Prohibiting the Burkah = Liberating Women?

By Mark Woodward and Inayah Rohmaniyah*

Efforts in European countries including France, Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands to restrict or prohibit women from wearing burkah and nikab (face veil) are well known in Indonesia. Reports about these efforts in the Indonesian media are overwhelming negative.

There is no visible support for these efforts even among women who do not cover their hair. There is also growing concern among Muslim women who wear the hijab (headscarf) that they would not feel safe or welcome in European countries. Some students are now reluctant to consider studying in countries where headscarves have become politicized. Most Indonesian criticisms of European “veil policies” are written from Muslim perspectives and at least implicitly describe Europeans as “Islamaphobic.”

The article we discuss below is written from a different point of view. Its arguments resonate strongly with those made by Joan Scott in The Politics of the Veil. Scott suggests that  “anti-Burkahism” is deeply rooted in colonial discourse about sexuality and the control of women’s bodies. She argues that claims made by proponents of such legislation about “liberating” women are ironic, yet another example of the politicization of the female body in attempts to enforce sexual and cultural order.

On April 27th, the Jakarta daily Koran Tempo published an article entitled “Pelarangan Burqa: Membebaskan Perempuan?” (Prohibiting the Burkah: Liberating Women?). The author, Dr. Soe Tjen Marching, is a well-known feminist thinker and activist, and a staunch critic of Islamist causes. She holds a Ph.D. from Monash University in Australia and now teaches at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. She is also an award-winning composer of avante guard piano pieces. She divides her time between Jakarta and London.

In this article Marching is critical of those who would require women to cover their faces but is concerned primarily with European attempts to outlaw the practice in the name of “freeing women who are trapped by religious fundamentalists.”

This argument closely resembles Scott’s. Marching begins with the observation that on a recent trip to London she found that laws and regulations concerning women’s clothing were a frequently debated topic. She observes that some people find the sight of women wearing either the burkah or hijab disturbing and even frightening. She also states that she found it ironic that in the Netherlands she encounters nineteenth and early twentieth century paintings of bare breasted Balinese women, produced at a time when women in “Puritan” areas of Europe were required to cover their ankles. By contrast, today in Indonesia one encounters local women who cover their hair, and bikini clad European women on the beaches.

Marching notes that some European secularists want to prohibit women from covering their faces and some Islamists want to require it for the same reason, to “safeguard” their honor and dignity. Indonesian Islamists and European secularists use similar language. Both speak of safeguarding women’s dignity and human rights. Islamists use these arguments to justify making women put on the veil. Some European secularists use the same arguments to make them take it off.  She compares these claims and counter claims to a football (soccer) match: “If this was only a game and what rolled back and forth was a ball, it would not be a problem. But it is women’s bodies that are being used as a ball by male dominated cultures and political leaderships and this is NOT funny!”

Perhaps the most important points she makes are that those who would outlaw the burkah and those who would require it engage in the same type of controlling discourse, attempting to use women’s bodies for their own purposes. Her argument that there is not a fundamental difference between opposing the practice of female face covering and prohibiting it is as profound as it is simple. By prohibiting the burkah the state makes women into puppets that it can manipulate at will for its own purposes. To oppose  face veiling is to attempt persuasion and employ coercion. In an irony of Orwellian proportions, she observes that burkah bans would make criminals out of women who refused to be coerced in the name of liberating them. Her argument is libertarian –- that the state can not legitimately require women to cover their faces nor prohibit them from doing so. Many Indonesian women who would never consider wearing a burkah themselves nevertheless oppose attempts to prohibit others from doing so.

*Mark Woodward is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Arizona State University. Inayah Rohmaniyah is Senior Lecturer of Tafsir and Hadith at Sunan Kalijaga State Islamic University, Yogyakarta Indonesia.

4 Responses to “Prohibiting the Burkah = Liberating Women?”

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  1. Ricky says:

    I think it is ridiculous that muslim women are not accepted in wearing scarfs over their head. I really don’t think it should be an issue and that cultures should be allowed to whatever.

  2. Interesting and, I believe, valid perspective by Dr. Marching. Short of blatant indecency, where does the state in a democratic society have the right to determine what anyone wears? This is a great example of mirror imaging by the west. Proponents of the law, looking through their own cultural lens, believe that the unveiled woman will be liberated and achieve a higher level of human rights. Those veiled may, or may not, see it that way.

  3. Mark Woodward says:

    Excellent points. Part of the problem with this discourse is that it is most often rooted in the use of concepts derived from one cultural tradition to construct rather heavy handed and self serving critiques of the “other.” This is what the basic problem with both “Orientalism” and “Occidentalism.” Intercivilizational discourse requires that there be critical examination of these concepts, axioms, root metaphors of whatever else you choose to cal them.

  4. Michelle Knight says:

    For me, as a secularist in the UK, the media coverage of extremist controlled areas has engrained the burkah in my mind as a method of female control. The restrictive behaviours banning womens education, playing any part in authority, in fact the many equalities that have been hard won in the West but suppressed by religious extremism, have come to be represented to me, by the burkah.

    To my mind, the extremists aim is for world domination of their religion and like the swastika is representative of the Nazi attempt to achieve this same aim, so the burkah has become, to me personally, a symbol of a woman’s sympathy for extremist views.

    This is further heightened by the fact that we are told that the burkah is not a requirement of the Islamic faith.

    It does not help that the only material I can readily see is anti-islamist and in my attempt to understand the other side of the situation, even the British Muslim Council of Great Britain have not returned my e-mails. A long, ten part series on You Tube entitled, “Why Islam” failed to answer its own question. Indeed, it did nothing but reinforce the absence of women.

    Much is heard about Islam prescribing death for many things, including being gay. We have young men here openly flouting the law of incitement to murder, by calling for peoples deaths. I have friends who have been verbally accosted in the street by young muslim males calling on them to cover themselves.

    This is not acceptable social behaviour and for all this, the burkah has come out as being the symbol of extremism; and there is nothing really which has reversed this view point. Indeed, the women that do play important parts in UK governance do not cover their faces.

    Right now, I am receiving only one side of the story here. This is all I have to go on. I am not a person educated in social studies, I am simply one person on the ground who is trying, and failing, to hear the other side of the story. Until I can find the other side, I will continue to view the burkah as the badge of extremist views and a desire by the wearer to wish to see a reversal of the freedoms that women have fought so hard to win. As long as this is the interpretation of people on the ground, then it is easy to see why the burkah is met with such hostility.