The killing of 47 people and the injuring of over 100 in an attack on the World Food Programme on December 25 by a burqa-clad suicide bomber raises some legitimate questions about the continued practice of wearing the burqa and niqab in our society. Whatever the questions, there is a legitimate case to be made for face coverings — whether burqa or niqab — to be prohibited.
In a country such as ours, permanently on high alert for the next terrorist attack, should women (or men for that matter — we don’t know) be allowed to wander freely with no discernable way for the authorities to identify them? Do I have the right to enter a bank dressed in a balaclava or any other mask? Or would hiding my face lead to a proper presumption of guilt?
But this is a religious practice, you say. You are targeting devout Muslim women who practice purdah. Leave them alone! But this is not a religious practice, it is a cultural practice — and not a particularly old one at that. There is no requirement in Islam — unless someone can prove to me otherwise — of covering one’s face. Are females required to cover their faces when visiting the most sacred and holy cities of Makkah and Madina during Hajj? No.
Nor is it a cultural practice with a particularly long history in the subcontinent. The influx of Saudi money and influence since the 70s, coupled with the number of returning Pakistanis from the Kingdom, encouraged the spread of this practice. Twenty years ago, with the exception of the tribal areas, it was rare to see a women with her face covered. Not today.
People in some parts of Africa and the Middle East practice female circumcision, but should we decide to adopt and respect that in the name of ‘culture’?
In transparent, open societies, the need to be identifiable is essential for the functioning of society. How does the male professor know the person he is teaching is the same person taking the exam? Without non-verbal communication — a frown, a frustrated look — the teacher remains oblivious to his student’s frustration and incomprehension in class.
What about the cop pulling over a woman in the burqa? How does he identify if she is who she says? Would you want a woman in a burqa teaching your children? Yes. How about a Protestant Ku Klux Klan member in his hooded robe? Just as you would be rightfully wary of your child being taught by a hooded Klansman, many non-Muslims are terrified of a faceless person teaching their children. It all depends on the prism you look through.
Would you want your doctor/traffic policeman/politician to have their face covered whilst they inform you of a terminal illness/bribe/lie? Of course not, but then face coverings only apply to women. They don’t generally do these jobs. And that is the crux. The burqa and niqab are a mark of separation. Western commentators argue that it stops women from assimilating into western societies. Actually it stops women from assimilating into any society. It’s a barrier from interacting with others. It’s a bar from female empowerment. Name one woman of substance who wears the niqab or burka — and please don’t say Farhat Hashmi.
Are women passionately choosing to wear the burqa? There is little proof that women actively decide to adopt the veil. However, we do know of women who are threatened, beaten and disfigured if they attempt to choose not to. Just this Sunday the New York Times ran the story of Sultana, a 21 year old girl from Karachi, who was slapped by her brother and threatened with broken legs after she shed her burqa for a McDonald’s uniform.
Removing the veil from society will not only aid short-term security for Pakistan and ensure that future attacks like the one last Saturday will be harder to carry out, it will emancipate women from the intolerance and misogyny of men and mullahs. We should encourage these women to confront these reactionary forces face to face (excuse the pun).
Published in The Express Tribune, December 29th, 2010.