Understanding burqa | Pakistan Today

Understanding burqa

  • Veiled Muslim women don’t need the charity of your enlightened moderation

Understanding Power’ is among my favourite works by perhaps the most well-known linguist in the world, Professor Noam Chomsky. Published many years ago, it includes transcripts of various talks, seminars and Q&A sessions led by the controversial anarchist thinker.

The book isn’t particularly groundbreaking in terms of the theories presented and imperialist lies exposed, but it’s perhaps the most comprehensible of Chomsky’s – let’s say ‘heavier’ – works. As the title indicates, its primary function is to help a reader wrap one’s head around a word that’s commonly used, but rarely understood.

In the neoliberal model, there is no excuse for immorality and oppression, unless those in power decide that it’s okay for reasons that the feeble-minded – usually the general population – do not understand.

We tend to see things as either inherently right or wrong, such as the burqa which may only be one or the other. Although feminists almost unanimously see it somewhere between the range of problematic to oppressive (for good reasons), it is generally the reaction to burka that varies.

The recent ban on face veil in Denmark was approved, even celebrated, by many feminists who see burka as oppressive. There are others who see it colonial interest hiding aboard the feminist bandwagon. Arundhati Roy, for instance, called the burqa ban in France an act of ‘cultural imperialism’.

Europe’s answer to the problem of brown men telling women what to wear, is to have white men telling women what to wear. Strangely, the answer is not to take a step back and wonder why women – Muslims and others – found themselves in this mess in the first place

Consider the primary function of feminism, which is about gender equality through empowerment of women. When we say ‘empowerment’, we don’t necessarily mean the freedom to make the choices we deem ‘right’, but unconditional autonomy over their own lives.

When a mullah imposes a burka upon a woman, either by force or through cultural indoctrination, he robs the woman of her power over her own body. In fact, he launches an assault on her very identity, of which the face is an indispensible component.

The burqa or niqab itself is not the problem. The same woman may dress herself as a ghost on Halloween, or wear a bike helmet, or very large sunglasses at the beach in any part of Europe. None of those acts of hiding one’s face are considered oppressive or patriarchal. Oppression is not built into the fabric of a burka. It’s about power. What makes it an act of oppression is its imposition against the woman’s will; and the power she’s forced to surrender as a result.

It is here that the feminists of the colonial variety split ways. “What if she has been brainwashed by patriarchy into wearing it?”. The theory is that a woman cannot possibly choose to erase her own identity, unless she is a victim of indoctrination. There is a grain of truth to it. After all, if an orthodox Hindu widow were getting prepared to commit suicide through self-immolation, would you intervene on behalf of an enlightened social system; or would you respect her religious ‘choice’, and look the other way?

I see that as a bad analogy, because the woman performing the old, now much reviled ritual of satti, is doing something far more ‘final’ than putting on a burqa. It’s like comparing smoking with lethal overdose of heroin, and arguing that they should be equally acceptable or unacceptable.

When Denmark, like France, banned burqa, it followed the neoliberal maxim that we are all responsible for our own fates; never mind our social conditions and politicoeconomic disadvantages. The elite among us have little trouble living by this rule, because they are afflicted neither by the politico economic disadvantages nor weighed down by unfavorable social conditions.

A Danish Muslim woman can make the ‘right’ choice of removing her burqa and be spared from prosecution, or the ‘wrong’ choice of wearing it for which she must be punished. This is particularly ironic: punish the allegedly brainwashed ethnic woman to rescue her from her own backwardness; not the men who coerce her into wearing one. This is neoliberal feminism by the way of victim-blaming.

Speaking of backward cultures, isn’t Denmark still a monarchy? Have we not yet evolved past the idea of high-borns and peasants, royal and common blood? Speaking of patriarchal cultures, when is Denmark banning high-heels, expensive makeup, and risky cosmetic surgeries that women are just as likely to be pressured into getting.

No, we agree that the solution is not to deprive a white woman of her power to wear feet-crushing, accident-prone high-heels because she’s been indoctrinated to abide by unfair beauty standards. The white woman is a smart woman, and she can decide what’s best for herself. The brown Muslim woman, on the other hand, must be guided by the kind but firm hand of western civilisation lest she ends up hurting herself.

Europe’s answer to the problem of brown men telling women what to wear, is to have white men telling women what to wear. Strangely, the answer is not to take a step back and wonder why women – Muslims and others – found themselves in this mess in the first place.

The best way the Danish, French, or Pakistani powers – federal or private – can help women, is by surrendering their power to women. Veiled Muslim women don’t need the charity of your enlightened moderation; to be mocked and prosecuted for their own good. They need the power to live their lives on their own terms, without constantly adjusting themselves in accordance with the preferences of a higher male power.

Faraz Talat

Faraz Talat is a medical doctor from Rawalpindi and an ardent traveller who writes frequently about science, social politics and international relations.



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