MAY 12 — Burqas, the all-enveloping, face-covering garment imposed on Afghan women under the Taliban, have made quite a bit of a news splash over here recently.
First, Belgium. The lower house of parliament voted for a law to ban the burqa (or rather, clothing that hides a person’s identity in public places) and the vote was passed almost unanimously with only two abstentions. This now has to go through the Senate — which is not expected to block it — and if passed, Belgium will become the first European country with such a ban.
Not a week after the Belgium burqa ban, up popped a burqa-related story in Italy. Amel Marmouri was stopped outside a post office in northern Italy and fined €500 (RM2,150), under an anti-terrorist law passed in 1975 banning people from wearing clothing that could obscure their identities in public places.
Finally, a piece of news that seemed to validate the concerns that the Belgians and Italians (and quite a number of other Europeans, too) have with the burqa. In Australia, an armed robbery was allegedly carried out by a man wearing a burqa and sunglasses.
At last, I thought to myself, a European country that has the guts to ban this most horrible restriction on women. How can the burqa be anything other than restrictive, given that a person wearing it can only see the world through a mesh, which deprives her not only of viewing the world through her own eyes, but also deprives her of her peripheral vision?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not one of those who think women who wear the tudung or any other form of the hijab are compelled to do so. No, I have many family members and friends who wear the tudung, and I greatly respect their decision.
But the burqa? Maybe some women wear it out of choice. I can’t help but think, though, that a woman who wears such a garment is either forced to or has been conditioned in such a way that she thinks it’s her choice, when there may be other factors that are compelling her to wear it.
Take the lady who was fined in Italy. I don’t know anything about her life other than what was reported in the newspapers, but I was very much taken aback by the remark made by her husband after she was fined. He said that as the burqa was banned, he would have to confine her to the house as the Qur’an forbids other men to see her face.
Now, I’m no Islamic scholar, but the one thing that has been drummed in me is that we women must cover all parts of our body except our hands and faces. Obviously this man has a stricter interpretation of Islam.
Be that as it may, what really horrified me was the fact that he thought it was perfectly alright to prevent his wife from leaving her house. What is she, a slave? Does she have no say at all in the way her life is lived? This, happening in a European country! Even in Malaysia we don’t have such outrageous behaviour (or at least, I hope not).
In any case, wearing a burqa does indeed make it more difficult to ascertain a person’s identity. In my youth, I spent a stint as an invigilator during exams at Universiti Malaya. One of the exams that I was present at was for an Islamic course.
Not surprisingly, the exam hall was full of women wearing the tudung. An incident that took place then has always stuck in my mind: one of the female students wore the purdah (which covers the face apart from the eyes) to the exam. The head examiner was having none of that. He insisted that she took the purdah off so that he could ensure that she matched her university ID if she wanted to take the exam.
I can understand why some Western countries are reluctant to act against the burqa, as such a ban will almost certainly be seen as being against Muslims and Islam. In 2006, the Leader of the British House of Commons, Jack Straw, insisted that the burqa should be abandoned.
Yet last February he insisted that Muslim women in Britain should never be banned from wearing the burqa in public. The reason for such an about-face? Well, the very strong opposition from some Muslim groups that he received might have contributed.
Yet, as far as I’m concerned, Europe — and especially Britain — shouldn’t be afraid of passing laws to ban the burqa. Of course, a woman has the right to wear whatever she wants. However, rights are not, and should not, be absolute.
For instance, I have the right to work, but this right does not extend to me working as a thief. Covering one’s face is not normal in European society; many banks (and some petrol stations) may ask you to remove your motorcycle helmet should you enter wearing one.
Also, some people find it quite intimidating not being able to see another person’s face. In Britain, “hoodies” (the term used to describe people wearing tops with hoods that usually cast a shadow over — and hence obscuring — their faces) are often seen as trouble-makers and threatening.
Fortunately, our own country has a very pragmatic approach when it comes to the purdah (and one assumes, by extension, to the burqa). The Hjh Halimatussaadiah bte Hj Kamaruddin v Public Services Commission case made it clear that public servants are not allowed to cover their faces.
A burqa may be de rigeur in some Muslim countries. In a Western world, a burqa-wearer is far more likely to attract attention to herself compared to a hijab-clad woman. Given that one of the Islam’s exhortations behind women dressing modestly is so that we don’t call attention to ourselves, perhaps Muslims should support burqa bans instead of opposing them!
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.