The Burqa: Limiting Women’s Power and Autonomy

As European countries step up to ban the burqa, many protesters don’t understand that the burqa is neither a religious requirement nor a simple cultural costume. The burqa is about limiting women’s autonomy and power.

The Koran only asks women to be modest and to veil their breasts (24:30 31).

If the burqa is not a religious requirement, how did it arise? Let’s take a look at how covering affects women in the countries in which it is law, which points to its intent.

In Saudi Arabia women cannot drive because they cannot get a driver’s license (no face picture for identity purposes).

Meanwhile, Sheikh Abdul Mohsin al-Abaican recently declared that women should give breast milk to their male drivers so that they can symbolically become their sons. Not sure that this means breastfeeding, which would neither enhance modesty nor separate the sexes. But it would keep non-lactating women from driving. (Or could they feed their drivers formula?) Women who cannot afford drivers are pretty much doomed to stay close to home.

Reflecting their lack of power, Saudi women make up only 5% of the workforce. Maybe it’s hard to get to work when you can’t drive? This low number reflects a social norm that women’s place is in the home, leaving the larger society largely safe from their influence.

In Afghanistan, women political candidates cannot speak or give speeches face-to-face in mixed company. If there is enough money for campaign posters, a burqa amidst men’s faces would certainly stand out, I suppose. But it would look very odd. Meanwhile, the bulk of Taliban-style culture is designed to limit women’s power, whether keeping them from venturing outside the house or keeping them from education and work.

The Burqa is not a fashion statement. It is not a religious requirement. It is not really about morality. Why should free societies support the lack of freedom and power that the burqa was intended to create?

Georgia Platts

Also see: Early Islam’s Feminist Air    Did Women Create Burqa Culture?     The Burqa and Individual Rights: It’s Complicated

About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on July 20, 2010, in feminism, gender, race/ethnicity, women and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. Bruce Preville

    This public domination of women not only disempowers them, it also makes a clear political statement, that those in control can exert their power of women and public discourse.
    B

  2. janeannechovy

    Awesome. I couldn’t agree more. I really struggle with veiling in general, and can’t really buy into “feminist” arguments for the hijab–trying to separate veiling from men’s attempts to control women’s bodies is like trying to separate the US Civil War from slavery. Veiling is even less about women’s rights than the Civil War was about states’ rights. Feh.

  3. Give breast milk to their drivers??!!!

    I agree that the burqa is so NOT Islam.

  4. Thanks for writing about this important topic. I have a question to pose… I was at Kaiser (taking my mother to the doctor) and a woman in a burqa was sitting across from me in the waiting room. She had only a small rectangular slot to peer thru, and even the slot had a material mesh over it, so no one could make direct eye contact with her. Her husband was sitting next to her. What was astounding and at the same time pitiful to me was that you could tell she was fascinated and excited to be out in public. Her head turned each time a new person entered the room or something was said, and it looked at though she was taking in as much of the environment as possible. I imagined that she rarely got out of her house because she seemed to be so happy and excited. I wanted to cry, because her big exciting adventure was going to the doctor. I was also feeling overwhelming rage toward her husband. Because I was so sad and so angry I did nothing but sit there, afraid of what might come out of my mouth if I started to speak. When I think back on it, if I were in the same situation again I would put my rage toward her husband aside, and try to have a friendly conversation with her, hoping that it would give her courage to understand what I think (because of her excitment and curiosity) she already felt, that perhaps there are friendly and interesting people waiting to befriend her, outside her house. Perhaps that would accomplish the most. I think displaying rage at her husband–a complete stranger doing nothing to me personaly at the time–would accomplish nothing for her, and perhaps result in harm to her (for being the source of public embarrasment to him) when they got home. Does anyone have any comments or ideas? What is the appropriate thing to do in a situation like that? I suppose (hypothetically) there are some women who enjoy wearing a burqa, but it’s hard for me to imagine, and I think most women who wear them have no other choice. It’s easy to talk about it in a forum like this, but what can/should we do when we actually see a woman in a burqa? Many years ago I interrupted a man who was beating a woman in public. I was 18 or 19 and I screamed at the man to stop and aksed the woman if she needed help. The man began to curse at me and chased me for several yards saying he would beat the crap out of me. I ran to my car and I think the woman must have run inside a building because I didn’t see her as I drove away. It was terrifying. Sometimes it takes courage to help others, I think in a way even more courage in the case of a woman wearing a burqa because socially, it wouldn’t appear she’s in any immediate danger, and you might just be viewed as sticking your nose in where it doesn’t belong, or as someone who’s going to create problems for her. This is a really challenging subject, but so important to look at closely. Thanks again for the post Georgia!

    • I think it would be a great thing to try to engage her in conversation. I often try to do that with people that are “invisible”, like homeless people I encounter. Though they may initially be surprised that anyone has actually reached out to speak to them, it is clear from their responses that they appreciate being recognized as human beings.

      • Bob, thank you for your reply, and I want to applaud you for reaching out to others.

        Sara

    • Sara, I don’t know whether to laugh or wince at your dilemma :) I’m a British Muslim woman who doesn’t happen to wear a burka or face veil. But I have friends who do, who have chosen it of their own free will , and some of them are even married, and I’m sure they visit the doctor while wearing it. You’re clearly a very compassionate person and your discomfort arose from empathy I’m sure.
      But I wonder why it didn’t occur to you that you were making assumption upon assumption about a woman you knew nothing about? One of my friends (who is now un-veiled) is a PhD graduate and a psychologist. Had you encountered her while veiled in a doctor’s waiting room would you have assumed she too was ‘excited to be out on an adventure’, rather than exhibiting professional curiousity about the human race?
      I agree that we should all make more effort to engage people in conversation – but perhaps we should do it with the knowledge that we might be the ones who walk away the better for that conversation, not them. Less in the mode of charity, and more in the hope of challenging our own assumptions and preconceptions.
      Peace,
      Minaretmuse

      • Minaretmuse, thank you for replying to my question.

        In general, I don’t wish to impose my beliefs on other women, but I do believe there are some basic concepts that should hold true for all people, and when considering the burqa, I’d like women to have a choice in whether or not they wear one. I’d like all women to have freedom, equality, and the power of choice in their lives.

        With regard to the women in the doctor’s office, I concede that I may be wrong about her circumstances. Anything is possible. However, I have no doubt that had your PhD graduate and psychologist friend been in the room, she would have noted this woman’s behavior as extremely unusual, and as a psychologist, perhaps even warrenting investigation.

        Further, I’d like to clear up any idea you might have that I would think talking to a woman in a burqa is an act of charity on my part. I do not, and have not ever felt I or the culture I grew up in as superior in any way, or that I am a better person than anyone else on the planet. That said, I do feel women in the western world have made hard won strides toward a type of equality that is not experienced by women in many other countries, an equality that can often be taken for granted in the western world.

        Because of your post I am now able to recognize that many women choose of their own free will, and do enjoy wearing a burqa, but I still believe as Georgia’s initial post pointed out: forcing a woman to wear a burqa when she doesn’t want to is an act of repression. And if we who have a choice don’t inquire, and don’t stand up for others who don’t have a choice, it is the same as turning a blind eye.
        Peace also be with you,
        Sara

  5. The rationale I have always heard for requiring women to be fully covered is to prevent men from getting excited by the sight of their skin.

    Pretty crazy…since the men can’t control their own libido or responses, they enforce this society-wide control over women.

    • Hey Bob,

      I’ve heard this rational too, and thought it an underhanded way of acknowledging the depth of power women may have over some men. Interestingly, I had a friend who traveled in the mid-east when he was a young man (1970s). He was a very handsome man, and told me that in order to avoid difficult situations, he discovered he often needed to completely cover himself (especially his ankles).

      Sara

  6. Georgia,

    I am a typical American woman. I was born and raised LDS in the Intermountain West and now live in Texas. I own a burqa. I have worn it out numerous times, mostly as a way to see how it feels to be out and about and not be seen as a face or body. I felt so self conscious that I dont think I was able to fully appreciate the experience. Because I live in a culture that values youth and beauty and where people don’t hesitate to judge you by your appearance I have often wished that there was a neutralizing agent, like a burqa, that could help dissipate those judgments. Kind of like what a school uniform is to clothing in a school, of course the burqa being an extreme form of that.

    Just my thoughts….. :o)

  7. Spelling error: Quran
    I am a Muslim, I do not wear the burqa, but I do know people who wear it. People do not know the true meaning of wearing the burqa or what the purpose is of wearing it. Ancient Persia, Jewish people and in olden India had strict rules for women to cover themselves. Another important thing was, it was also one of the signs of status’s because the women of higher class were supposed to get out of the house only in the situation if they are covering themselves properly or they were taken from one place to another in something called paliki which was a kind of a box, which women ride in and two or four men carry it. The purpose of wearing a burqa is to hide the curves and body of a woman because she is like a jewel, which is very valuable and not meant to be seen by everyone. It is for her own sanctity and protection especially in olden days when the people were not so much educated and evolved and had their God given animal instincts very strong in them. For nowadays, we see that women as long as she covering herself properly, that is not showing her curves and skin can still perform in social activities. Burqa doesn’t limit her intelligence and her freedom. My personal opinion is that women don’t have to wear burqa or she doesn’t have to wear short skirts and tanks, there is also a middle ground which is modesty. The base is again, as long as you are not showing your skin and covering your body comfortably, your fine.
    I believe that if you are trying to ban the usage of burqa for women then you should also ban wearing bikinis. If you are offended by burqa’s, I feel offended by watching women wearing bikini’s in public places( it might be beaches, swimming pools or any other place where you are exposed to public) it’s a personal aspect of how you look at things

    • Koran is a correct spelling, too.

      I’m interested in women freely choosing what they wear, and not being brainwashed into wearing anything in particular – bikinis or burqas. Both are used to limit women, btw. See my posts on sexual objectification. If you read some of my other posts on the subject of burqas, you’ll see that I’m not for banning them. Although I don’t like their intent. Right now, their intent is very much about limiting women. Can’t drive. Easier to beat black and blue blobs. It doesn’t protect women through modesty, either. Most Egyptians wear modest coverings, yet Egypt has one of the highest rates of sexual harassment. Interestingly, the more one is covered, the more that which is covered becomes intriguing, and sexualized. So an Afghan woman’s arm is considered way more sexual than an American woman’s arm. In the U.S. a woman’s arm or ankle are uncovered, and who cares? I’ll be writing more on this later.

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