gold Logie award for the most popular television personality.
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