The Burqa, Blame and Britain

The burqa is a curious creature. In society it is the cause of much debate. From protests for a women’s right to choose her clothing to riots on the streets in Paris due to the country’s banning of wearing the garment in public, it is both highly traditional yet also highly, highly controversial.

BurqaAs covered here on Hot For Writing recently, the recent rioting in France raised a serious question with regards human rights, namely whether the citizens of France have free will to choose what they want to wear. Though my own feelings on the burqa are mixed, I can see where this argument comes from. Is the next step to silence people from saying what they want?

There are other questions raised by the situation in France too, most of them seriously uncomfortable to consider. Is the burqa a security threat? Is the burqa more than a piece of clothing, instead being something that can hide a person’s identity, conceal a weapon, contain a bomb? From the feminist perspective there are further questions. Is it empowering to be able to conceal your body so you are judged on your personality rather than your appearance? Is the burqa oppressive because it is something imposed upon women by men?

In asking these questions it isn’t hard to see why the issue is so controversial now, is it?

I recently asked a male Muslim colleague why women were asked to wear a burqa. I was nothing short of outraged by his response. He told me that the burqa was worn so that men were not tempted by the appearance of women. He added that Muslims try to live a holy life, above temptation and as close to Godliness as possible.

His response struck me as similar to the Christian commandment of:

‘Thou shalt not be envious of your neighbour’s goods. Thou shall not be envious of his house not his wife, no anything that belongs to your neighbour.’

The assumption with both positions here is that if a man is tempted he may be led to commit the sin of adultery. In addition, there is the implication that is is sinful to be ungrateful for the good things in your own life, to be covetous of the belongings of others. This is a difficult position, and one that once again places apparent blame on the female and insinuates that men find it difficult to control themselves around such temptresses. This narrative is plain wrong.

I often feel that there is an element of smugness when people report on or speak about the burqa here in the UK. Perhaps British people feel proud that they need not enter into a debate about what women wear because there are no restrictions for women in this country. In addition, very few people in the UK now consider themselves religious and as such perhaps feel no need to concern themselves with any type of religious debate concerning sin (or indeed, perceived sin).

It occured to me this week, however, that although there may not be outward rules or a particular garment that the majority of women in the UK are required to wear, there are still expectations. In a recent assembly the girls in my school were told that in order to avoid sexual exploitation or assault they should not wear short skirts of low cut tops. I could hardly believe this – once again this is placing fault and blame on women and insinuating that men cannot control themselves in certain situations. This attitude is damaging for both groups.

We may not call it such, but it seems to me that there are attitudes that exist in mainstream UK culture that echo some the attitudes behind arguments for women wearing the burqa, such as not ‘tempting’ men, not ‘inviting’ unwanted behaviour. The argument seems to be that girls should cover themselves up, and that if they don’t there is no-one else to blame should something happen to them.

Though we might not see it as the same, it seems that the burqa is ever-present in UK culture, though we may not explicitly call it this. The afore-mentioned element of smugness doesn’t seem quite so justifiable now, does it?

Photograph via exit 1979.

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