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April 4, 2012 / Man in the Mirror

What Hijab and Burqa Bans Mean For Women’s Rights and Secular Societies

Selma Al-Samarrai

Shaima Alawadi, a 32-year-old Iraqi-American, was brutally attacked in her home in El Cajon¸ California, on March 21She was found unconscious by her eldest daughter, with a note placed by her beaten body stating, “Go back to your country, you terrorist.” Alawadi succumbed to her injuries and passed away on Saturday. Alawadi is survived by her five children.

The message left behind by the attacker leaves little room to doubt that the vicious attack was xenophobic in nature. It is hard to dispute the fact that Islamophobia has been on the rise in the past few decades, most notably since 9/11. A manifestation of Islamophobia that has been expanding through most of Europe and North America in the past decade is the banning of the hijab or the burqa. The two garments that are worn by some Muslim women as an expression of their faith has been demonized as characteristic of religious oppression and male domination. Women around the world are experiencing a severe infringement of their personal and religious freedoms by being forced to either wear or shed their burqas and hijabs by law. To various degrees, hijab and burqa bans are implemented in numerous states including France, Spain, BelgiumIreland, Lebanon and Turkey.

Several politicians and journalists alike have voiced their support for burqa and hijab bans across
Europe, citing a range of reasons for their backing that include equality, freedom, integration and secularism. French President Nicolas Sarkozy condemned the wearing of the burqa, saying that, “it’s a problem of liberty and women’s dignity… a sign of subservience and debasement.” InKosovo, where Muslims make up the majority of the population, the hijab was banned from public schools in 2010, with deputy foreign Minister Vlora Citaku explaining that she considered it “a sign of submission of female to male, rather than a sign of choice.”

The flaws in these rationales are easy to spot. Despite the array of reasons that have been provided to ban the burqa and the hijab, it must be emphasized that most Muslim women, especially those who live in countries where their choice to abstain from the hijab is legally protected, choose to wear the hijab at their own personal free will, simply as a form of religious expression. Assuming that all women who wear the hijab represent male domination or religious oppression is a wide misconception, and one that must be quelled.

Secularism and integration does not mean melting various cultures and religions into one neutral and identity-free culture, but rather, having the diverse cultures accept the unobtrusive differences, and co-exist in states where there are no enforcements or bans of any religious laws on its citizens and residents. In countries like Iran, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia, the hijab and the burqa are forced upon women, constituting the very same violation of their religious and personal freedom as that of banning it.

The hijab and burqa are very different garments. The hijab covers only the women’s hair, while the burqa covers the women’s hair and face, with the exception – sometimes – of the eyes. Burqas, in my opinion, are arguably an infringement of a women’s identity, as they conceal her face, and therefore can be banned in specific cases where confirming the women’s identity is pivotal, such as when taking an important exam, or when conducting legal matters.

This development is seen in Canada, where a woman cannot wear the burqa as she takes the oath of citizenship. This is understandable, as issues of accountability arise when an individual’s face is masked. However, in classrooms and public spaces, a women’s decision to conceal her face or her hair should be hers and no one else’s.

Recent changes that prove a women’s hijab poses no further impediments than for those who don’t includes the International Football Association Board’s decision to lift a ban on Muslim women soccer players who were, prior to the ban, not allowed to wear their hijab during soccer matches. Female soccer players who wear the hijab are now allowed to wear a close-fitting, specially designed hijab that is tightened with Velcro during the games.

Recent bans and developments pertaining to the issue of banning women who wear hijabs or niqabs from institutions and the general public have varied. Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces consider employing women with a hijab a violation of the military’s code of conduct. In Norway, only recently did a government-appointed committee begin to discuss changing their policies to lift a current ban that does not allow female police and judges from wearing headscarves and hijabs. There are no laws against the hijab in Spain, however, in 2010, a 16-year old girl wearing a hijab was excluded from her classes at a public school because she was told she was violating the school dress code. Two years ago, Turkey’s Higher Education board unofficially lifted 30-year hijab ban in universitie which had prompted female students who wear the hijab to wear hats or wigs in order to attend class. After several years of debating the matter,  France officially planed a ban on wearing burqas in public spaces as of April of last year. Several German states do not allow teachers to wear any outward religious symbols during their work hours, with the hijab obviously included in this categorization.

The issue of banning hijabs encompasses several important issues including women’s rights, multiculturalism, religious freedom and the scope of power that a secular and democratic state should have over its citizens’ personal expressions. Despite the difference that the burqa and the hijab pose for the women who wear them, the solution to this issue is the same, and that is to recognize that a women’s decision to express her religion should not be compromised or dictated by a secular government.

The problem with politicizing the issue of the hijab and the burqa is that, in addition to infringing on the women’s rights, it also inflames the stereotypes and misperceptions that have formed about women and Islam in general. If a government wants to focus on equality, they should focus on providing women the same opportunities and rights as men, and protecting their citizens’ freedoms and liberties.


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