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Ban the Burqa, and Let Women ‘Breathe’

Till the day women continue to don the burqa or ghoonghat, they will be treated as sexual objects, as slaves dedicated to men. Governments and societies cannot allow this

Firstpost print Edition

The far-right in India have consistently demanded a ban on triple talaq, a uniform civil code, and doing away with Sharia law. The ones who should have been at the forefront of making these demands have never done so: liberals. Liberals are not blinded by religion; they are often not even religious. They believe in human rights, freedom of speech, women’s equality, truth and compassion. But when it comes to Muslim women, they are silent.

In many parts of the world, including India, Muslim women are not always allowed to go to colleges and universities, or to take a job, are often married off young and are forced to cover themselves in the burqa. For the crime of being born female, they are systematically deprived of equal rights in everything—from marriage to divorce, child custody and inheritance.

The burqa signifies this oppression and that is why this debate, most recently sparked off by the ban on the all-enveloping veil that Sri Lanka has imposed after the Easter Sunday bombings, is so important.

India’s far-right has been vocal about the burqa. This is not because they are sympathetic to the cause of Muslim women. In their propaganda, Muslims are not modern, they contribute in no way to the betterment of society, they imprison women behind the veil, they are not fit to be citizens of India, they are capable of only committing bad deeds, violence and bloodshed are endemic to them, their chief problems lie in their religion, in their religious texts and laws.

However, the far-right rarely acknowledges that the religious laws of Hindus and other non-Islamic creeds are no less problematic than the Sharia. The Manu Samhita, for instance, has next to nothing on rights of women. Modern laws were made by doing away with religious and customary laws and replacing them with new ones based on the principles of equality as a response to decades of activism demanding equal rights for women.

Ironically, the far-right was always in favour of preserving these religious laws. It was liberals, the ones who believed in the demands for equality for women, who fought hard against them. Wasn’t it the fanatical right-wing factions that were the most miffed with Raja Ram Mohan Roy for speaking against the practice of sati or with Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar for arguing in favour of widow remarriage?

Today, the same right-wing is trying to achieve something akin to what Vidyasagar did. But they are doing it not to reform their own religion but someone else’s. I don’t believe the task of reforming age-old religious traditions must be carried out by the members of that community only.

It is a general human responsibility to try and work towards the betterment of all societies and classes. But if the ploy is to only sing the praises of one’s own religion and ignore its faults in favour of highlighting the problems in other faiths then that is the occupation of a slanderer, not a reformer.

I fight for a uniform civil code, without having pledged allegiance to any one group or community or political party, simply as a feminist and a defender of human rights. The Hindu right-wing, too, is a proponent of the civil code but our motivations are different. I wish for Muslims to become secular and enlightened and move towards establishing a modern, equal society. My position is always against any kind of religious fanaticism, including the Hindu kind.

But does that mean that if the Hindu fanatics support the uniform civil code, even with their ulterior nefarious motives, I should immediately withdraw my support? Of course not. Just because my mortal enemy admits the sun rises in the east must I say the opposite?

Any talk about a ban on the burqa makes liberals as well as many Muslims go into shock. People are saying banning the burqa won’t stop terrorism. I agree it won’t stop terrorism, but it will definitely stop women from being faceless zombies.

Several highly-developed democracies like Belgium, Austria, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, The Netherlands and Norway, with strong human-rights credentials, have banned the burqa either partially or completely. In many countries in West Asia, feminists have raised this demand, too.

The burqa needs to be banned across the globe. Once that is done, Muslim women will be able to move around without having to carry around a mobile prison at all times as punishment for having been born as female.

The women who claim they like wearing the burqa or that it is part of their rights do so because they have been indoctrinated into believing so. There is no question of choice here.

In 2010, an old article of mine on the burqa issue was reprinted in a journal in Karnataka and that, too, without my knowledge. It sparked riots in two cities. Obviously, it was the men who rioted even though the issue at hand was women’s wear. This should tell you all that it is usually men who decide what women should wear. If the burqa is indeed such a blessing, why do men not show interest in donning it?

That women, too, have sexual desires, that they, too, can make advances at a man, these are proven facts.

So if women are expected to keep themselves covered from head to toe, so they don’t end up stoking a man’s desires, then men, too, ought don the burqa to ensure they don’t similarly incite women. But other than thieves, goons, murderers and terrorists, no man will wear the burqa because they feel it will damage their masculinity, like sarees or bangles do.

Let women say, ‘if you cannot control your sexual excitement, that’s your problem not mine. You cannot cover me up because you have a problem. I am not your private property that you will decide for me what I should wear. Where I should go, how far. I will wear kohl if I wish to and if my dark gaze is a problem for you, then don’t glance at me. If your eyes stray regardless and if your manhood causes you too much hardship, then hide your eyes behind a thick blindfold’.

Some are saying that if the burqa is banned in India then the ghoonghat, the veil prevalent among Hindus and other non-Muslims, needs to be banned too. I say: yes.

In the 21st century, men still believe women’s heads, faces and hair have to be covered so that no one other than their husbands can see them—in other words, women are the property of their husbands. Till the day women continue to don the burqa or the ghoonghat, they will continue to be treated as sexual objects, as slaves dedicated to men.

Governments and societies cannot allow this — any more than any other form of human slavery can be tolerated.

Taslima Nasrin is a renowned author, a secular humanist and a feminist

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