[Marxism] The sanctification of the burka

Ernie Halfdram erniehalfdram at yahoo.ca
Sat Oct 27 03:19:02 MDT 2007

Thanks for the interesting post on the history of the veil, Lou.

According to the women I have discussed it with, their motivation for
‘dressing modestly’ is to avoid arousing male lust.  Some think it’s modest
enough to expose the arms as long as the shoulders are covered.  Some insist
on covered arms, but they can leave their hair out. Or they have to partly
cover their hair, or just when they are offering prayer.  Others cover their
hair all the time.  Some cover their mouths, some mouths and noses.  They
all think they are dressing modestly.  It hardly seems to make any sense at
all, however, given the avowed purpose, to cover everything else but to
leave their sexy eyes exposed.  But then, if religious beliefs made any
sense, they wouldn’t be religious beliefs, now would they?  Ironically,
those wearing a full burqa actually approach accomplishing what they claim
to set out to do.  That said, I heard that Iranian men look forward to a
windy day.

Now Westerners are quick to criticise Muslims for placing so much emphasis
on modesty.  But in reality, they do not have a monopoly on rigid beliefs
about what is appropriate to wear in which social situations.  We also
observe very strict dress codes.  For example, if you were to appear on a
non nudist beach nude, you would be arrested.  If you appeared in a suit and
tie, you would be ostracised.  There is a particular style that we require
to be worn on the beach.  By the same token, when was the last time you saw
a judge at the bench wearing stubbies and thongs or a construction worker in
a tuxedo?  Most people in allegedly permissive Western society would be
shocked to learn that their son’s year 8 teacher was nude, or even topless,
or even wearing revealing togs.  It’s not just strict, it’s complicated.
But the principle is the same, societies impose requirements on how we dress
and inflict punishments on those who violate them.

There may or may not in fact be a correlation between the amount of skin a
society considers it acceptable for women to expose and some measure of
women’s rights or equality.  But even if such a correlation exists, it is
not evidence of a cause and effect relation, much less which is the cause
and which the effect.  It is a big mistake to think that a miniskirt is
either a sign of liberation or a strategy to achieve it.

Those of us who are struggling for human liberation do not endorse
restrictions on what people must or must not wear, smoke, eat, or whatever.
The requirement to wear a burqa is no more abominable than a prohibition on
wearing one.  In each so called monotheistic tradition, you find currents
that are more and less tolerant regarding dress codes, sexual practices,
intoxicants, and what have you.  Most of them manage to find some scriptural
justification for whatever level of tolerance they espouse.  It’s religion,
not science.  It’s based on irrational faith.  And that’s why there’s no
point in arguing with it.  

Ultimately, the real point for those who would prefer a world where reason
trumps faith and superstition is that suppressing practices that people
believe are important to their religious belief or cultural identity is not
an effective way to discourage them.  It just drives them underground and
decreases interaction with the secular society.  For example, when France
banned the hijab in state schools a year or two ago, the only possible
outcome is that those girls who thought it was important to wear one would
go to religious schools.  Turkey banned the hijab in 1923, and look where
it’s got them – an Islamist government.

-----Original Message-----
From: Louis Proyect [mailto:lnp3 at panix.com] 
Sent: Saturday, October 27, 2007 12:03 AM
To: Activists and scholars in Marxist tradition
Subject: [Marxism] The sanctification of the burka

The Star, October 21, 2007
The sanctification of the burka

Frequently overlooked amid heated debate, the Muslim garment's intricate 
past goes a long way toward illuminating an often controversial present

By Farzana Hassan

Silent and demure, Sohaila briefly lifts up her face veil to introduce 
herself to me in a barely audible whisper. Not only must she hide her 
face, she must also keep her voice down, as that, too, is part of her 
"aura" – the thing that must be guarded from the public. Where, I ask, 
did she hear of such a commandment? "It is in the Qur'an," she says at a 
recent social gathering. "The Qur'an exhorts a woman to conceal her 
beauty from strangers," she continues. "It is for her own good. If her 
voice is too alluring, she needs to hide it."

Moments later, her husband lovingly brings her a glass of water. Once 
again she lifts her veil and turns her face away so that other men 
cannot see her.

Women like Sohaila appear to be growing in number around the GTA. Many 
have wondered why, especially when no express injunction enjoining the 
full veil exists in the Qur'an. I searched the holy book for 
confirmation of Sohaila's rigid and extreme interpretation. I found none.

Later, at another social event, I was advised that the Qur'an is quite 
explicit in exhorting women to hide their beauty from strange men, 
except "that which is apparent thereof." What would fall under that 
definition? A lady named Sabiha explained that it meant a woman's 
physique and height, which even the full veil could not conceal, but 
that a full veil was nonetheless required by Islam.

She went on to quote oral tradition, where Aeysha, the prophet's beloved 
child bride, is said to have observed the full veil. "She is a role 
model for Muslim women," Sabiha continued. "If Aeysha observed the full 
veil, so must we." I was stunned to hear these views.

Needless to say, the burka evokes many responses, from fear and awe to 
mystery sympathy, as well as contempt. It has come to be regarded as a 
symbol of an oppressive culture and a medieval mindset – one that 
defines a Muslim woman's identity by reducing her to a sexual object 
that must be concealed.

According to professor Nikkie Keddie of the University of California, 
however, the full veil was imposed on Muslim women only gradually. Her 
contention is supported by history. She states that initially, in the 
early periods of Islamic history, women had considerable freedom to roam 

Moreover, Bedouin men and women were both accustomed to covering their 
hair to protect themselves from the scorching sun, a practice that had 
nothing to do with religion.

Additionally, she points out that the full veiling of women, in fact, 
predates Islam. It is therefore not intrinsically Islamic and is rooted 
more in ancient Greek and Byzantine culture.

Among these rather elitist cultures, women were secluded based on class 
and social standing – the underlying assumption being that women of 
nobility would have far more to lose if they were dishonoured.

When Islam spread to these lands, it adopted some of the local customs 
and mores. Qur'anic injunctions on modesty, though quite vague in their 
terminology, came to be interpreted in light of these cultural 
practices. Nevertheless, slaves and nomadic peoples were barred form 
veiling entirely. In fact, if they violated this rule, they were duly 

A universal decree stipulating the face veil for Muslim women came much 
later around the time of the Mamelukes of Egypt who ruled the country in 
the 13th century. These rulers issued several decrees imposing the full 
veil on women when they appeared in public. Hence, what was once a mark 
of aristocracy and nobility, now came to be imposed on the commoner as 
religious dogma.

The rigid observance of these edicts has never been challenged since. 
Many parts of the Islamic world abound with women who, were they to 
appear in public without the full veil, would surely suffer dire 
consequences under the law, apart from experiencing social ostracism.

Moreover, once the practice of the full veil came to be firmly 
established, interpretations of the Qur'an that would endorse its 
continuation began to emerge from the conservative elements of Islamic 
society. Salvation for Muslim women came to be vested in their anonymity 
and invisibility.

The strictest applications of these interpretations are now to be seen 
in Saudi Arabia, where women cannot drive because they are fully veiled.

Similar interpretations have made their way into Canada, where a school 
run by female theologian Farhat Hashmi endorses this philosophy. 
Practices that were originally cultural and tribal have come to assume a 
fundamentalist religious tenor.

The subject of much heated debate, as seen in the recent Elections 
Canada decision that allowed burka-clad women to vote without removing 
their face veils, the burka has come to be sanctified, both by 
conservative forces within Islam and the Western left that endorses it 
in the name of multiculturalism.

The historical antecedents of the burka or full veil are rarely invoked 
in these debates.

Farzana Hassan is the author of Islam, Women and the Challenges of Today

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