How Western journalists reported the ban on burqa

This was written by Sabria S. Jawhar and was originally published in the Saudi Gazette.

Two weeks ago I was interviewed on an Australian television news program about the wave of proposed burqa bans in Europe, Canada, and now, apparently, in Australia. No one should be surprised about my opinion of the whole thing: It’s dumb.

My argument to George Negus, the interviewer at SBS, was simply that someone in a position of authority should have the wherewithal to ask a woman who wears the burqa whether she is forced to wear it and if she feels oppressed. If she is forced to do something that she doesn’t want to do, then it’s a symptom of possible domestic violence and there are existing laws to deal with that.

I also noted I didn’t see much difference between the Taliban forcing women to wear the burqa and some old white guys passing laws forcing women not to wear it. It’s all the same to me.

Mr. Negus, much to my surprise, had a good grasp of the burqa issue. Except for the briefest of moments when his staff asked me to if it is possible to wear the abaya and niqab for my appearance – as if it were some sort of costume I put on and take off when it suits my mood – I must say they didn’t have hint of Western bias in the way the interview was conducted.

This made an impression because the following week I attended a journalism workshop sponsored by the United Nations’ Alliance of Civilizations and Search for Common Ground in Beirut. Search for Common Ground is a group that’s been around for nearly 30 years with the goal of dealing with global conflict though collaborative problem-solving instead of taking an adversarial approach. The group uses the media, specifically print, television and radio, to resolve conflict in a constructive manner.

Many of the attendees at the workshop were journalists from Lebanon, Morocco, Yemen, Kuwait, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Oman and Saudi Arabia. Although the burqa ban was not discussed specifically at the workshop, the SBS interview could have been held up as an example for Western media of intelligent reporting. The engine that drives the issue of the burqa is the Western press.

European and North American journalists, mostly white males with a sprinkling of their non-hijabi Muslim sycophants, are shaping the public debate surrounding the issue of whether the burqa is an oppressive symbol of Islam.

Commenting and reporting based solely on the Western concept of freedom (and forgetting the basics, such as freedom of choice), pundits and columnists have molded the issue into a battle between civilizations, Christian versus Muslim values, and modern ideals versus culture and tradition. Who’s going to win this argument?

Western media, of course. The West has the resources to use as a sledgehammer to make their point, while the Arab media shrink from the thought of confrontation.

But here’s a thought: The only journalist lazier than an Arab is a Westerner. I can’t think of a single reported instance of a Western newsperson asking a burqa-clad woman her opinion until someone bothered to ask Afghan lawmaker Shinkai Karokhail for a comment. Not surprisingly, she said the only thing she finds more “appalling” at being forced to wear a burqa is a law banning it.

All of this brings me back to the Beirut journalism workshop, which was filled with young, university-educated Muslim women. Many of these ladies wore hijabs and many wore the burqa, or abaya, in their native countries.

These women are visible and have an opinion worth considering. Yet they are virtually ignored by the media. These women simply don’t exist when lawmakers consider punitive laws affecting them and the cultural traditions they hold close to their heart.
The nature of journalism is to tell a story of conflict. No better example can be served than the burqa ban. Yet journalists can serve the international community better if it employed just a few of the goals of Search for Common Ground by seeking collaborative solutions to issues, and at the same time hold lawmakers and the Taliban accountable for the oppressive measures they force on Muslim women.

  • Ahmad

    Sister, there isn’t anything in the Qur’an about covering the face. Only where Allah says ‘khimaruhunna’ which refers to wearing the khimar which does not cover the face, but just head, hair, chest etc. Niqab is different from Hijab, as you know.

    Just to clarify.

    • Fatemeh

      @Ahmad–We appreciate your attempt, but everyone up in here know the difference between niqab and hijab. Please don’t get bogged down in semantics.

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  • sumaya mahomed

    I am amused by the ignorance of the reality ‘behind the veil’…..and offended that people can assume to know what it is like voluntarily donning a niqaab, and purport to be a mouthpiece for the ‘subjugated muslim women’.

    I am a South African born muslim ,and pride myself on the fact that we have a dynamic society in which freedom of expression is highly valued. I am educated, with a Bachelors in Law and an Honours and made this choice without force or compulsion. I am no ‘fanatic’ and like thousands of other people , I am just trying to be the best human being I can be.

    I do not fit into any preconceived notions of trendy, and the words modern , hip or with it are never used to descibe me.I have no visible tattoos and minimal piercing.In fact, when most people look my way, their first notion is something along the lines of “oppressed female.” The brave individuals who have mustered the courage to ask me about the way I dress usually have questions like: “Does your husband force you to wear that?” or “Don’t you find that really unfair?”

    There is currently a world wide debate and an overwhelming vote for banning muslim women from dressing as I do. It seems strange that a little piece of cloth would make for such controversy.With tounge in cheek I often muse that perhaps the fear is that I am harboring an Uzi underneath it! Of course, the issue at hand is more than a mere piece of cloth. I am a Muslim woman who, like millions of other Muslim women across the globe, chooses to wear the hijab with a niqaab.This concept of the hijab, contrary to popular opinion, is actually one of the most fundamental aspects of female empowerment.

    When I cover myself, I make it virtually impossible for people to judge me according to my physical appearance.I cannot be slotted in a category because of my attractiveness or lack thereof.

    Compared to global society wherein we are sizing one another up on the basis of our clothing,accessories, hair and makeup. What kind of depth can there be in a world like this? Yes, I have a body, a physical manifestation upon this Earth. But it is the vessel of an intelligent mind and a strong spirit. It is not for the beholder to leer at or for use as a byline in adverts to sell everything from beer to cars!

    Because of the superficiality of the world in which we live, external appearances are so stressed that the value of the individual counts for almost nothing. It is a myth that women in today’s society are liberated! What kind of freedom can there be when a woman can not walk down the street without every aspect of her physical self being “checked out”?

    When I wear the hijab I feel safe from all of this. I am assured that no assumptions are made about my character from the length of my skirt. There is a barrier between me and those who would exploit me. I am first and foremost a human being, equal to any man, and not vulnerable because of my sexuality.I am now judged purely on my intellect and ability.

    One of the saddest truths of our time is the question of the beauty myth and female self-image. Reading popular media, you can instantly find out what kind of body image is “in” or “out.” and if you have the “wrong” body type, well, then, you’re just going to have to change it, aren’t you? After all,mainstream media screams that there is no way that you can be overweight and still be beautiful.

    Look at any advertisement.Women are used to sell products.How old is she? How attractive is she? What is she wearing? More often than not, that woman will be no older than her early 20s, taller, slimmer and more attractive than average, dressed in skimpy clothing. Women allow manipulation like this in the name of liberation.

    Believe it or not,the woman of today is forced into a mold.She is being coerced into selling herself, into compromising herself. This is why we have 12-year-old girls sticking their fingers down their throats and overweight adolescents hanging themselves.

    When people ask me if I feel oppressed, I can honestly say no. I made this decision out of my own free will. I like the fact that I am taking control of the way other people perceive me. I enjoy the fact that I don’t give anyone anything to look at and that I have released myself from the bondage of the swinging pendulum of the fashion industry and other institutions that exploit females.

    My body is my own business.Covering it up should not effect you and does not effect you , except that it may highlight your own personal inadequacies and bring forth your personal prejudice…after all it is understandable that you should fear that which you do not understand.I understand that it may scare you that I have the courage to think and act outside of the box, that I represent the possibility to live your life happily without conforming to expected ideals.

    Nobody can tell me how I should look or whether or not I am beautiful. I know that there is more to me than that. I am also able to say “no” comfortably then people ask me if I feel as though my sexuality is being repressed. I have taken control of my sexuality. I am empowered by the fact that I will never have to suffer the fate of trying to lose/gain weight or trying to find the exact lipstick shade that will go with my skin colour.I have made choices about what my priorities are and these are not among them.

    I truly dress for myself, and make no mistake underneath the ‘shrouds’ you so spitefully mock …I wear what I want and what makes me feel good…so what if my blahniks are not visible to you , I wear them for me…and that’s something I doubt you can truthfully aver.There is also a certain power that comes with viewing the world from my so called prison …I get to see thing’s as they really are , not through other’s perceptions of me.

    The men in my life respect me for who I am and my decision to veil myself….after all they know too well that I have to endure the venomous comments and mocking laughter of the ill-informed every time I go out in public.Make no mistake , I realize that what I do is different , and people often mock and jeer at that which they do not understand. My kids ( who look “normal”by your standards and dress no different to other kids) also have to endure the comments and mockery that people send my way when I leave home , see most people pretend that because I’m covered that entitles them to be vocal…and often I just pretend I do not hear them and this I do and will continue to do, as I am willing to stand up for what I believe. Can you really chastise me for having my own beliefs and then purport to be a champion of personal freedom?

    So next time you see me, don’t look at me sympathetically. I am not under duress or a male-worshipping female captive from those barbarous Arabic deserts!
    I’ve been liberated.

  • lark

    It reminds me of a polygamy in the UK show I saw not long ago. There was a lot of defending the practice as freely chosen by both women and men.

    Then there was the woman who had left a polygamous marriage and her sad story of social rejection, oppression, and so on. She was speaking without giving her name to avoid even more negative consequences in her community.

    Privileged women who are educated will always jump forward to defend their choices. Is this more than a symptom of their social isolation and self congratulation? The oppressed women who are forced to veil are silenced by their communities.

    This is one reason I support the ban on the niqab in the west.

    I do not think that western and Islamic ideas of freedom are compatible. Jawhar shows this when she says there is no talk among women in Saudi Arabia on how forced veiling and not being able to drive lessens the freedom of women.

    Sabria Jawhar compares the Taliban forcing the veil on women to France not allowing the niqab. That is deeply inaccurate and even silly. The oppression of women by the Taliban is a major human rights issue with a correlated death toll from abuse and also major consequences in education, health and the like.

    Something like 400 women in France wear the niqab. In my view they should feel uncomfortable in France. France is under no obligation to support this practice. The freedoms of the Islamic world are available to these women, if that is truly what they want.

  • Aisha

    lol at the end…what a moron.
    I’d be more then happy to be like “oh hey im an aussie convert who CHOSE to wear niqab”
    Westerners sometimes annoy me because they reckon muslim men beat their wives, force them to wear hijab ect: when in my family my father beat me for embracing Islam, forcing me to eat pig and to break my fast and then told me to choose islam and get out of the house, or leave islam and you can still be my daughter and in this family…

  • Belinda Gomez

    “When I wear the hijab I feel safe from all of this. I am assured that no assumptions are made about my character from the length of my skirt. There is a barrier between me and those who would exploit me”

    This is childishly naive. There’s no barrier. Just because your legs aren’t showing doesn’t mean that people, both men and women, aren’t making assumptions about your character. In the West, most observers will assume you’re some sad wife or daughter, obedient or beaten, and elsewhere, you’re considered virtuous chattel. Neither’s a great choice.

  • Laura

    @ aisha, i am so sorry that you’ve had to face that trial with your family. may God guide you to people who love you even more and grant you the courage to overcome this test :) as a fellow australian revert who now covers i agree with you on being more than happy to be asked about covering by a journalist, just to throw the common aussie assumption that we are forced to dress this way back in the faces of these ignorant-yet-strongly-opinionated people.

    they may found it interesting to know how much LESS oppressed i feel now that i cover, compared to before when the focal point was my hair/my physique/my skin/the way i wore my clothes in that was it sexually attractive enough? people only seemed satisfied (and would verbally let me know whether they were or not) when i did what they liked to see. and no matter what, there was NO day i went home without having been whistled at like a dog, been told “HEY BABY” by random (evidently white australian non muslim…) males. and i mean without even dressing provocatively in the slightest!! talk about being oppressed……..

  • Lauren

    “When I wear the hijab I feel safe from all of this. I am assured that no assumptions are made about my character from the length of my skirt … I am first and foremost a human being, equal to any man, and not vulnerable because of my sexuality”

    First of all, I highly respect your personal decisions, and I do not agree with the burqa ban. I am a Westerner, not Muslim, but I strongly believe in freedom of choice. However I don’t fully agree with the reasons behind this choice.

    You suggest that when you cover yourself, you are equal to any man. I wonder then why Muslim men do not cover themselves in such ways. Women are not the only ones to be ‘checked out’, as there is plenty of fashion promoted for men alike. Women who wear skirts that end high above their knees make the choice to do so because they want this type of attention. They want to be seen and distinguished in this way. Just as you want to be distinguished in your own way.

    It’s one extreme to the other. No matter what one wears, they will be judged by someone who thinks differently. I am a woman who is happy with my appearence, but I do not feel at all pressured or brainwashed by the Western media or fashion industries to lose weight, or to wear revealing clothes. “I am empowered by the fact that I will never have to suffer the fate of trying to lose/gain weight or trying to find the exact lipstick shade that will go with my skin colour.I have made choices about what my priorities are and these are not among them.” They are not among my priorities either, but I do not feel it necessary to go so far as to covering myself to feel empowered. I wear no lipstick, I wear jeans, and my education is at a high standard. I feel empowered by my freedom and my aspirations. Aspirations that can be achieved regardless of my Western clothes.

    If you were raised with values that have lead you to believe a woman can only be judged as intelligent if she covers herself, then that screams opression. In reality, as women, we are not just eyes and a mind. We have bodies. If you live your life every single day covering this body up, then you are not saying you’re happy that you can’t be judged, instead you’re letting the judgements of other people influence you to the point where you no longer wish to make your own decisions about what might be a nice shirt or a nice skirt. Many people who have the opportunities to make these decisions and dress as they want, also have the opportunities to exceed in their work place, in their education, in their social groups and in their relationships. Being this exposed as a woman does promote a level of respect. In this way women and men are truly equal.

    Furthermore, on the other hand, there is nothing wrong with being judged as beautiful anyway. And every woman should have opportunity to do so as every woman is beautiful in their own way. If you’re afraid you’re too beautiful, or not beautiful enough, then that is a problem that wont go away from hiding behind a cloth. Truly be and show yourself to the world and if you get a wolfwhistle, live with it. If someone doesn’t like your clothes or your weight, live with it. But it is to be opressed to feel that you must cover it up based on the judgements of other people, or other genders. We don’t live in a backwards society. Instead, Western society is strengthening equal values and rights towards women every day. The banning of the burqa, though hypocritical, is a way of pushing these rights.

    Ultimately, this ban is not the right way to fix any problem, in fact it will make things worse. It does take away choice, and freedom that it is promoting. But, it also understands that if anyone feels it necessary to wear a burqa, then they shouldn’t be wearing one.

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