The Burka:Trapped in a Mobile Prison

I wore a burka only once and would not wish it on my worst enemy. I borrowed it from an Afghan friend whose mother fled from the wrath of the Taliban when she was forced to ditch her Western-style school uniform for a black prison garment which covered her from head to toe and erected a wall of withdrawal between her and the rest of society. From one day to the next, she was deemed a second class citizen by reactionary, fanatical zealots.

A burka obstructs the most basic interactions and natural senses: you cannot breathe, smile, see, walk, sit, eat or speak normally. It is the worst expression of gender apartheid and misogyny; the ultimate cultural medium of oppression and submission; an artefact of slavery and instrument of dehumanisation, a gross violation of inalienable human rights. And not only is it a crime against womanhood but a crass offence to both sexes. It implies that just the sight of a woman’s face will turn men into wild beasts who cannot exercise any self-control.

The most common arguments made in favour of the burka or against a burka ban are based on the principles of “freedom of religion” and “freedom of expression”, which by all means should be carefully protected and respected. Yet, in that particular context, their application is deeply flawed.

For a start, the burka is not a religious phenomenon per se but a cultural expression. The religion of Islam existed long before the burka to which no reference is made in the Quran. In many Muslim countries, such as Turkey, Tunisia, Syria or Morocco, it is banned in public places altogether or is heavily restricted. Only in the most conservative societies, like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Afghanistan, is the burka regarded as an integral part of the culture. Consequently, by defending the right to wear the burka under the premise of “freedom of religion” one does not defend the religion of Islam but a particularly extreme interpretation of it which is antithetical to our way of life.

Others evoke the “right of expression” and frame the debate as a matter of free choice and as a symbol for our tolerance towards other religions and cultures. That, however, is a logical fallacy. To tolerate a custom which is inherently intolerant does not make us tolerant. It makes us apologists of brutal oppression, rather than guardians of individual freedoms. Or take the argument of “right of expression” to the exact opposite extreme: what about the right of nudists to be naked? I, for one, consider the burka much more of an unnatural obscenity than nudity. Nonetheless, I would never tolerate it in public. The burka is not merely a piece of clothing. It is a manifestation of political Islam and Islamism which, again, are in many ways contradictory to our system of values.

Do not get me wrong: I do not support a ban of the burka in public places for the same reason illiberal societies like Syria do, although it is a good example to illustrate why the burka has very little to do with the mainstream interpretation of Islam. I advocate it for reasons similar to the French, based on a mixture of human rights and security concerns, which, I believe, must override individual freedom of expression in the public sphere.

Of course, a legitimate question to ask is: what about the rights of those women who wish to wear a burka? To deny their existence would be intellectually dishonest. Some burka-wearing women are indeed not forced into submission by their families or husbands. It is, however, important not to miss the complexity of the problem, and consider the immense social and communal pressure many Muslims are under even when they come from relatively liberal backgrounds. The right not to wear the burka is of little comfort when your Wahhabi imam wishes Allah’s wrath upon you, or when the Salafist boys from next door call you an “indecent whore” who “invites rape”.

In fact, I can only think of three valid arguments against the burka ban: firstly, the problem of enforcement which would entail questions such as who would enforce the ban and what would be the consequences of non-compliance. Secondly, the real risk of backlash as we have seen in France where entire Muslim communities were stigmatised and alienated. And finally, the concern of abuse; whilst I would support it in public places such as banks, airports, courtrooms, universities, schools and workplaces, I could not sanction in good faith the infringement of an individual’s personal freedoms in the private sphere.

But the bottom line remains the same: the burka is an affront to humanity and has no place in freedom-loving societies. Of course, it is possible to be anti-burka and anti-burka ban. But if we oppose the burka ban, we must oppose it for the right reasons. There is little more disheartening and demoralising than to see brave, progressive Muslim women speaking out against a culture of oppression, whilst privileged Western men defend it or hide behind dubious double standards, naively fooling themselves into thinking they protect something noble.

About the Author
Julie Lenarz is Director of the London-based Human Security Centre and speaks widely across the media on terror and radicalisation.