France Human Interest Women's Issues

The Burka Can Be A Form Of Oppression- But Banning It Won’t Help

Can we justifiably tell Muslim women to abandon something so closely linked to their religion?

William Cashmore

Naked Politics Blogger

After legislation imposed in parts of France banning the wearing the “burkini” on some beaches, the discussion of the “burkini ban” has reignited the incredibly difficult issue of the burka, and a woman’s right to decide what she wears. Can we justifiably tell Muslim women to abandon something so closely linked to their religion?

If you’re going to allow women to wear the burka, you should allow them to wear a burkini. It does nothing other than increase the freedom and opportunity of that woman to swim whilst remaining modest. There is no valid objection to “burkinis”, which does not include a simultaneous objection to the wearing of a burka. However, whether or not to ban the burka is an entirely different issue. It is a difficult issue for progressives, because you seemingly face the difficult choice between telling women they cannot wear something, or allowing a religion to tell women they have to wear something, both of which go against the classic doctrine of feminism that women should be in utmost control of their own lives.

Some would say that women who wear the burka (or for that matter, the hijab) do so out of their own choice, and so someone like me is in no place to tell that woman not to wear it. But a flaw can easily be spotted here: Islamic women do not always have a totally free choice over whether to wear the burka. Whilst women in western countries have some level of control over this, those in deeply Islamic countries, such as Afghanistan, Iran, and Indonesia, do not have this.

 I would even contest that Muslim women in the west do not have a truly free choice over whether they wear the burka. Many of us would say that the reason that women often choose to drop ambitious career paths, stay at home, or take on the majority of childcare, is not down to their choice, rather patriarchal forces push them into making this decision. In short: women may feel free in their decisions (this also applies to men generally choosing to work more hours), but really they have been pushed by societal forces to making a specific decision. This argument can be replicated with regards to the burka, by saying that women who ‘choose’ to wear this religious clothing, do not really choose at all, and simply are pushed into wearing it.

The burka is a symbol of patriarchal oppression, as is the hijab. The hijab is almost always associated with women, but in Islam, the Hijab is merely a metaphorical divide between humanity and Allah, not specified to either gender. The fact that it is almost always women who wear a Hijab (it is custom for men to wear it in some Islamic communities, but not the west) shows it is women being told what they can and can’t wear by society, because the same standards are not demanded of men. It is a textbook double standard.

On the other hand, it is certainly not desirable to outlaw the burka or hijab. As I said, it is not in the interests of women’s liberation to ever tell women what to wear. So how can we deal with this Catch-22? It may, once again, be helpful to refer to the similarities with women moving out of the workplace. Nobody in the west told women as an order ‘you must stop being a housewife’. It happened through education and the persuasion of society that women should be allowed to do what they like.

I propose we do the same with the burka and the hijab. Make it clear that wearing of the burka is not of high theological importance in the Koran, and allow a shift away from the conservative, patriarchal, oppressive teachings of the religion, towards the teachings of peace, which are so common in Islam. We have been doing the same with Christianity since the 14th century and we must now allow Islam to reform, so that women can be more liberated and our world can be a better place for Muslim women.

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