On supporting women who wear the burqa
By now, most young feminist are aware of the well-documented efforts students have made to push back against sexist dress codes. Administrators and teachers across the country continue to shame their female students for wearing “revealing” tank tops and shorts, claiming their exposed skin “distracts” male students. These dress codes, young feminists claim, are an affront to feminist progress—that is, they’re an affront if we define this “progress” as equating showing skin with being confident and “empowered”; if we believe the best way to combat slut shaming is by encouraging girls to show as much as skin as they want. While this message is not necessarily problematic in and of itself, it becomes so when it encourages feminists and others to reverse slut shame—or to shame women and girls for choosing to cover up.
Last month, Rachinda Serroukh, a Muslim woman and mother in London, was asked to leave through the back door of her daughter’s school because she did not remove her face veil. Like many Muslim women, Serroukh wears a burqa to align herself with the principles of modesty Islam endorses. The school’s decision to ask her to leave because of her outfit choice was an act of discrimination, yet feminists have not made their outrage about this story, and other similar stories, as public as they have with sexist dress codes. Fundamentally, there is no difference between asking a girl to leave school because her clothes are too revealing and asking a woman to leave school because her clothes don’t reveal enough. Yet because the latter exists in the intersection of religion and gender, some feminists seem to think the issue is too messy to talk about and all too easily brush it off.
So why exactly does the burqa make people so uncomfortable? My personal experience has revealed that many non-Muslim women believe that burqas are related to the social control of women. Yet those who hold this belief don’t seem to understand the hypocrisy of it. For example, if the administrators who asked Serroukh to leave opposed the “social control of women,” then forcing a woman to leave school premises through the back door so no one would see her would contradictorily constitute just another act of “social control.”
Another popular reason why some hate the burqa is because it is considered “disrespectful” to hide one’s identity from other people. But who has the right to define another person’s identity simply by the parts of their body and face they choose to expose? By that logic, why not also assume that people who aren’t bald who are hiding the shape of their head from others, and that having hair is also a way of hiding one’s identity? Nobody is automatically entitled to access any part of another person’s body.
One of the most popular reasons people reject the burqa, however, is that they believe it’s simply “creepy.” These people seem to consider Muslim women who wear burqas as inhuman, and even compare them to ghosts. Yet it seems especially strange that the inability to read one’s facial expression is equated to inhumanity in a time during which people talk to and forge connections with others online even though we cannot see their faces. If anything, not seeing someone’s full face should encourage a stronger connection—one that looks past appearance.
So the simplest answer to why Serroukh was asked to leave, and why other women who wear burqas are so misunderstood, is that they make others feel uncomfortable. At the end of the day, if non-Muslims really want to address what they perceive as a “dehumanization” of women in burqas, asking them to leave the premises is hardly an effective tactic for doing so. That is dehumanizing. A face veil isn’t infringing on the ability for someone to get to know a Muslim woman—their internalized Islamophobia is.
More articles by Category: Body image and body standards, Religion
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