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What's under the Burka?
“The issue of the Burka is not a religious one but one of freedom, of a woman’s dignity. It is a symbol of servitude, a symbol of abasement.”
Importantly, the problem is not only a French one - Mahmoud Hamdi Zaqzouq, the Egyptian minister of religious affairs, has been trying to curb the increasing influence within his country. He has stated his wish to eradicate the wearing of the Burka which he considers un-Islamic: “certain Muslims are committing a fundamental mistake in focusing on outer appearance and the superficial aspects, and in doing so are creating a deformed image of Islam”. In 2008, Egypt’s Minister of Health also decided to forbid the wearing of the Burka amongst nurses of state hospitals, believing the garment to be against hygiene regulations generally required in hospitals.
Women wearing the burka
The issue has since spread throughout France. A large number of women are now adopting the garment in a show of cultural and religious unity and support, wishing to be immediately identified as Muslim. In the outskirts an increasing number of young girls have also taken to the Burka as a means of avoiding “unwanted attention”. Though many of them will justify their decision by presenting the dubious argument that it is a form of liberation, that in doing so they are no longer judged by their appearance but by their mind, many more will find objection, seeing it as voluntary submission to a life of abasement that other women will not have had the liberty to choose for themselves but will have had inflicted on them.
Whilst fully defending their right to dress however they see fit in a country that has always prided itself on its human rights, one must realize that the garment also functions as a further barrier in the bid to cultural and religious integration in France impeding, as it does, communication. As Jack Straw stated in 2006 “the Burka is a visible declaration of separation and difference” (He declared himself to be against the wearing of the Burka on British territory).
The problems in dealing with this stem from the fact that there are two very different groups of women wearing the Burka in France at the moment: those who do so by choice as a sign of religious and cultural expression (or, as some say, as a means of political provocation) and those who have it inflicted upon them.
It is important to realize, however, that though some undoubtedly do so voluntarily, the Burka remains for many a symbol of a backwards inequality amongst men and women and the suffering that the latter continue to endure. Sihem Habchi, the president of the feminist movement “Ni putes ni soumises” ( neither wanton nor submissive), rages against the wearing of the burka in France. In her latest news release for the AFP (French press association) she says that the only thing she sees in the Burka is “a symbol of the oppression of women by those fighting against integration and equality of the sexes”. She strongly believes that “France has a duty to the women who continue to fight for their basic human rights” in countries such as Iran. She states quite firmly that the issue of the burka is in no way linked to one’s right to religious freedom and expression.
As a result, it is not only women’s rights that are at stake but, equally importantly, tolerance and peace amongst France’s many citizens. For this reason we should view the up-coming parliamentary investigation with optimism, as an opportunity to debate, to meet the young women who wear the burka and to inform ourselves and hopefully find answers to the problem.
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