Fair and Balanced: the BBC Burqa Debates

Fair and Balanced: the BBC Burqa Debates July 15, 2009

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.

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