Say "no" to the Oppressive Burqa  (South Asian Outlook)

Once again, women are rendered invisible as the Burka becomes ubiquitous in the city of Kohat in Northern Pakistan. For over a decade, women have suffered the same fate in neighboring Afghanistan where they must neither be seen nor heard.  Not even heard! The sound of a woman’s voice may prove too distracting for a man.  At least, so assert the Islamist clerics.

In Northern Pakistan, the Taliban continue to expand their control.  They demand that all female students wear white burqas, all the way from primary school to the higher levels of education.  The burqa must be unattractive, a plain white cloak that transforms women to walking corpses.  It must be free of any styles or fancy embroideries that would draw attention of males in public.  And it must be white, not black.  Apparently the color black is too alluring and seductive for the Taliban.

But according to Abdul Ghafoor, a Kohat official, the ordinance stipulating the white burqa was issued only to protect the students.  There’s a security concern:  Draw the ire of the Taliban, and your school runs the risk of being blown up.  And experience shows that this is not an empty threat.

So much for the argument that the burqa isn’t a symbol of oppression at all.  Muslim woman actually choose to wear it, we’re told.  Yes, it may actually be true that some Muslim women are content to wear the burqa, but we need to wonder why.  Is it coercion?  Persuasion?  Cultural mores?  Societal pressure?  Brainwashing?  The threat of being killed or having your school blasted to rubble?

Canadians live in a modern society, and we place a high value on pluralism, diversity and religious tolerance.  But is there a limit to what we can tolerate?  In countries were the burqa is permitted, can we be confidant that children have a free choice?  “Wear a plain white burqa or we’ll blow up your school.”  Is this free choice?

In Britain, a father is insisting that his twelve-year-old daughter wear the niqab, the face covering, to school.  Authorities are preparing for a long and expensive legal battle.  A local Muslim group is supporting them, arguing that the niqab is simply an expression of Wahhabi Islam—the extremist version of Islam which is promoted and financed around the world by Saudi Arabia.

Certain left-wing politicians are siding with the Wahhabis, the extremists and the Islamists on this issue.  They invoke the pluralism argument that we must accept cultural differences in a free society.  They argue that the number of women who actually don the burqa  is infinitesimal, so the debate over the burqa is irrelevant.  But even on the sidewalks of Toronto it’s obvious that the burqa and niqab are very common.

We can’t ignore the problem of security.  We can’t allow our citizens to cover up their identity, whether it’s only one citizen doing so, or fifty, or thousands.  Allowing any form of mask creates opportunities for criminals.  Allowing burqas jeopardizes every bank, store, public transit, even school washrooms.  We have no way of knowing whether the individual in the burqa is a Muslim, or even whether it is a woman.  We’ve already had security problems in Toronto.  Recently a store in India was robbed by a person in a burqa, and this has sparked debate there over whether burqas should be tolerated.
And when our Islamist enemies proclaim that Canada is a target, when they threaten to punish Canada for it’s foreign policy, we need to listen.  When individuals are allowed to circulate freely while concealing their identity, we need to worry.
Whose rights need protection?  The rights of Muslim women who are forced to wear a burqa because the law of the land allows it?  The rights of children who are forced to wear this cumbersome attire to school?  The rights of bank tellers and store clerks to know who or what they are dealing with?  The rights of the general public, who are alarmed by allegations of bomb plots right here in Toronto?   We must all be ready to answer these questions.  
Whether the Burak is or isn’t  a symbol of oppression for some can be debated endless by religious people but the fact that it most certainly has that potential is undeniable. Has the seven-year-old Pakistani girl stumbling to school in a white shroud exercised free choice?  The woman who is abused or browbeaten by male relatives, how can she exercise her right to choose?  Women who are surrounded by extremist ideology that is financed by Saudi Arabia, are their choices really free?
If our government or our communities allow even the possibility of such oppression, we need to rethink our values and priorities.

Canadians must oppose the burqa.

Farzana Hassan is the president of the Muslim Canadian Congress and author of Islam, Women and the Challenges of Today.


[Farzana Hassan-Shahid is President of the Muslim Canadian Congress, Freelance writer, public speaker and author of  "Prophecy and the Fundamentalist Quest" and host of the radio program Islam: Faith and Culture.]