Obviously, French president Nicholas Sarkozy was going to piss off a lot of people by announcing that the burkha is not welcome in France. Obviously, it was going to be all over the news. It’s amazing how a piece of cloth can stir up so much commotion. It’s worrying, actually. It has become so over-politicised that it’s almost cliche.
A few years ago, I put together an art exhibition focusing on Muslim women and the veil. For months afterwards, I debated with myself about whether wearing the veil should be accepted and embraced because it’s a tradition, and we should hold on to the few traditions we have left, or whether the veil should be banned because it’s archaic and sexist. I actually could not decide. Now, it just seems ridiculous. Mostly because wearing jilbab, hijab and niqab is not dictated by the Qu’oran, nor is it strictly a Muslim thing. What about Catholic nuns, who have been wearing habits for thousands of years; or the Jewish tzniut? Practicing modesty is an ancient custom (ancient being the operative word).
OK, so in a society that values modesty, marriage and family a woman might choose to seperate herself from the young, unmarried women, to signify that she is off the market and she’s reached the goal that all women are supposed to aim for. But it’s when that choice stops being a choice, and becomes an object of political manipulation, that it becomes a problem. In her memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi makes a good (and personal) point about the veil in Iran, and its switch from choice to obligation, that happened in the span of one generation:
“So the issue of the veil in Iran is the issue of choice. My grandmother never took off her veil until the day she died, and she lived a long life. She always wore the veil. But she was very much disturbed by the way the government was imposing the veil upon not just Jews and Christians and atheists but also upon Muslim women like my own mother, who did not want to wear the veil. For her the veil was a symbol of faith, but if every woman was forced to wear it, whether she believed in it or not, then it would become a symbol of force and a political symbol of the state.”
I’m agnostic. I wouldn’t say atheist, but organised religion means nothing to me, so I can only speculate as to why Muslim women, especially young Muslim women, living in the West, feel compelled to wear the veil. Maybe it’s an identity thing, but is it really a religious observation, or is it a product of society and a rejection of Western values (or lack thereof)?
When Sarkozy reaffirmed France’s stance on religious expression in public, my initial thought was, ‘Thank you!’, only because I find the burkha strange, alienating and unnecessary. I know women who wear headscarves and they are lovely, warm, friendly people, but part of me wants to ask them why they feel the need to dress like that. As for the veil, I have never had a conversation with a woman who covers her face. It’s just weird, and antisocial.
But I must be missing something. There must be some part of this that I’m ignorant about, because it’s not a choice I’ve ever had to make.