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May 26, 2011 Special Dispatch No. 3869

Pakistani Blogger Slams Critics of French Veil Ban: 'Burqa Can Never Be a Free Choice of Anyone – Had It Been, This Choice Would Have Been Available to Men Also'

May 26, 2011
Pakistan | Special Dispatch No. 3869

Marvi Sirmed is a renowned human rights activist, theater personality and columnist

Following the April 11, 2011 passage in France of a ban on the burqa, noted Pakistani human rights activist and blogger Marvi Sirmed published two blog posts on her website, marvisirmed.com, examining the arguments of those opposed to the ban – "Replugging: Burqa Gets a Befitting French Kiss" and "Big Ban Hypes Political Islam." Both posts are dated April 17, 2011.

Ms. Sirmed, who is a political commentator and a theater personality, also shocked her readers by including with the first post an image of a woman draped in a burqa with part of her naked body exposed. In the post, she wrote: "Those protesting against the ban can be distinguished into three categories. One: European Muslims who believe hijab, burqa and face veil are essential part of their faith. Two: Muslims living around the world for whom this big ban is a manifestation of Islamophobia and an incursion on Muslims' right to express and follow their religious beliefs. These Muslims might or might not be observing purdah [literally: curtain, or some form of covering body] in their families, but take Muslim religious symbols as essential part of their identity. 'Three: those who do not believe in purdah or in burqa or veil, but consider it Muslims' (or any religious community's) right to choose their attire. This group constitutes not only Muslims, but most secular individuals and groups as well, belonging to other religious communities."

Following are excerpts from "Replugging: Burqa Gets a Befitting French Kiss"[1] and from "Big Ban Hypes Political Islam."[2]

"Replugging: Burqa Gets a Befitting French Kiss"

"Most of the Women Passionately Protesting the Burqa Ban are Heard Saying They Do It of Their Own Free Will Because They Feel Safe – Well, You Can Feel Safe in Guantanamo Bay If You're Conditioned to Feel Safe That Way"

"It has been and is my biggest relief to be among people who are sane enough to be against this practice of subjugating women through veil. But finding so many friends and fellow rights activists among those protesting France's ban on Burqa is shocking and disappointing both.

"The anti-ban crowd comprises a range of viewpoints – from ardent Islamic, to moderate, to new-age Islam, to seculars, to antitheists and so on. Most heard argument from almost all of them has been their unflinching 'concern' for women's choice and freedom to choose what they want to wear.

"To me, this strong sounding argument remains flawed, inconsistent and self-contradictory. How could a choice to commit suicide be that widely accepted? If your suicidal tendency is the result of certain frame of mind, experiences in life, is self-destroying and criminal, so is Burqa.

"When the society conditions your mind to willingly get subjugated and considering yourself 'safe' by hiding behind the veil, how is it a 'free choice?' Most of the women passionately protesting the Burqa ban are heard saying they do it of their own free will because they feel safe. Well you can feel safe in Guantanamo Bay if you're conditioned to feel safe that way."

"It is a Slap in the Face of a Society Where a Woman Can Only Feel Safe If She Hides Herself, If She is Invisible from Public Eye, If She Conceals Herself from the Male Eye"

"It is a slap in the face of a society where a woman can only feel safe if she hides herself, if she is invisible from public eye, if she conceals herself from the male eye.

"Stepping on the soil of any Muslim country in a dress of your choice save Burqa is herculean for any woman. You want to wear a sleeveless top on a hot summer day and go out on the streets of Lahore or Dhaka; it would be appalling if not impossible like it is in most of Middle Eastern countries.

"Things would, however, be starkly different in Kathmandu, Kandy [Sri Lanka] or Mumbai even if you put the East versus West argument.

"There's a wide gulf between for and against Burqa arguments within Islamic scholars. Major disagreements exist on whether or not Burqa is an injunction of the Koran. Even if it proves to be in the holy scriptures, it needs to be reviewed in the context of modern world where men are expected to have at least little hold on their libido, where women are not just sex objects whose unveiled presence in society would be dangerous for public morality.

"At the risk of sounding Islamophobe or racist against Muslims in the West, I would strongly suggest to those who seem too concerned about women's 'freedom' to choose Burqa for themselves, to kindly go back to their countries of origin and fight for women's choices there. A lot of women in these countries don't have right to choose their spouse or profession let alone their dress.

"Let us all fight for a free Muslim world where women are free to not wear Burqa. A polite reminder to all the women's rights activists, of sickening bars on women's choices in Muslim countries where they are coerced into adopting a life style no sensible male would ever choose for himself. Burqa can never be a free choice of anyone. Had it been, this choice would have been available to men also."


(Image courtesy: marvisirmed.com)

"Big Ban Hypes Political Islam."

"All [Those] Protesting or Detesting the 'Big [Veil] Ban' Are not Fanatic, Misogynist, Bigoted Muslims – The Protests have a Wider Range of Spectrum Than One Would Like to Imagine"

"'Shame on France, Hijab is our identity' – read a placard held by a burqa-clad seven-year-old girl. She was part of a protest rally against the ban on burqa that took effect in France on April 11, 2011, after around two years of legislative deliberations within the French parliament.

"France became the first European country to ban full-face veil from general public space on Monday last week [April 11] only to risk worldwide protests by Muslims supported by the followers of other religions who believe in democratic principles of equality and freedom of expression. Like all unified history that is textualized to suit a particular power agenda, this one also ignores some important peripheral histories. An important peripheral history to this particular event is that all [those] protesting or detesting the 'big ban' are not fanatic, misogynist, bigoted Muslims. The protests have a wider range of spectrum than one would like to imagine…

"Those protesting against the ban can be distinguished into three categories. One: European Muslims who believe hijab, burqa and face veil are essential part of their faith.

"Two: Muslims living around the world for whom this big ban is a manifestation of Islamophobia and an incursion on Muslims' right to express and follow their religious beliefs. These Muslims might or might not be observing purdah [literally: curtain, or some form of covering body] in their families, but take Muslim religious symbols as essential part of their identity.

"Three: those who do not believe in purdah or in burqa or veil, but consider it Muslims' (or any religious community's) right to choose their attire. This group constitutes not only Muslims, but most secular individuals and groups as well, belonging to other religious communities."

"Muslims… Need to Overhaul Their System of 'Identity Management'; The Politics of Identity Must Not be Played at the Expense of Women's Emancipation; Muslims Must… Get Rid of Such Symbols of Utter Ignorance, Stone-age Patriarchy, Fascism"

"Dealing with this mix of anti-ban rainbow may seem a bit complex. It involves dealing with theist belief system, ages-old stereotypes, basic human right to self-expression, feminist view of women's status in societies, secularism and democratic plurality. Complex it may seem, it is essential to examine the issue with a lens that allows you to see through all these prisms while not barring the vision in favor of species' subjugation — may it be women or a particular religious community.

"The first group, for example, seems to believe in one disputed version of scriptures allowing the veil (or making it obligatory) upon women. Even a cursory view of works by a wide range of Islamic scholars makes it clear the veil is a highly disputed matter, the validity of which is yet to be proved through the Koran or Hadith [sayings or deeds of Prophet Muhammad]. A feminist's take would be to review the concept under ijtihad even if proven to be a part of Holy Scriptures. The proposition has due weight. Saner sections of Muslim scholarship might be urged to deal with the issue and resolve it once for all.

"The second group, which insists on face veil or burqa, is the one that takes this subjugating covering as a symbol of their identity. In its intent, this concept seems highly divisive of a modern world's society that has to be plural[istic] in its formation in order to give communities equal footings in one particular territorial unit. This propensity of religious communities' insistence on 'specificity' and 'otherization' not only disfigures pluralistic social order, but also becomes a contrivance for victimization of their own selves.

"Muslims especially need to overhaul their system of 'identity management.' The politics of identity must not be played at the expense of women's emancipation. The face veil, howsoever it is taken – as cultural expression or as identity – objectifies women in most perverse manner just as a bikini ad does – or even worse. Muslims must, repeat must, get rid of such symbols of utter ignorance, stone-age patriarchy, fascism and misogyny. Women need to be celebrated, not feared to damage a society's moral code if they appear in public space with their faces visible.

"Moreover, it is political Islam that is getting hyped up throughout the world using this ban and through the veil."

"Burqa or Veil, I Am Afraid, Is More Than 'Attire'; It is a Misogynist Coating on the Body and Soul of Women – The Devastating Effect of Which Cannot Be Reduced to Concepts Like 'Freedom' and 'Right'"

"The third group speaking against the 'big ban' comprises even progressive, secular and egalitarian people from multiple religious identities. Over the past week, I tried to interact with diverse groups of people on different social networking sites and initiated the discussion using 'shock and awe.'

"I displayed a weird picture as my display picture on Twitter, with an image of burqa-clad woman showing half of her body completely nude. Followers from Pakistan (not all of them) were concerned about my morality in displaying such a picture and wondered whether I could wear such clothes myself.

"A very interesting reaction came from Pakistani seculars/progressives and Indian right-wingers as well as centrists. While the right-wing Indians were cheering my pro-ban statements, Sonali Ranade, an Indian trader, was intrigued by it and said: 'Love to see our ultra orthodox righteous cheering on @marvisirmed's rebellion against purdah. Wud they support it for the women at home?' (sic). She further elaborated her point with a blunt statement: 'Hope to see the same activism against our khap panchayat [elders' courts in India] imposed ban on jeans & mobiles for girls!' (sic). Renowned South Asian journalist from NDTV Barkha Dutt stated: 'Huge problems with its enforcement. But I say no to Sarkozy's enforced policing too.'

"Pakistan's promising youth and leading figure in anti-dictatorship protests during 2007 movement, Samad Khurram, was worried about those who observe veil as their personal choice. On my reminder of the social conditioning that might have resulted in observing a subjugative practice, Samad raised an important question: 'A new form of conditioning in response to another conditioning is okay?' The discourse, here, missed the point that a voice of dissent against pervasive exploitation should not be diluted by the 'conditioning' label. It should rather enrich the debate with alternative point of view. Undeterred by the polemics, journalist Raza Rumi reminded: 'Correction. Burqa has nothing to do with Islam. During Hajj, Divine injunction is not to cover their faces.' Rumi goes on to ask: 'Would you also condemn the banning of suttee [Sati or widow burning by Hindus] by the British in 19th century because it was freedom of choice?'

"The secular viewpoint, to sum it up, revolves around the 'right to choose attire' which has been usurped in France by this big ban. Burqa or veil, I am afraid, is more than 'attire.' It is misogynist coating on body and soul of women, the devastating effect of which cannot be reduced to concepts like 'freedom' and 'right' to choose attire or to express. If it is about the right to suppress women, or women's 'right' to choose subjugation, a progressive modern mind of whatever religious leaning should detest. Protesting a burqa ban must not take precedence over enforcement of purdah by the Saudi and Iranian governments. The educated minds must choose their fights carefully.

"Postscript: France might have become the first European country to put a public ban on veil, [but] it must be remembered that it was Turkey that banned headscarves for women in public sector jobs. The Turkish ban could not be lifted despite the fact that wives of both the president and the prime minister wear headscarves."


Endnotes:

[1] http://marvisirmed.com/?p=1577, April 17, 2011. The text in both pieces has been lightly edited for clarity.

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