Note from Anne: It’s a year ago this week that my own dialogue with the Muslim world began. It has been rich and fruitful, a real learning experience for me and many Anne of Carversville readers.
It’s my intention to write an update article over the weekend. I’ve pulled this article forward to anniversary it; because the burqa debate remains strong in Europe; and because a colleague posted an article on the Examiner this morning. My comments refer to this article.
Original Post|June 28, 2009
Before I share the latest designer style news about beautiful clothes for Muslim women, let me refresh our minds on the ‘burqa’ (aka burka) debate so far this week.
Simply stated, President Obama backs burqa wearing, as a form of religious freedom. French president Sarkozy condemns — and will introduce legislation banning burqas in France — as a women’s rights issue.
Inside Story - Burqa ban in France?
I wrote on my Facebook page earlier this week, that I struggle personally with the concept that the burqa, a garment totally enshrouding a woman, except for a slit or screen for her eyes, is wilingly chosen by Muslim women as a preferred form of dress.
It’s my understanding that neither President Sarkozy — nor myself — take issue with Muslim women wearing a headscarf in public. (I am confused by the French law passed a couple years ago, banning “conspicuous signs” of religious affiliation, including the hajib.)
It’s also my understanding that the burqa evolved, not as mandated in the Koran — which it is not, but in the male-dominated orthodoxy of Muslim culture. For any readers knowing that burqas are demanded by the Koran, please, please leave a detailed comment on this article.
The question for Smart Sensuality Women is whether or not Muslim women willingly choose to wear the burqa. President Obama suggests that they do. I have my doubts that all women who wear burqas choose them willingly.
In supporting women’s rights to wear the burqa if they choose (and not prohibited by law), how does one support the women who don’t want to wear the burqa?
How does one actually know that the woman photographed above actually enjoys her life under that tent? How do we determine who has chosen willingly and who hasn’t to don her burqa?
In his Cairo speech to the Muslim world earlier this month, Mr. Obama called on Western countries “to avoid dictating what clothes a Muslim women should wear,” saying such action constituted “hostility” towards religion clothed in “the pretense of liberalism.” via Christian Science Monitor.
My soul searching on this topic is not complete, because I am uneducated about the benefits of wearing burqas. I react to women wearing burqas from my own frame of feminist reference. I’m now following the discussion on the IntLawGrrls website, supported by many international, high-caliber Muslim women lawyers.
Another Story in Paris
While I review my personal position on this subject, let me share the photos of gorgeous abayas, the outer cloak worn by Muslim women. Typically, the abayas cover every inch of a woman’s attire. I believe that in many Muslim countries, it is not permissible for a woman’s ankle to show in public.
Women’s Wear Daily reports that a horsewoman arrived atop a stallion to open the Saks fifth Avenue fashion show of redesigned abayas, staged Thursday at the George V Hotel in Paris.
The show was attended by members of the Saudi Arabian royal family plus participating designers Felipe Oliveria Baptista, Adam Jones, Anne Valérie Hash and Martine Sitbon, per WWD.
The London Telegraph adds French luxury labels Nina Ricci and Jean Claude Jitrois and Italian houses Blumarine and Alberta Feretti.
WWD reports that Saks Riyadh and Jeddah director Dania Tarhini has launched a project “Confidences a travers le vetement”, asking designers to explore the relationship between clothing and meaning.
Back at the Presidential Offices
Not too far away from the George V in Paris, the London Times reports that Fadéla Amara, France’s secretary of state for urban policies, herself a Muslim, spoke out in support of the president’s view. She said she was alarmed by the number of women “who are being put in this kind of tomb”, and she urged: “We must do everything to stop burqas from spreading.”
This blog references an American Prospect article Burqa Politics in France, which seems to lay out cogently most of the issues around this topic.
Anne and Burqas
As an American woman, I’ve thought often about burqas and the women under the tent. In a rather dramatic scene at JFK a decade ago, my partner escorted me from the waiting room, because I was besides myself in anger, watching a Muslim woman suffer in 100-degree heat, while her husband sat next to her in Western dress, and a sleeveless shirt.
The same Anne presented herself to the concierge at La Mamounia in Marrakesh, offering to change clothes from a knee-length skirt and wear a sarong or pants, whichever he preferred.
He chose the sarong, which was a big hit among the Moroccan women.
What has changed for me now is the necessity of facing my own thoughts on the subject and taking a position that I can articulate and defend. As is the case with most political and ethical issues, the topic is clouded with grey matter realities. But I’m determined to define a position that works for me, even if it puts me in opposition to my president. Anne
Note to readers: I initially wrote this article for Smart Sensuality News. but at 1000 words, it seems more appropriate as a Journal essay.
With all the attention that this essay is getting, I’m collecting some of the more thoughtful web articles on this topic. If you have one to contribute, please leave the url as a comment, and I will take a look. If I don’t use it, I will explain why but still leave the link in your comment box for others to see.
France must look beneath the burqa Christian Science Monitor
The Burqa of Fear, Terror and Subjugation Pakistan Observer
Burqa no tool for political maneuver Saudi Gazette
The burqa debate splits France The Hindu
France begins burqa ban hearings Saudi Gazette via AFP
Burqas, bans and Ms Bruni The Times (New Zealand)
Lifting the Veil on the Debate over Veils Huffington Post
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Wearing the burqa is neither Islamic nor socially acceptable (Note: this essay has many comments on all sides) The Independent
For some, burqa brings freedom Boston Herald
It’s very frustrating to keep my focus on today’s deliverable when I want to pick up this ball and run with it now.
I do hope that Pixie will help me to organize some kind of fruitful dialogue around this subject of understanding burqas from a Muslim woman’s point of view, but more importantly the needs of Muslim women and what women like me can — and should — do to support them. I’m clear that this topic must be framed from their point of view, understanding that there are multiple views on the topic.
Pixie is delivering some serious web traffic to our article (I still haven’t digested Pixie’s long but wonderful post.) We will be communicating privately, but for now I know that she lives in Canada and has a lovely blog I love Hishma.
Oh my goodness. I just googled ‘hishma’ to understand the word — is it a name? — and my comment is posted on Google front page, #4 entry.
I want everyone to know that I was awake at 3am, thinking about this topic. And yes, I had a wonderful evening and was in the best of moods.
Looking at my comment on I love Hishma, and her headline Muslim Couples Evoke Anger on Sight?, I just want to be clear that my anger was a deeply personal attachment to the woman. The anger was not judgemental.
Anne’s Right Brain
Although my right brain and left brain are in balance, I typically lead with my right. If you know anything about Myers-Briggs, I’m an ENFP — the most adventurous, artistic, journalist-oriented and emotional, sensory personality. Luckily, I’m blessed with a strong business head as well. But I process information and experience in a sensory fashion.
The Muslim woman at JFK was wearing a burqa, meaning that she had the web across her eyes. (Everyone, I’m truly trying to get the language correct here, Googling before I write. )
When Michelle wrote in her comment that she could be the half of the couple I saw at JFK, my reaction was total joy that I heard her ‘voice’ digitally. She became ‘real’ to me and not a ghost of herself. (Look, if I’m not honest — we get nowhere.) These reactions and feelings aren’t totally rational. To me she was a ghost in a tomb, and I was in agony trying to understand what life is like from this perspective.
Looking at the woman at JFK, I had no sense of her persona at all. You can say it’s none of my business; I don’t need to know her, see her, interact with her via a smile, chat with her.
I have a zilliion thoughts going through my head right now, but I want to write to Michelle and Pixie for guidance.
Thank you, everyone who has read my article. One of the most popular articles on A of C is my Marrakesh journal. It describes my awareness, being led into the Medina by a young Arab man, that I was totally in his power. The maze of streets was so complex that, with no landmarks, I could not find my way out. The entire experience was illuminating for me psychologically — and the night was spectacular in every aspect.
I will soon post everything that I’ve written on this topic, to lay myself bare so to speak, in hopes that my willingness to be open and not politically correct, can activate some genuine conversation on this topic.
A bit more about me. I’ve shared my NYC locale as being very close to the World Trade Center site. I moved there from a neighborhood in Jersey City, one that is largely populated by Muslims. Three of the Sept. 11 terrorists lived three blocks from my watertower apartment in an old renovated industrial laundry.
For four years, I lived in this neighborhood with many burqas, chadors and hijabs. I’m a real touchy, feeling person — like Michelle Obama in the PDA department. I was never nervous around the Muslim women I saw every day. But they were totally inscrutible to me. We could not connect; I felt completely shut off from them in a way that I never felt with the Indian women in saris in the same neighborhood.
As a feminist, I don’t like not being able to ‘reach’ other women. I probably won’t say this correctly, but in keeping themselves private from other men, they were also keeping themselves private from me. I embrace life and new adventure and experience so fully, it’s difficult for me to accept this clothing-induced barrier between myself and Muslim women.
Goodness knows what psychology is driving all these feelings, but I’m trying to help Muslim women understand my perspective, with so many of you reading my article.Thank you again. Anne
A bit tongue in cheek, I must make a comment on the headline accompanying Ronald Sokol’s NYTimes Op-Ed piece My Burqa Is None of Your Business.
Whoever wrote it — Mr. Sokol or the NYTimes headlines writer — could a man please not have a headline that reads “My Burqa Is None of Your Business”.
I’m assuming that lawyer Ronald Sokol doesn’t walk around Aix-en-Provence in his burqa. It’s a small point, but I know the NYTimes prides itself on journalistic integrity. Thank you. Anne
Good morning all. I will read Pixie’s total comments and our articles on burqas today. (Project done, thank goodness!) I will be in touch with her and our other commentators later today, to get an idea of how we can advance this discussion in a fruitful manner.
My current priority is listening and reading about burqas, leaving my own perspective at the front door, for the moment. Thinking just now — but without enough French Roast to think clearly — I believe that I will organize a set of questions about burqas for Pixie and other Muslim women. The questions will move beyond: “is it hot in there?” to questions about interpersonal, cultural and civic interaction.
Underlying the dialogue is another set of questions: How can women like me help Muslim women? Or is no help needed, and I should mind my own business and deal with a host of challenges on my own American doorstep?
If you have a question in your own mind about this entire topic, leave it as a comment now or send it to me as laenke at the yahoo place. Thanks. Anne
Ladies, I’m focused on how best to move our conversation forward in meaningful dialogue.
I do say ‘ladies’. Men can comment, but only within the context of empathizing with a Muslim or Western woman’s point of view, or commenting on our writing process generally. I don’t want men who don’t live the life of a Muslim or Western woman (or Asian or Indian, for that matter) commenting on women’s lives.
You must walk in our sandals, so to speak. And I hope that Indian and Asian women and Latina and African women will share in our conversation. Whoever I left out, my apologies. You are included.
One Idea to Move Forward
My thought is to organize two blogs, sort of Team A and Team B, under a name that we will agree on. I will be the editor of Team A blog (BUT I need writers, so HELP me please) and Pixie, who has taken great initiative here, can be the editor of Team B blog. (PS: I haven’t run this idea by Pixie yet, but clearly she’s interested in dialogue, based on her extensive comments. I think she will like the idea.)
We’ll run the blog off of A of C; I can create it in hours. Pixie and her ‘team’ will have access to writing on the blog, independently of me. She will publish her point of view, unedited by me, here at A of C.
We can also organize a private chat room for registered members. Pixie will have access to that list, as well as myself. I believe that many more women have something to say, but don’t want to do so in public comments.
So we will communicate with each other, not on the same blog, but separate ones that are tied together, under the same name umbrella like United Nations. Team A can comment on Team B’s blog, and vice versa. Sometimes Team B will just dedicate their entry to a point raised by Team A.
Name suggestions are welcome. What’s a name with international, personal relevance, communicating a positive, peaceful message? It can be a foreign word, if people can spell it easily.
At a top level, I will try to articulate the Western Woman’s position, questions, arguments, and Pixie will guide the Muslim women’s point of view, especially around clothing and physical appearance. Please note, that Pixie and readers can challenge me to explain my point of view and defend my own arguments.
My focus and vision isn’t exclusively to have Muslim women ‘explain themselves’ to Western women. We’re trying to cultivate communication and cross-cultural dialogue.
If readers have any thoughts on this idea, please share them.
Please see the video I just posted in Smart Sensuality news about Moroccan women loving their Djellabas. I like these kinds of videos that introduce us to each others’ cultures and lifestyles. Please let me know when you find them, and I will post. Perhaps I can create a video page, and you can post. Pixie or I will approve.
Also, it would be great if an Indian woman could take responsibility for an Indian-centric Blog C. I’m admitting that I’m not at all disconcerted by the clothing of Indian women, which also focuses on modesty.
Any woman who wants to take responsibility for writing another big picture point of view — like India or China — we will set up your blog, too, as part of our little international blog society. I’m looking for writers who have a top-level message to discuss, like Pixie. We will then identify and organize more personal blogs in subgroups, using blogs as a way to educate each other at a more personal life level.
The blog editors must be willing to examine cultural topics at a top-view level, as Pixie is trying to do. ‘My life’ blogs will then be listed, based on content and cultural perspective.
I acknowledge the argument that the future of the Muslim world may not be in burqas. For now, that’s the news and the source of my quandry. It’s the catalyst to reach out to communicate and understand the future intersections of Muslim and Western cultures around the world. The larger focus is to envision the totality of our cultural intersections by 2020 and beyond, as international women from seven continents and goodness knows how many countries.
We welcome any and all thoughts about how to proceed. Are their any grantwriters reading this post??? Thanks. Anne
Hello, everyone. I appreciate the web traffic and comments that my post has gotten. A brief update: Pixie and I are in communication with each other. I refer to our conversations on the post I just wrote for Smart Sensuality women with a focus on the beautiful, Islam-inspired creations in the Givenchy couture collections Fall 2009.
I also used the post as an opportunity to call out the public flogging of 10 women, of the 13 arrested in Sudan a few days ago, for wearing trousers in public. Among the women arrested is a journalist Lubna Ahmed Hussein, who is insisting that she be publicly tried for her ‘crime’.
It would be helpful for me to understand the point of view of other Muslim women on the arrests in the Sudan. I realize that I wide spectrum of Muslim and non-Muslim women are reading my journal article. I am particularly interested in understanding the point of view of Muslim women who do dress in the most conservative dress.
My question is: Should Lubna Ahmed Hussein be flogged for her ‘crime’?
I do acknowledge over on Smart Sensuality that our commentators have made me understand that Muslim women in societies where they are free to wear what they want — like America and Canada — may choose this attire, even over the preferences of their husbands and his family. I admit that I hadn’t previously envisioned this possibility as being anything but a rarity.
As a followup to the significant response and interest that we’ve had in this article and the followup activity around Lubna Ahmed Hussein’s arrest for wearing trousers in Khartoum, I’ve moved this conversation to its own channel on Anne of Carversville, Beyond Burqas. If you have blogs, writers, women we should be tracking, please leave a comment. Thanks. Anne
UPDATE: Pixie has asked me to change the name of our new channel to something other than ‘Beyond Burquas’, which she feels is unfavorable to Muslim women. I ran the name by her last week, and she was too busy to respond until now. I went ahead on my own over the weekend.
Pixie has proposed another name, which is fine with me, but I told her to sleep on it, in case she is more inspired in her sleep.
One way or the other, I will change the name tomorrow, because I want the trust and support of Muslim women. Anne
This moment, women in Khartoum are marching in support of Lubna Ahmed Hussein. Their headbands and banners read: “No return to the Dark Ages.” Ten young women were arrested and flogged for improper dress in Sudan. Lubna refused to submit.
The journey since I first wrote this burqa article has been amazing. I’ve taken action on many fronts, and made several new friends — all Muslim women, wearing a variety of clothing styles.
I’m almost ready to write again on this topic, having achieved some clarity in my own thinking.
Minutes ago, I stumbled into a BRILLIANTLY written webzine/blog called Sa, or “She” in Sanskrit. Some divine goddess must have been directing me, because I had just clarified my own thoughts — stimulated by the streets of Khartoum and the message “No return to the dark ages.”
I’ve criticized American women and feminists for not getting involved in Lubna’s case, but I realize now that I am uneasy over the silence of Muslim women as well. Not Pixie — who has been dedicated in trying to communicate on Lubna’s case, and the questions raised around full-coverage clothing on Muslim women.
I believe that the Taliban and Muslim fundamentalists are stronger and more committed to taking away the rights of women, than the Muslim community, who has said almost nothing about Lubna’s case and others, is committed to protecting them.
American women aren’t the only ones disengaged from this topic. Muslims are, from what I hear or don’t.
Muslims are more concerned about me or Sarkozy as the enemy, than the Taliban.
This is a key source of my distrust. I see that now. Islamic fundamentalists are taking away rights all around the world, returning women to the Dark Ages, but I — the Western woman — am more the enemy or the problem.
I don’t trust moderate Muslims to protect my rights against fundamentalists. I’m sensing that Islam is a religion of submission. I’m reading the book Infidel — which I had on my bookshelf — and the message is so strong around the concept of submission. If ‘submission’ is one’s mindset, than fighting to protect individual, human rights is a challenge, in my mind.
I now understand that many women wear full-coverage clothing as matter of religious choice and to avoid the perpetually leering eyes of a society and global culture that undresses women. I track that culture on Sexy Futures and wrote about the contradiction of imposing Western sexuality on the rest of the world in: A Somewhat Decadent, but Fundamentally Good Group of Lubna Ahmed Hussein Lovers Hear Her Calm, Steady Voice: “I Want to Change This Law’.
Finally, I am in touch with my fears around burqas. I would feel better if more Muslim women spoke out about Lubna Ahmed Hussein and the millions of women who are losing rights under that Islamic march to fundamentalism that is moving widely on continents around the world. I see Islamic fundamentalism as a battle for the future of civilization — imperfect as it is. I do not wish to return to the Dark Ages, or see milliions of women in the world, return to the Dark Ages, just when they were moving forward.
I hope we all can agree that the Taliban believes that women should be in burqas, whether they like it or not. Anne or even Sarkozy are not nearly the enemy that the Taliban is.
In writing this comment, I’m again being ‘politically incorrect’. These are just my impressions. Hopefully, we can engage in commentary around this complex topic. Anne
Here is Sa’s truly insightful analysis of the Burqa question: “We Love Islam, So We Wear Burqa.”
The personal is most definitely political in the context of women’s clothing in this century and its predecessor. Only last week, Sudanese women were flogged for dressing “indecently”. They had been wearing trousers. A little before that, Nicolas Sarkozy said that the Burqa was “not welcome” in France. Dress Codes for women in Indian colleges were in the news a little before that. In other words, yes, the world is talking about what women should wear.
Sarkozy’s statement about Burqa, as several commentators have pointed out was made at a time when the French President might have focussed on more pressing issues in his country, where only about 1% of women actually wear the burqa. Besides this, it has also attracted the angry criticism of Muslim leaders and clerics, besides a section of feminists around the world. Sarkozy’s own argument is that the number of women wearing the burqa is increasing and that this is a sign of religious radicalization.
France’s brand of secularism has always been different from India’s interpretation of the term. In India, we become secular as a state by letting individuals profess and practice, publicly and privately, whatever religion they want to; whereas in France, public life is essentially distanced from religion. So, it’s somehow harder to understand where Sarkozy’s statement comes from, when one has always seen people wearing their faith on their sleeve. France, however has a sizeable population of Muslims – Arabs, Africans and native French. The question is, in the pursuit of “secularism” is France making high-handed assumptions about clothing and oppression and in the process, denying women their cultural rights? Is it right to equate the burqa with docility and suppression?
The burqa (and the hijab, the niqab, the chador) is possibly the most controversial garment in this century. It has been used on the one hand by fundamentalist power-seeking groups like the Taliban to attain their own end, through the suppression of women. Women have been handed grisly punishments – physical and even sexual – for refusing to wear it. It was turned, in Afghanistan, into a weapon of suppression. Being forced to wear a tent-like garment at all times, for fear of being labelled a “seductress” and subjected to indignity and punishment, is a blatant breach of human rights, and feminist and other activists all over the world have opposed this. In France, the group Ni Putes, Ni Soumises (Neither Whores nor Submissive) is strong in its condemnation of the burqa. They call it a “prison under open skies” for those who wear it, and deem it an instrument to force women into submission.
On the other hand, however, a lot of women in Europe, India and West Asia have found their cultural identity in the folds of this robe-like garment. They choose to wear it because it gives them a sense of comfort and religious belonging. They are not forced and simply choose to dress this way.
Let me draw an analogy here to a garment accepted by more people as a necessity in women’s toilette – the bra. Germaine Greer and other feminists burned bras several decades ago, in defiance of patriarchal ideas of female beauty. They saw the bra as oppressive – a garment created to objectify women and turn them into sex objects in the imagination of men. A lot of women (the majority) still choose to wear a bra. Many of them are feminists. They too stand against patriarchy but might choose to do so in a bra. They don’t see it as a patriarchal instrument but only as a means to support their breasts. Sure, there are still ridiculously stuffed, padded bras around and a lot of women around the world are subjected to ridicule and judged by size of their breasts. Inflatable and padded bras are marketed to these women with the convoluted objective of making them look like they have big busts too. But then, would we ban the bra? I don’t think so.
Further, there’s the stereotyping – women in conservative clothes must be powerless, docile and submissive while those in modern, non-traditional clothing must be outgoing, risqué and rebellious. Consider this – the French president sees the “modern”, fashionably dressed woman as the positive image, as he connects this with progress, freedom and empowerment. Hence, he chooses to speak of banning the burqa, as he sees it as the very anti-thesis of his country’s values. In Sudan, docility, modesty and traditional clothing are considered valuable. Hence their opposite – trousers, in this case – is seen as harmful to the fabric of society. In both cases, the woman’s choice in the matter is discounted, disappearing in the assumptions made about her image as “empowered” or “decent”.
Sofie Ashraf, a young musician who raps while wearing a burqa is the perfect example why these stereotypes often do not apply. She is bold, performs with a band onstage, raps about why she loves Islam, and is anything but docile. She says in one of her songs, “Gimme back my faith/ Don’t hijack my faith / Don’t hate me for an idiot’s mistake.” That somehow seems to sum it up. Sofie herself likens her choice of wearing the burqa to a groupie’s wearing a band t-shirt. “We love Islam, so we wear burqa.” she says, and adds that it comes with a responsibility.
What is also ignored is the fact that the real problem where the burqa is concerned is the sexual, physical and emotional violence perpetrated against women who make the choice not to wear the burqa, as well as the fact that a large number of women are forced into the veil. Rather than banning the garment itself, what governments should be focussing on is nabbing the abusers, molesters and thugs, who would deprive women of their freedom to choose.
Women who choose to wear the burqa are choosing to belong – not to feel alienated. However, if the stigma and the stereotype are allowed to blindly thrive too long, they may indeed start to feel alienated in a society where they are looked upon as mysterious black-robed creatures, to be pitied and handled with care. Burqa bans will only end up doing this, besides driving the women who wear the burqa only reluctantly, back into their homes, depriving them of any freedom they may have had.
Picture Source: DeviantArt – guildedglamour
Daily Mail writer Liz Jones did what I’ve considered: My week wearing a burka … Just a few yards of black fabric, but it felt like a prison.
Most of her comments are functional, psychological revelations of her own feelings. Like: “how do I eat” in public? According to Jones, the Brits were very nice to here, for the mostpart. A
It’s a year ago that I launched a rich dialogue — public and private — with the Muslim community about the role of women in Islam. Simply stated, I have learned a lot. Working now to write a new article about my learnings, I share the original and also key articles about religion and female sexuality. The decision was also influenced by my friend’s article in today’s Examiner. Anne