What about the Muslim Women who Choose NOT to Wear the Burqa?

In the ongoing controversy about the proposed burqa ban in France, the voice of one group of people is strangely obscured. Muslim women who do not wear the burqa or the headscarf do not feature prominently in this debate. We do hear a great deal about the importance of preserving the choice of Muslim women who want to wear the burqa. But in any community, the choices of some people impact the lives of others. The presence or absence of the choice to wear a religious garment that is meant exclusively for the female members of a religious group affects gender relations and gender hierarchy in the community as a whole.
I am a Muslim woman and I do not wear the burqa or the headscarf. The constant reference in liberal media to those women who choose to wear it has made it increasingly difficult for the countless Muslim women, such as myself, to express our discomfort with it. This is because any outright criticism of the garment comes across as an intolerant attack on the religion of Islam as well as the Muslim women wearing it.
The reality is that many women have reason to dislike the burqa even when they do not harbor any Islamophobic sentiments. The fact is that the burqa is often imposed on women by hardline states or religious groups. The Saudi Arabian government forces women to wear the burqa in all public places. It also prohibits women from driving or travelling without a male relative. The Taliban imposed the burqa on women when it controlled Afghanistan before 2001. Today, it forces women to wear it in areas it controls in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In societies in which women are punished severely for not wearing it, the burqa is a part of a range of laws and policies designed to suppress women. It is not hard to see why many women in these societies associate the burqa with a highly repressive patriarchal structure that subjugates and confines women in the name of Islam.

But then the argument goes: surely for the women who choose to wear the burqa, the garment is a choice not a tool for suppression. This argument obscures the fact that there is a pervasive, sexist propaganda in many Muslim communities in favor of the burqa. Many women are vulnerable to this propaganda and so their so-called choice to wear a burqa may not be the result of independent, informed decision-making. Moreover, even an independent decision to wear a burqa is not carried out in a vacuum. It is important to understand the effect of this choice on other Muslim women, many of whom may be trying to resist the pressure of their relatives, their community or their governments to wear the burqa. Their resistance is undermined when the burqa becomes increasingly common in public places, and becomes more closely associated with the religion of Islam.

But then wouldn’t the burqa ban be a major impediment to the freedom of women who  feel compelled, either due to internal or external pressure, to wear it when they are out in public? Perhaps, but on the other hand it may provide much needed respite to the many Muslim women who are compelled to wear the burqa by their relatives, friends or religious figures in their community. The ban might encourage them to resist the pressure to wear the burqa. It might also encourage the Muslim community to think critically about the garment and whether it is compatible with modern, secular society in which women and men are equals.
Another important question that does not receive much attention in the media discourse about the burqa (perhaps because the answer may be too obvious) is this: why do many woman dislike the burqa? Why might some women consider the burqa to be an imposition on their freedom? The burqa is a big shapeless tent around a woman’s body. In the public place a woman wearing a burqa does not have an identity. When she walks down the street, you know you see a woman, but you know nothing more about her: what she looks like, whether she is smiling or frowning, does she seem kind or unfriendly. If you see the same woman the next day, you will not be able to tell it is her. In some sense, a burqa leads to the most perverse kind of sexual objectification – a woman wearing it is identified by absolutely nothing other than her sex: she is a nameless, faceless, shapeless “woman” and nothing more.
I do not mean to pick sides in the debate over the proposed ban on the burqa by the French parliament. The decision about whether to ban the burqa should be made in the context of French society and politics, and the positive as well as negative consequences of the ban must be carefully weighed. In any discussion of the ban, however, an important consideration must be the impact of the ban on all women in French society, including the Muslim women who want to resist the veil.

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  • Toni

    I really nothing to add but I feel I should say that I really enjoyed reading this.

  • zp27

    I Second Toni.

  • LoveFromAlaska

    “…even an independent decision to wear a burqa is not carried out in a vacuum.”
    Glad you pointed this out. I was in Egypt this winter having tea with a family in Giza. I asked the mother at what age her daughter (currently 6) would start wearing the headscarf. I honestly don’t remember the age, because she was more emphatic about making sure I realized that it would be the girl’s choice whether to wear it.
    All the women in the room were wearing one and assumedly the girl will decide to wear a headscarf if only for the simple reason that it is normal to do so.
    Seems many of the women who choose to wear the burqa or headscarf do so for reasons other than religious piety.

  • Sylvia

    If you go beyond the femininist view of the burqua ban, in the wider spectrum of civil liberties, completely banning an article of clothing is ridiculous. Choice is the name of the game, just like with contraceptives and abortion, rights and liberty should be viewed in the realm of choice. A woman should, if she pleases, have the right to wear a burqua if she so choses.
    France needs to redirect its efforts away from banning the burqua, but to putting measures to protect women who choose not to wear it. This could range anywhere from support lines for women being pressured into wearing the burqua to actual shelters for muslim women somehow abused for not wearing it.

  • Ivory

    What about nuns? Can they wear their veils? I think this a complex issue but I know that the way to combat patriarchy is not to paternalistically ban freedom of choice. It should be as a previous commenter said – support should be given to women who choose not to wear the veil and it should be made clear that veils are oppressive – but women should be able to choose for themselves.

  • Skippy

    I think to a degree this controversy is an example of choice rhetoric run amok. Although a ban on a piece of clothing is somewhat problematic, I think a ban on the burqa is a powerful symbolic gesture and makes perfect sense to me. I think it is possible to ban the garment and support both women and men with the cultural understandings that need to be reached as a result.
    As an atheist, I suppose it is easy for me to be a bit more dismissive of the burqa because I see it as a repressive and nonsensical religious tradition. That’s just me. It is hard for me to imagine any other reason to wear it other than adherence to strict religious principles. Should adherence to one’s religious values be enough to justify it? I am sure it is complicated, but this is one of the many religious traditions that I just find indefensible.

  • shelilia

    No choice is ever made in a vacuum. I really like the article by http://muslimahmediawatch.org/ about this. Where as I wish no women was forced to wear the burqa. I have no right to tell anyone not to wear it. And I certainly don’t think the French government has that right. It is picking the wrong fight.


    I used to wear hijab for 3 years (ugh) and I am so much happier without it now.
    I got a wake-up call from one guy who said that even if I wore hijab to be “modest,” to be “proper,” to please Allah and to practice Islam, he said that I was, in fact, re-enforcing the idea that women WERE sexual beings and that we had to proect ourselves from men’s eyes. So that defeated the whole purpose of being a hijabi feminist. That gave me a long pause and I thought, “oh fuck no, I don’t want this.”

  • cattrack2

    This is a thoughtful and well written piece Sara. I enjoyed reading it albeit I disagree with your conclusion.
    The reason I disagree is that in your formulation any choice made under cultural pressure is not an intelligent, informed choice. That’s a patronizing argument in that free will doesn’t require either intelligence or information, it simply needs to be free of coercion. The denial of agency has led to some serious evil, the forced Christianization & genocide of millions of “ignorant” Indians by Europeans comes to mind.
    Moreover your argument ignores the coercive power of the state. While peer pressure is indeed strong, its nowhere near as strong the power of the state (which can lock you up if you disobey it). A lot of people are Christian, Muslim, or Jewish simply because their parents were Christian, Muslim or Jewish. That doesn’t mean the state gets to step in and question that. A woman who declines to wear a burka can always leave her community, but she can’t just leave school, leave France, or leave jail. It seems to me that if you don’t want women to wear burkas then you should educate women about the problems with burkas. For what its worth, none of the Muslim women I know wear burkas, or even headscarves.

  • ghostorchid

    What bothers me in all this discourse is the prevalent idea that the only response to the burqa is to ban it (or not ban it). I think we can all generally agree that a) there are serious patriarchal implications to the burqa and b) there are serious legal and social implications to legislating clothing. We also don’t know what the result of the banning will be (good? bad? breaking even? good for some, bad for others?), or how much racism and political manipulation factors into this policy. In other words, we’re in very murky territory here, but we tend to discuss it as a black-and-white, yes-or-no question. Is there a space for feminist action in this dilemma that can transgress the “to ban or not to ban” box?
    This reminds me, in many ways, of the brouhaha over female genital cutting (more popularly known as FGM). Again, you have a practice that is deeply patriarchal in nature, that is unlikely to be “chosen” free of sociocultural implications, that gets the women who undergo the procedure all kinds of social leverage denied to women who don’t. When media buzz about the procedure reached the US, there was a predictable outrage and many US organizations halted funding to international health care programs that were involved in FGM (among other services).
    What was the result? FGM didn’t cease; it just went underground where health care providers were unable to ensure it was done in a safe and sterile environment. Infection rates from FGM shot back up again. This is the expectation of some feminists; that rather than facilitating the liberation of women, banning the burqa will just push the women back indoors. In other words, if change doesn’t come from within, some feminists suspect patriarchy will find a way to compensate. There’s evidence for that suspicion – as older patriarchal habits and customs have been overcome or rejected, we certainly see the cropping up of new, insidious ones. On the other hand, bans do influence perception over time – seatbelts, for example, were initially perceived as a horrible infringement on a driver’s freedom. But after years and education, legislation, and public service announcement, we’ve been won over. So who knows. It’s hard to say which way a ban will go, and most likely it will be a mix of successes and failures, like most public policy.
    But what if we’re missing alternatives in facilitating change?
    One human rights photographer documented a case in which a girl fled her village to avoid the FGM procedure, eventually hooked up with an NGO, was able to get permission to record footage of an FGM procedure (after years of negotiating), and screened it for the male leaders of her village. The leaders voted overwhelmingly to discontinue FGM within two weeks. That’s an idyllic result – a member of the community willingly creating change from within – but what it shows is that there might be grassroots ways to deal with internal cultural problems without a heavy government hand swooping down.
    What if, for example, the government instead invested in funding Muslim women’s caucuses, giving them woman-only space to discuss the implications of the burqa and strategize for grassroots action? What if it funded them making documentaries, TV specials, setting up educational programs and events, and creating literature? What if it offered incentives to men to participate and learn? What if it looked at which women, in France, wear the burqa (it’s a minority of French Muslim women) and whether they also happen to face, say, economic hardship, less access to social services, etc? What if Muslim men who are against the burqa were given resources to reach other men through programs and media-making? What if women were armed with practical, culturally-informed tools to resist pressure to wear the burqa in their personal lives; what if they engaged in subversive protest (I had a friend organize an event in which they gathered weekly in a public park in a “no-religious-covering” circle and read the Qur’an together, much to the mixed feelings of their male counterparts). In other words, what would happen if we funded feminism? We don’t really know, because the funding and attention disproportionately goes to studies about bans. Aren’t we acting a little trigger-happy with the legislative gun here?
    Let’s consider femininity – as Twisty puts it, “that set of self-absorbed, self-defeating behaviors required of women by the dominant culture to ensure a ready-steady supply of submissive sexbot availability” – which some of us have a love-hate relationship with. It cannot, in many cases, be chosen free of implication. It regularly oppresses, undermines, and demeans women. Women who “cave in” and espouse femininity reap certain sociocultural rewards, making it that much harder for women who reject it. It’s often culturally mandatory for success, approval, and leverage. I ask: how do we fight compulsory femininity? Must we ban femininity altogether? Is it possible to have some women be feminine without dragging all of us back onto the nail polish train? If so, how can we create that kind of world? And why aren’t we considering those strategies for the burqa issue?
    Why are we settling?

  • cattrack2

    ITs not a ban on an article of clothing its a ban on religious expression. And its precisly the power of the symbolism involved that makes it so offensive. From what I can tell, the burqa is as much cultural as it is religious–witness how many women in Iran of all places decline to wear it–but using the power of the state to combat it is like using a howitzer to kill flies.
    The state just doesn’t belong in any questions of religion. No one would like the opposite, if the state said women can’t have abortions because the Bible teaches that life begins at conception. Religous expression has to be an individual decision.

  • Octo

    Sara — this is great.
    RE: “This argument obscures the fact that there is a pervasive, sexist propaganda in many Muslim communities in favor of the burqa. Many women are vulnerable to this propaganda and so their so-called choice to wear a burqa may not be the result of independent, informed decision-making. Moreover, even an independent decision to wear a burqa is not carried out in a vacuum. It is important to understand the effect of this choice on other Muslim women, many of whom may be trying to resist the pressure of their relatives, their community or their governments to wear the burqa. Their resistance is undermined when the burqa becomes increasingly common in public places, and becomes more closely associated with the religion of Islam.”
    I don’t think I’ve ever seen this point made so effectively.

  • Allytude

    I hope you allow me to link your very well-written piece on my blog. I come from the other side – liberal but non burqa banning. I think, too often, outsiders like me are unable to see something, or rather put a finger on things as clearly as you have.

  • Skippy

    Individual choices have collective consequences. I do see the implications for a collective ban on individual freedoms. However, for some reason, limitations on religious expressions do not bother me so much. It is probably due to the fact that I have a distaste for religious expression.
    I do not believe that we need to “allow” the burqa so Muslim women have something to resist. I think a ban could be in place along with resources to justify the ban. We are perhaps engaging in very broad topics like agency and free will, but on a grassroots level, what excuse could any woman give for wearing the thing other than ascription to a religion? If religious is all there is to it, then why would anyone want to participate in something like that?

  • Max

    This is one of the most well thought-out comments I have read in a while.
    I agree with the entire post. The stuff on FGM reminds me of stuff I read years ago about how hard it was for women to just get up and leave their culture. You have to consider that some people simply don’t feel comfortable going out in public without certain articles of clothing, and it doesn’t make sense to make them choose between hiding indoors or going out without feeling dignified.
    Funding programs like those you described would be a good idea if we could get the government to invest in them instead of “quick fix” solutions like this.

  • Phenicks

    I think if they ban the burqa they will HAVE to ban all religious veils or else call it what it is, an attack on Islam. Burqas are like abortions, dont want one dont get one, end of story.

  • Nettle Syrup

    Part of creating a society in which ‘choice’ to wear something like a burka or nun’s outfit actually means something is to remove the stigma attached to the opposite, which is revealing clothes. I’m not surprised that, when some women see the hatred and ‘she was asking for it’ attitudes spat out at women who wear a miniskirt or dare to go without a bra in the summer, they want to avoid that judgement. If we’re going to talk about the choice to wear things we feel comfortable in, no matter how revealing or not, we have to support this in every case, except when it’s impractical for the purpose (for example, a teacher wearing a micro miniskirt and a bikini top to teach, or wearing an outfit that conceals her face). But if people are not willing to put aside their judgements on women who dress ‘loose’ – and let’s face it, the majority won’t be willing to put this aside until feminism has changed things – they can’t be surprised when there is such confusion over what constitutes freedom of expression and how we should go about setting legal boundaries.

  • Elisanda

    A woman who declines to wear a burka can always leave her community, but she can’t just leave school, leave France, or leave jail.
    It seems overly optimistic of you to assume that only the state can react with coercive and violent measures if a woman’s behavior is considered deviant.
    There are cases in which honor killings have happened when a woman did try to leave her community because she did not agree with the lifestyle expected of her (such as Hatun Sürücü or Morsal Obeidi), and while these crimes may be especially extreme, I do not doubt that even the less life-threatening social, economical and emotional consequences women who try to leave their community or change it from within may face discourage many from trying. Simply reducing the question of wearing the burqa or not to a matter of choice fails to take into account these aspects.
    The fact that discussions like this one are often reduced to the “choice” or “freedom of religious expression” aspect saddens me a little, because it seems to prove that addressing the non-gendered aspects of these issues (i.e., respecting different cultures and religions, protecting individual freedom of expression from state interference) is ultimately considered more important or even more acceptable than focusing on the feminist, gendered implications. If both men and women wore the burqa, I would understand the direction of the current criticism of a ban, but as it is an issue concerning women (and the control and sexualization of their bodies), the way in which the ban is discussed seems strange to me.
    Therefore, I doubly applaud the OP, not only for this well-written post as such, but also for daring to highlight a side of the problem many others do not seem ready to address.

  • battle angel alita

    from my experience, most women who i have met who wear the burka have done so of their own choice and say it liberates them. however as i’m in the uk i think its different to say other countries where it is mandatory.
    i’ve never felt the need to wear it although i do take issue with the reason people use to justify its banning-the one in particular about women being oppressed because they are turned into objects. well fine, however if your going to say that in order to take the moral high ground than you’ll need to ban about 98% of advertising as most of it is done using womens half naked bodies and is often “dismembered” (i.e faces are exluded). i believe women should be allowed whatever they want to wear and should never be forced into wearing or doing anything they dont want to, however, it just pisses me off that western countries take the moral high ground in terms of womens right when we still have alot to do.
    the one last thing i want to say is has the president actually spoken to any muslim women? the problem with issues regarding muslim women is that often the people disuccing them tend to be non muslims projecting their idea’s on the matter and twisting the evidence to fit into their world view. if however, his decision has come from actually listening to muslim women and what they want then thats always a good thing.

  • Susan B

    This author raises a valid point, precisely why there is no easy answer. Attire that sets one apart by religion is judgmental.
    The burqa is not comparable to a nun’s habit: Women can still be Catholic. A woman cannot wear the habit and automatically become a nun. The burqa marks a woman who wants to or feels compelled to mask her identity and her appearance. It carries an element of fear. The women who wear burqas fear others’ reactions to their appearance.
    I suspect that banning burqas will make them a symbol of resistance and more popular. It’s probably best to ignore them.
    The “holier than thou” will always be among us, though it’s sad for the women who do not make this choice on their own.

  • inyd

    I also agree with every point made in this excellent comment. When reading the last few posts on this same issue, I felt frustrated that many commenters seem to treat this as a very simple issue of “banning burqa in France = free Muslim women everywhere” despite many comments pointing out that this is a complex issue spanning religions, cultural, political and social divides. Your post is one of the few offering practical strategies on combating the root of the problem. Thank you very much.

  • battle angel alita

    “The burqa marks a woman who wants to or feels compelled to mask her identity and her appearance. It carries an element of fear.The women who wear burqas fear others’ reactions to their appearance. ”
    and um….how many muslim women, exactly, have you asked about this? or is this just your view? there are many reasons women wear the burqa and many reason they may want to mask their appereance, however the reason you cite is a new one to me and maybe another reason indeed however we’d appreciate if you avoided the blanket judgements thank you.

  • battle angel alita

    there are many reason women wear the hijab like my sister who wears it as a statement of her faith among others. however your comment smacks of the issue everyone is complaining about on here, a man had to tell you what was right/wrong about what you’re wearing.

  • Leonie

    Thanks, I think you’ve said some really important things most people have missed out on!
    Trying to impose an external ban is not going to change the minds of those Muslims who believe that wearing a burqa is the correct thing to do — that will only be changed through debate and dialogue within the Muslim community.
    Rather this kind of ban is likely to alienate people and inflame tensions. When veiling (in various forms) already plays a role as a marker of Muslim identity for many women, such a ban could be very inflammatory and provoke opposite reactions than those desired. The more a community feels under attack the more they may wish to assert their identity through certain symbols.

  • Ryl123

    If the Hijab or Burqa is a “statement of faith” then why dont men wear them…

  • ferocita72

    “The presence or absence of the choice to wear a religious garment that is meant exclusively for the female members of a religious group affects gender relations and gender hierarchy in the community as a whole.”
    Yes yes yes! I think this sums up quite nicely why headscarfs, burqas and religious symbols in general are banned in France.
    The gender roles, religious assumptions and societal guidelines implied by various religions are not welcome in the French public sphere. Period.
    Unlike in the U.S., this preservation of public secularity is considered more important than individual rights to religous expression.
    It is an interesting parallel of the fact that in some Muslim countries, the requirement to wear the burqa trumps individual rights to expression. In both of these instances, the impact on the whole society is what drives the rule of law and Sara makes a good point that the voices of women who don’t wear the burqa are often unheard.