Don’t tell me what to wear

Published: May 4, 2010
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The writer is a senior sub-editor at The Express Tribune (faria.syed@tribune.com.pk)

The writer is a senior sub-editor at The Express Tribune ([email protected])

I think we should ban baggy jeans. They are unattractive for all body types and offend my sense of freedom. I don’t want to see a quarter inch of anyone’s Calvin Klein underpants. Maybe Belgium and France, two countries that have considered banning the burqa, will agree with me. While those wearing baggy jeans and burqas may not have much in common, one thing they should share are civil liberties.

The religiosity of the burqa offends the presumably secular French and the security conscious Belgians say it renders the wearer unrecognizable. The Belgians already have restrictions allowing local governments to fine women for wearing the garment. Last year 29 women were fined. This oxymoronic imposition of freedom on Muslim women in Europe did not begin when the first burqa-clad woman entered the continent though.

Not until 9/11 did Europe catch American paranoia and realise what a threat a few yards of cloth is to their ‘way of life’. In a constant state of knee-jerk, Europe selected its weapon of choice — minarets, burqas and, of course, moderately offensive comic strips. The Patriot Act was too obvious. Europe has class. Amnesty International has expressed concern that the Belgian initiative could be followed by others. France has already banned headscarves, skullcaps and crosses in schools and President Sarkozy has said the burqa is ‘not welcome’ in the country.

That’s 1,900 French women whom the president shut the door on — just because he does not like what they wear and how they wear it. For many, the burqa is a symbol of suppression. Having allowed extremists and militants to hijack Islamic ideology, any physical manifestation of that ideology is now automatically associated with extremism. But whether women are forced into the burqa by moral police, or threatened out of it with legal consequences by governments, the situation is exactly the same.

Women are being told what to do because ‘we know better.’ A woman’s right over her body, apparel and identity is as vulnerable in Belgium as it was in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Despite discriminatory attitudes, in the east and the west, the veil is not a symbol of submissiveness. Some women say their veils empower them and make them feel safe from misogynistic attitudes. They prefer to wear the veil because it makes them comfortable. I don’t wear a burqa.

Do you? Would we want to be told we can’t wear one anymore? Or our favorite t-shirt? Or a necklace our grandmother gave us? What we wear is a part of our identity. And to be stripped of that is embarrassing, unnecessary and cruel. When the government tells us what we can and cannot wear, we know freedom is taking its toll on liberty.

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Reader Comments (25)

  • May 4, 2010 - 1:20AM

    What about telling you what not to wear ? There is a thing called culture, one has to follow certain lifestyle when being a part of particular country’s culture. Similarly Belgium and France has a set of culture, so has Saudis. When an alien way of life intrudes into a society it takes time to synchronize it with locals. However I rank West (including USA) above Muslim countries who even expect a doe to wear Burqa when goes out.

    Muslims apparently with no genuine reason have been curbing freedom of expression since ages, now its time for West to pay in the same coin though at least they have a courtesy to explain the cause logically.

    Muslims or non Muslims can always stay in their respective countries if they don’t like the customs and laws of France/ Saudi.Recommend

  • May 4, 2010 - 2:34AM

    Belgium has already banned full veiling, its not as the article suggests still being debated. Recommend

  • Faria
    May 4, 2010 - 11:24AM

    Nadir, as far as I know the bill now goes to the senate for a period of review. Under normal circumstances, if senators approve the measure, it will be published and then implemented.Recommend

  • May 4, 2010 - 12:39PM

    The restrictions on what to wear in Muslim and Non-Muslim countries is severely restricting the freedom of women. I am in favor of the burqa but where God gives complete freedom to his slaves to live their life the way they want then who are we to do otherwise.Recommend

  • Zara
    May 4, 2010 - 12:54PM

    I don’t think the burqa is purely being banned because they “know better”. The point is, where a religio-cultural practice conflicts with a state’s domestic security concerns, surely the state has a right to intervene.

    Take the simple example of somebody walking into a bank donning a mask. Not only is this unnatural in society, it can be considered threatening as the person’s identity is concealed to the point of being unidentifiable. For this reason, in many institutions and shops, wearing masks or sweatshirts with the hood over the head is also banned. It’s not just burqas, and I don’t see why they should be getting special allowance from this rule. Anything concealing one’s physical identity so extremely that they become unrecognisable by glance is considered threatening in western society. That must be respected. Inhabitants of that particular society deserve their freedom and security too.

    Indeed a woman wishing to wear a burqa should be allowed to exercise her right, but only where it does not conflict so dearly with state and society. There are plenty of societies that are more accepting, and indeed welcoming, of the burqa.

    It’s not common to see a woman wearing a mini-skirt walking down the streets of Peshawar. What if somebody wants to? She (or indeed he) should also be allowed to exercise her (or his) right, but owing to the social and religious dictations of the state, it is essentially forbidden.

    The point is, the norms of state and society must be respected, wherever in the world it may be. We can’t just do whatever we want, wherever we want. Recommend

  • Tooba Asim
    May 4, 2010 - 1:28PM

    Very well written article Faria. Most of the people only choose to pick on the ‘moral police’ and completely ignore cases like these where women are being denied their identity.Recommend

  • May 4, 2010 - 4:49PM

    Telling people what to wear is equivalent to deciding what they should think. If the Europeans really like to trump their pluralistic society, then they really ought to start acting like one.

    One point I would like to add. Iceland banned strip clubs and this was done by a lesbian elected leader. So women like to tell other women what to do just as men as men do. I can’t even imagine what she feels about Burqas.

    PS: Some days are just good days for baggy jeans and I’m proud to show off my sponge bob square pants boxers. Recommend

  • May 4, 2010 - 6:11PM

    Creation of moral police and trend of telling people what to wear has actually introduced by our very Muslim countries, when the practice gained momentum and life became tougher for westerners in Islamic countries,they started thinking on the same lines which in my opinion is fair enough. In near future I foresee a clash of civilizations between hardcore Islamic countries and West.

    I solely blame Muslims for introducing the policy of intolerance that curbed freedom of expression under the pretext of religion. Let west do the same.

    Now whether freedom of expression should be allowed, this question will be left for discussions only in media, blogs and on Human rights forums, actually its our Governments who have to decide what to wear and what not — based on foreign policies.

    Gone are the days of freedom of expression/ speech/ or something…Recommend

  • Meekal Ahmed
    May 5, 2010 - 12:54AM

    Why does every one have a single name, here and in the other comments? Why am I supposed to give my full name, e-mail address and where I live? May be the editors of this esteemed paper would like to explain?Recommend

  • Mahvesh
    May 5, 2010 - 4:06AM

    While I agree that Europe is approaching paranoia about the niqaab and the burka, I also see the point in it. Aren’t you supposed to do as the Romans do? If you’re going to integrate into a foreign society, you have to do it at some level otherwise you’ll have people carrying out honor killings and pleading cultural/religious differences for it. And as for ‘not telling you what to wear’, would you adopt the same attitude if you hear about Westerners walking around in a bikini on the Karachi beach or would you say ‘Hey! That’s not acceptable in Pakistan!’ Recommend

  • Juvaria
    May 5, 2010 - 10:55AM

    “the veil is not a symbol of submissiveness. Some women say their veils empower them and make them feel safe from misogynistic attitudes. They prefer to wear the veil because it makes them comfortable”

    I would have thought that that argument had lost its charm by now. I do not doubt that there are women who feel much more comfortable in a burqa than they would in any other attire but this is only so because of generations of suppression and expectations of submissiveness. The misogynistic attitudes that threaten their comfort levels outside the burqa are not at all dissimilar to the chauvinistic attitudes that have kept them inside the burqa. The debate would be less contentious if the Saudi-Wahhabi mindset, that is responsible for propagating the burqa (which is different from the hijab)did not prefer that all women stay at home rather than step out uncovered from head to toe.

    The burqa is tool of suppression and hence a symbol of submissiveness. We should encourage its demise. Recommend

  • TL
    May 5, 2010 - 12:41PM

    Its just like tinted glass car windows are banned in Pakistan. Mahvesh is right to say that we won’t adopt the same attitude if some Europeans walk around on clifton beach in a bikini. How about the rules for foreign women in Saudi Arabia? Similarly, do non-muslims have the freedom to publicly drink liquor, in Pakistan? Why isn’t pork easily available in muslim countries? The list goes on. If Belgium and France are considering banning the burqa and its difficult for some women to accept that, leave their country!Recommend

  • kitty
    May 5, 2010 - 1:25PM

    Burqa doesnt signify submissiveness. its just the teaching of islam to cover ones self and not dress up showing off ur body parts when a woman has to go out . Hiding face is not in islam ,had it been it would have been made compulsory while performing hajj . Follow the words of Allah and prophet (p.b.u.h)in Surah noor and surah Nisa which explains all and also why a woman should wear a veil . In America rape percentage is at its highest than anywhere else in the world only because of unneccessary freedom and if someone is getting raped how will people know if she s getting raped or she s doing this by her own will. Thank god we do not follow such secularism which in fact has made fairer sex so vulnerable to the ruthlessness of barbarian men. I am in complete favor of covering women’s head because that is the word of Allah and donot care about what people have to say follow what you feel is right and about westerners jews , free masons they are busy blinding away people from truth by portraying glamour and glitter of this fickle life .Infact they know the truth of life and hereafter but do nt want anyone to follow the right path. In famous MATRIX movie the balck man says this world has been blinded over our eyes to keep us away from the truth.Recommend

  • May 5, 2010 - 3:42PM

    @ Kitty

    In America rape percentage is at its highest than anywhere else in the world eh? any reference or proof eg. newspaper links?

    Check stats on wiki It says Zero rapes occurred in Saudi from year 2000 onwards, does it mean no rape ever committed in Saudi just because their women cover themselves from head to toe ? Its not like that, its because people of Muslims countries are too scared to report a case because of their weird religious laws, worst human rights situation and restriction on freedom of expression.

    You can see what happens in Pakistan with the rape victim esp in patriarchal system.

    Even if we go by your logic that rapes not committed in Islamic countries due to modesty and hijab etc then how would you justify Muslim countries being terrorists’ nurseries , can we safely conclude that Islamic teachings incite terrorism ?Recommend

  • umayr masud
    May 5, 2010 - 9:43PM

    So medieval times are back with a vengeance. But lets be honest if you immigrate to a nation and then want to force your lifestyle, that is wrong. And the problem is not just what the muslims wear or do its how they live. In France the Turkish immigrant Muslims live in ghettos , in Netherlands the Moroccan have pretty much made one in amsterdam .. and its not because they are sidelined, its because they are uneducated and cannot fit in.
    The debates about things being banned just because how societies feel about it are misguided. There are actually a lot more deep rooted conflicts going on. And “we” need to start realizing why the whole world feels insecure about it.Recommend

  • rehan
    May 5, 2010 - 9:59PM

    SOME PEOPLE ARE NOT REALLY OPENING UP!!LET ME HELP MY POOR FRIENDS… . Dekho Bhai ji actually they want the burqa clad women to throw off the many yards of cloth off and follow the footsteps of Carla Bruni(and they cetainly have browsed the net!). . free world.Recommend

  • Omar Qadir
    May 6, 2010 - 7:55AM

    @ Tazeel, I completely agree with you over your arguments as they are logical. It’s the right of every nation and head of it’s state to decide what should be in and what should be out. If one can comply with it, one must stay or try to find a better way.Recommend

  • Shahbaz Azmi
    May 6, 2010 - 12:41PM

    Where you choose to go is a decision you take weighing all factors important to you. For example, if u want to visit a nudist beach and know the rules that you will not be allowed with clothes, then why go there if u do not want to join them or abide by the rules of the beach – choose another beach.
    Now, I find it very strange, we want to live in France or any other western / liberal country and then insist to wear the veil quoting Hadith!! why not go to Saudi Arabia or other such countries where one is allowed to wear the veil, and avoid all those places which do not permit practicing certain religious or cultural obligations.
    I personally know of many including moslems who have refused to work in Saudi Arabia as thier law do not allow women to drive or go out without ‘purdah’. At least their decision shows respect for the local law instead of going there and creating a situation.
    Shahbaz AzmiRecommend

  • Quratulain
    May 6, 2010 - 1:14PM

    I think two issues (laws forcing people what not to wear vs. islamic identity/suppression etc) are being confused here. By all norms of acceptable society rules; one is bound by the laws of the country where one is staying. For that matter, whether the rule is to cover yourself from head to toe in burqa or to not cover fully has to be adhered to. One has to deal with it. End of story.

    I agree with the article where the enforcement of clothing on women does indeed signify the ‘we know better‘ attitude that everyone seems to have taken. And to answer the question, I believe in live and let live. No judgement, that is God’s work. Recommend

  • bakht
    May 6, 2010 - 3:27PM

    One of the most important SUNNAT is HIJRAT,
    if you don’t like the culture go to Saudi Arabia,have fun.Recommend

  • Hani
    May 6, 2010 - 4:33PM

    a very balanced and nuanced article. loved it!Recommend

  • European
    May 6, 2010 - 5:17PM

    If you want to wear the burka go and live in a country where you can. When we go to a muslim country we do not wear short skirts and sometimes even have to wear a headscarve! So if you dont like it move and leave us to our rules and stop trying to take over!Recommend

  • Zeeshan H
    May 16, 2010 - 8:26PM

    Faria, I don’t think any burqa-wearers are going to respond. I believe that moderate level of education (required to read this piece) and the wearing of a burqa are mutually exclusive.

    I would love to be proved wrong though!Recommend

  • Muhammad Umar Afzal Rathore
    Jun 15, 2010 - 6:14PM

    I don’t want to use foul language or so but waht the * is the point of writing this article?If the french or belgians are doing something up to them-their country their law! Pakistan is a free country-your choice burqa or tight jeans noone says anything so when you are getting the freedom to wear anything in your own country(except bikinis which are immodest to even the most libral class of people in Pakistan) what * are you trying to prove?Recommend

  • Ayman
    Jul 12, 2010 - 2:01PM

    Well done Faria and i dont understand that the people who donot wear burqa ,why are they so concerned about it .i wear a burqa but i simply dont care about the ones wearing jeans or something else.Article 18 of UN charter of Human Rights clearly states that everyone is free to practice thier religion in private aswell public.After this there is no point for us or any country like France or Belgium to argue against it.Recommend

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