Fair and Balanced: the BBC Burqa Debates

In the wake of the Sarkozy-Burqa fiasco, last week the BBC radio aired a show on the Women’s Hour program discussing the topic. It is definitely worth a listen, as two strong viewpoints are voiced. The presenter, Jane is joined by Um Abdullah, who wears the burqa and Maryam Namazie, who wants it banned. Emma Jane-Kirby, the BBC’s Correspondent in France, explains the background.

Kirby first provided a summary of Sarkozy’s speech and brought up very pertinent points surrounding his statements; most importantly that, while it sparked outrage globally, it only made page five of the French newspapers, because the French obviously have more pressing problems (like the economy) to worry about. Why the rest of the world then went into frenzy about what some Muslim woman wear is a mystery. She went on to speak about Muslims in France and the headscarf vs. burqa/niqab trends on the French streets. Kirby noted that the burqa is an extremely rare sight in France, and is, if at all, usually worn by visiting Saudis or other Gulf Arabs. Saudi women wear the niqab and abaya, not the burqa, but in this program,  burqa and niqab  are used synonymously, creating some confusion. Kirby does not clarify whether Sarkozy was referring to the burqa, the all encompassing tent-like garment which became infamous under the Taliban in Afghanistan,;or the niqab, which is the face covering tied at the of the head with an opening across the eyes, worn mostly by Gulf Arab women, but also by other Muslim women as well. It can be assumed that Sarkozy was referring to both of them, which cover the entire body, including the face.

She also quoted the imam of the Paris Mosque, who said that he feels there needs to be an inquiry into the alleged increase in the number of burqa-clad women in France, as this could be a sign of increasing radicalization. On the surface, this declaration appears Islamophobic, i.e. to presume that every women who wears the burqa/niqab is linked to an extremist or radical ideology. But I think taking into consideration the context of Muslims in France, who are predominantly from North and Sub Saharan Africa or Asia–regions in which the burqa and niqab are extremely rare or unheard of–his could be a valid point. Of course there is no excuse for labeling women who choose to wear religious garb as “extremists”, or “terrorists”, but looking at movements who do enforce the burqa, such as the Taliban, it is not difficult to comprehend why the burqa would be associated with such labels by people not familiar with the intricacies of such a wide topic.

Kirby’s section of the program ends with her reinforcing the fact that all overt religious signs and symbols, not just Islamic ones, are banned in state institutions in France, including the cross and yarmulkes.

Next on the show, Jane held a discussion between two women from opposite sides of the pole, who surprisingly, found much to agree on in principle. I was surprised at the mostly tolerant and open vibe of the discussion, which could have easily turned into a screaming match, given the women’s backgrounds. It did perturb me that the one interviewee, Um Abdullah, was introduced as simply, “from London and wears the burqa”, while the other’s position was more clearly outlined as “the spokesperson for the council of ex-Muslims”. This could very well be Um Abdullah’s doing herself, but I think it furthers the notion that a hijab- or niqab-wearing woman should simply be defined by what she wears, rather than what she does, be it a home-maker or a shopkeeper. Whilst Um Abdulla is described as “wearing a burqa”, the description by Jane in which she says that all she can see of Um Abdulla is her eyes, suggests that she is wearing a niqab.

Um Abdullah represents the standpoint that it should not be banned and that women should be free to wear it if they want to. That she herself wears the burqa/niqab gives her opinions a lot of weight. Namazie speaks for those who feel it should be banned, and that it is oppressive, even if worn by choice. Her stance comes across  patronizing and paternalistic at times, detracting from her key points, which hold a lot of credence.

Um Abdullah described Sarkozy’s speech as “frustrating, infuriating and unfair”, and explained why she chooses to wear the burqa. She also stated that no woman should be forced to wear it, and doing so is “completely wrong.” I was impressed by Um Abdullah’s confidence and eloquence. She defended her choice, but did not justify its enforcement, and admitted that it is indeed oppression if imposed. Um Abdullah also spoke about the stigma she faces as a niqabi in Britain, and how she feels that it is statements like Sarkozy’s that influence people to believe that she is an extremist or terrorist.

Namazie comes across strongly, describing the burqa/niqab as a “body bag” and “mobile prison”. She asserts that Um Abdullah is not your typical niqabi, and that the issue is bigger than one person’s choice. The issue, she believes, is one of women’s rights, which Sarkozy very fittingly opened up a space for discussion about. Namazie also speaks about the issue of “banning”, which she feels is misunderstood. According to her, banning is not a totalitarian practice, because governments ban things all the time, citing examples like smoking and child abuse. Another point made by Namazie is that of the burqa as a tool and symbol of “sexual apartheid”. If racial apartheid is intolerable, then so should sexual apartheid, she insists. I could not agree more, but feel that it is not the burqa, but the reasoning behind why some women wear it or are forced to wear it, that is upholding gender apartheid. Namazie also labeled the burqa as inhuman and anti-woman, which comes across as disrespectful to her niqab-wearing companion in the studio. All the same, her stance is a valid one, and I very much concur with most of what she said.

The two agree that no woman should be forced to wear the burqa, although Namazie goes a step further in saying that even if women want to wear it, the repercussions on a global scale are much too great a risk. They also agree that abuse and stigmatization of women who wear the burqa is unacceptable, and that the issue is an important one, although they differ on how it should be approached.

On the whole, the program was thought-provoking, and both women raised their stances equally well. This left no room for a winner and loser situation, which was all the more interesting, as I managed to absorb both viewpoints without having to take sides.

  • http://forsoothsayings.blogspot.com forsoothsayer

    it IS a totalitarian practice to ban it. when governments legislate to make things illegal, they are required to balance the general good of society versus the rights and freedoms of an individual, which are inalienable and fundamental rights. religious freedom is one of these, and on the other side, society has no pressing reason why the niqab or burka should be outlawed. it doesn’t hurt anyone. if someone is being “forced” to wear it she has a bunch of legal options available to her already.
    it’s insanely ridiculous to ban a garment and this enforced secularism of france is counterproductive.

  • Sanya`

    To the poster of this:

    So by agreeing with Ms Namazie, you’re saying you agree to her opinion on those wearing niqab? What about women who want to wear it?

    ~Just curious

  • http://getoutlines.wordpress.com Safiya Outlines

    Salaam Alaikum,

    It’s not really enforced secularism, it’s enforced anti multiculturalism

  • http://rlayla.blogspot.com Rochelle

    I think whether the Burqa is bad for women or not is kind of beside the point, because I don’t think Sarkozy gives a flying fuck about the human rights of women.

    That being said, I, like Safiyya, feel that gender apartheid is just as bad as racial apartheid, but question whether banning the burqa is the way to go. It might force burqa-wearers inside their homes and out of the public sphere. Plus, there are so few burqa wearers that it becomes moot point. And comparing it to child abuse and smoking is a bit of a hyperbole: burqa wearers aren’t hurting me or society enough to warrant its removal.

    Then again, Namazie has the reputation for being a little nuts.

  • stumblingmystic

    You guys are missing the point. Not being willing to show your face is just flat-out incompatible with the demands of modern and postmodern societies. You are required to show your face in many public places — it’s absolutely standard procedure and it’s necessary for security. Either niqabi women have to learn to be a bit flexible and show their faces to security cameras/guards/tellers at banks, etc. (which, by the way, does happen in Pakistan … women who cover their faces are willing to remove their veils for a few minutes when required to do so, for instance, when passport photographs are being taken), or they have to essentially stay at home and just not stay in the public sphere. I feel for niqab-wearing Muslim women, as they are minorities in the UK and Europe.

    I’m not for a ban on the burka/niqab or the hijab anywhere in the world but I think both forms of dress are just flat-out irrational (though the hijab is obviously more practical) and can only be defended by saying “such-and-such holy book commands me to do this”. There’s no rational argument for them.

    [This comment has been edited to fit within comment moderation guidelines.]

  • http://muslimahmediawatch.org/ Fatemeh

    @ stumblingmystic: Women who wear niqab go out all the time without it causing serious security issues. I think the security excuse is one that’s pulled mostly to heighten fear; it’s not really about security, as these women aren’t causing any security issues. It’s more about making everyone think that niqabis are shifty and untrustworthy. While I think that, for actual security purposes in certain circumstances, there are steps that could be taken to ensure women who wear niqab are who they say they are blah blah blah, most of the time, this is just about a boy crying wolf. Your idea that niqabs are “incompatible with modern lifestyles” ignore the fact that women wear this stuff and function perfectly in a modern society every day.

  • stumblingmystic

    Come on, how can it be against your comment policy to state that the niqab is an antiquated dress? I think this is demonstrably obvious. It’s not even a Muslim dress, strictly speaking — it’s a pre-Islamic dress dating back to biblical times.

  • http://muslimahmediawatch.org/ Fatemeh

    @ stumblingmystic: While the niqab may be pre-Islamic (there are varying accounts of dress at this time, so it could be and it could not be), words like “antiquated” and “pre-modern” are judgment words, intended to characterize the clothing and its wearer as stuck in the 7th century. Just because a women wears niqab doesn’t mean she’s “backward” or “pre-modern.” It’s offensive.

  • http://city-of-ladies.blogspot.com Rebecca

    did she seriously compare voluntary hijab to child abuse?

  • Muffy

    I agree that the way people confuse the words niqab and burqa can be very irritating. I also find it extremely irritating when the term “veil” is used, and it’s unclear whether it’s referring to headscarves, abayas, niqabs, burqas, or whatnot. That said, I did see women wearing burqas in Saudi Arabia, not just niqab. This was in Jeddah, a relatively “liberal” Saudi city. I suppose there’s no way of knowing if they were Saudis, Afghans, or whoever else. Also, a Saudi woman we talked to did mentions people wearing burqas (and she did use that word) in her country.

    As for Namazie, I think she’s done some great work, but I also think she’s a nutcase. Remember, she’s against Islam in general, not just the burqa. She thinks Islam is problem, not just bad interpretations of it. Even Sarkozy himself has more open-minded opinions towards Islam than Namazie does. I find her criticisms of anything Islamic so entertaining because she supports communism, which doesn’t exactly have a spectacular human rights record itself. Anyway, the point of what I’m trying to say is that she is so out of the mainstream for both Muslims and non-Muslims that I have a hard time taking her seriously on this issue. Couldn’t the bbc find someone else? I know that some Muslims supported the French headscarf ban, so I suspect there has got to be at least some Muslims who would support a burqa ban.

  • Safiyyah

    @ Sanya – No I am not agreeing that the Burqa should be banned, I said I agree with “most” of what she said , i.e Gender apartheid is totally unacceptable. I admire women who choose to wear a niqab/burqa out of strong conviction, but I don’t think it is practical or neccesary, again though, I don’t feel it should be banned. I don’t know what it is about a women with her face covered that makes Westerners so nervous, any ideas??

    @ Rochelle and Rebecca – certainly its absurd to compare burqa’s to child abuse and smoking, both Um Abdulla and Jane pointed this out to Namazie.

  • Safiyyah

    @ forsoothsayer – i agree that there should be a balance between public interests and individual freedoms, however, women who are forced to wear a burqa/niqab/hijab do not have access to the rights you mentioned, because they are probably to scared as they might hurt or even killed (in the name of “honour”), don’t know about these channels. so perhaps the focus should be on educating women about the options available to them if indeed they are being forced, and for the state to give them protection, if they want to not wear it, instead of banning it, which will only make some muslims over react and feel they are right about wanting women to cover from top to toe, just because a european pres. doesnt want it.

  • Rosa

    I saw this video on You Tube on the French news channel France 24. I thought I’d pass it along here in case anyone is interested: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OI7IZ88Xgug&feature=channel

  • Safiyyah

    @ muffy – yes it would have been interesting to hear from a muslim who wants it banned, but then we’d be left with someone like Yasmin alibhai brown? I do find Mona el tahawy’s viewpoint really though provoking, but I suppose she’s american and the BBC wanted to discuss the burqa in England.

  • MuslimahX

    “but I don’t think it is practical or ”

    What is not practical about it?

    Do you see niqab as gender apartheid?

    What other ‘good points’ did this woman make? You said that her points held a lot of credence? LIke what?

  • Dude

    Either niqabi women have to learn to be a bit flexible and show their faces to security cameras/guards/tellers at banks, etc.

    There’s a world of a difference between not being able to use a bank and not being able to go out in public. You can put rules allowing banks to state that people have to show their faces in order to use the bank – without banning the veil.

    Not being willing to show your face is just flat-out incompatible with the demands of modern and postmodern societies.

    Modernity is not static.

  • Dude

    That said, I did see women wearing burqas in Saudi Arabia, not just niqab. This was in Jeddah, a relatively “liberal” Saudi city.

    Jeddah’s population is about 50% foreign.

  • stumblingmystic

    Well, security concerns aside, I do think that the niqab is something that encourages gender apartheid, which *is* totally incompatible with the demands of modern and postmodern life. I have seen footage of conservative Wahhabi-style Muslim teachers in the UK encouraging Muslim women who are doctors not to work alongside men and/or to get hung up on absurd things like the “sin” of rolling up their sleeves to wash their arms before a medical procedure. I don’t like what Sarkozy’s doing, but I don’t like such attitudes towards gender relations either.

    The niqab also pretty much erases a woman’s physical presence from the public sphere, which is another thing that I find incompatible with modern and postmodern life.

    “Your idea that niqabs are ‘incompatible with modern lifestyles’ ignore the fact that women wear this stuff and function perfectly in a modern society every day.”

    I’m sure that they can function *reasonably* in modern society. But can they develop and realize their potential to the fullest possible extent, both in the private sphere and in the public sphere, the way women who don’t wear the niqab can, or the way men can? I highly doubt that they can compete with such men and women.

    I can’t help but notice that certain restrictions on women are totally out of date. I do not think it is offensive for me to think this, or to say it out loud. I’d like to see what MMW has to say about Mona Eltahawy’s article (which I don’t agree with personally, because while I don’t like the niqab, or even the hijab, I would not want either form of dress legally banned):

    Btw I’m a Pakistani who is a cultural Muslim and who has had the experience of wearing the hijab for several years (though not the niqab or burka). I’ve also had the experience of being harassed by family and friends for wearing the hijab (a miserable experience) and I’m aware that people are emotionally hurt when things that they believe are true are attacked. I sympathize with this emotional pain, but perhaps it is also necessary for us to have the courage to *examine* our beliefs in the light of the day and subject them to critical scrutiny before taking the victim stance and blaming the oppressor for everything. It may be that by imprisoning ourselves in fixed belief systems, we are inventing problems that exist only in our heads.

  • stumblingmystic

    I agree, and I I don’t support the niqab ban. I just can’t for the life of me understand why anyone would subject themselves to the inconvenience of such an uncomfortable and impractical dress.

    “Modernity is not static.”

    I think the ascendancy gender egalitarianism is one of the greatest achievements of our times, and I think it is pretty much here to stay, Godwilling.

  • stumblingmystic

    Ah, Fatemeh, I didn’t say the *woman* is backward or premodern. I said the *dress* is backward and premodern. I’m sure there are many niqabi women who are perfectly intelligent, well-educated, and worthy of the same respect and dignity as anyone else.

    I am against a ban on the niqab or the hijab (and I do detect the Western imperialism and particularly the French arrogance behind the demands for such bans), but at the same time, I feel that I and others have legitimate critiques of the niqab itself that we do not feel the need to censor.

  • Pink Muslimah

    I think that the strong reaction of the West against the niqab has several combined sources. The biggest would be the tone of the media when it discusses the issue. American media is especially at fault here and has caused much misunderstanding of the totality of Islamic cultural and rleigious dress. Another factor would be the fact that the face is viewed not only as a source of identification but also a window into someone’s personality. Covering the face closes the outside world off from these aspects of a person.

    I think that it is juvenile to demand that a woman give up parts of herself, face included, just because the Western world wants the privilege of looking at her or “feeling comfortable” around her.

  • http://getoutlines.wordpress.com Safiya Outlines

    Salaam Alaikum,

    No, no, no. I am beyond tired of hearing how threatening women wearing hijab/niqab/burqa are.

    How about the very real threats and abuse that women wearing the above face? It is majorly under reported but it is there and occurs far, far more frequently then any ‘security risk’ posed by women covering their faces.

  • http://maverick007.wordpress.com Maverick


    Personally, I don’t accept the “security” concerns about niqab, because statistically that also makes no sense. How often has the niqab, on a Muslim woman’s face, actually been used to facilitate a crime? Niqabi sisters are not criminals, God forbid. If they are asked, in private quarters, by female law enforcement officers to remove their niqab, they will. A criminal on the other hand, has completely different reasons for wearing a ski mask or a balaclava over his / her face. People who use the “security” argument against niqab often end up standing on very thin ice at your own peril.

    But aside from that, one thing I find sorely lacking in any debate surrounding niqab in Western culture, is its impact on interpersonal communications. In the West, a large part of communication is based on facial expressions. Its a huge percentage – facial and body language alone account for conveying more than 50% of the intended meaning of what is said during spoken communications. The reason why there is such a strong, intense reaction about the niqab, as opposed to the hijab, is related to precisely just that – it is disorienting to communicate with someone face-to-face if you have difficulty seeing just that – their eyebrows, their eye contact, their cheeks, their mouth, etc. It creates a pronounced communications deficit, and introduces instability into the dynamics of the conversation – one person is voluntarily communicating their reply verbally as well involuntarily by voice and facial / body expression, but they are not receiving a reciprocal reply. The subconscious train of thought quickly evolves along low-level lines of hostility because the exchange is perceived as unfair. That in turn impacts the body language and tone of the other person; they may become uninterested, defensive, or even actively hostile.

    I’ve worked in the telecom and IT fields for the majority of my sales career. Of that time, I spent five years at Canada’s largest telecom company, starting out in their callcenters and ending up as an outside sales Account Executive. I saw with my own eyes how hiring managers had no problems with hiring niqabi sisters to work in the call-centers because face-to-face communications was a non-issue; the CSR was just a name and a voice at the other end of the line and the customer expected nothing more than that. But those sisters would never be able to advance to any client-facing role simply because of the niqab, and yet, hijab-wearing Muslim women had such roles frequently. One of my sales training managers was a hijabi lady in her late 30s and she was well-respected in that business division. The company is even known for using hijabies in their internal corporate marketing collateral.

    I feel the real drivers behind such Western outbursts against the niqab is because it creates uncertainty in a society so deeply grounded in using facial expressions as a major means of communication. The hijab on the other hand, doesn’t do that. And the hijab itself has its own well-established precedents in Western societies – i.e the nuns’ habits, headcoverings of particular people such as the Amish, etc.

    Imagine how you would feel if I came up to you with a plain, solid, colorless and featureless mask on. Nothing on it, just as smooth as an egg shell. And I started a conversation with you.

    How would you feel, not being able to see my facial gestures while I speak?

  • http://getoutlines.wordpress.com Safiya Outlines

    Salaam Alaikum,

    Sorry, but I’ve read about ‘niqab= lack of facial expressions= a bad thing for society oh noes’, almost as much as I’ve read about the ‘niqabi security risk’.

    To answer your concerns, people working in operating theatres, laboratories and heavy industry seem to manage working very well with masks on.

  • maverick007


    Actually, I really doubt you’ve heard “almost as much” as you’ve heard about the niqab=security objection. I know for a fact it simply doesnt come up that much at all. I’ve seen debates about niqab all over the net.

    In addition, I’m not sure if you’re speaking from an experienced, fact-based, and professional view, but I am. The instances you mentioned are inapplicable to the broader debate about niqab in the West, because those are workplaces where health and safety are paramount. Its a non-issue as to why the nurse, surgeon or the lab tech is wearing a mask. In such cases, the conversation is much more limited to the tasks at hand, mostly using close-ended statements and queries, by professional and occupational associates who are generally on the same page.

    However, I was referring to public interactions where – as I mentioned – non-verbal, non-audible cues carry over 50% of the intended meaning of what is being said. So if someone doesnt get a reciprocal return based on what they’re both consciously or subconsciously giving during a conversation, then they start feeling disoriented and alienated.

  • Pink Muslimah

    Actually, there is a debate about the so-called “security” issue related to the niqab. BBC’s World Have Your Say had a discussion about the face veil recently, and it came up again as part of that global discussion.

    Thos who think that they know better than we how we should be dressing will ome up with any excuse for thier thinking.

    I do concur with you about the communication issue. However, I also think that mature, logically thinking adults can overcome sensations of discomfort in order to reach out to each other. Or, at least, they should. Some of my family asre “uncomfortable” about my hijab. I have said time and time again that if they have any specific concerns, they should walk up to me and talk to me like any civil adult would. I have no plans to change how I dress just to accommodate someone else’s “comfort” level.