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Speaking Truth: Islamophobia, Burqas, and the Oppression of Women

On Speaking Truth: Islamophobia, Burqas, and the Oppression of Women


Have you ever experienced that feeling that comes up when someone makes a comment on Facebook, and you so want to respond but doing so would either enflame a friend’s page, or fall on deaf ears, or perhaps the issue at hand was far more complicated than you could possible sum up in a reply comment? I experienced that this week on a friend’s page when an insensitive comment (in my opinion) was made on this video: For those who are unable to view it, the video shows film clips of women wearing burqas, with the statement, “This is not the traditional dress of such and such an Islamic country,” followed with a film clip or image of women dressed in whatever the indigenous dress for that region is, and the words,” This is the traditional dress of ________.” For me this video was a powerful example of the women’s movement rising in several Arab countries. It has made the rounds amongst several of my friends’ pages. I was saddened to see a comment on my friend’s share of this video stating that perhaps these women were bullied into wearing burqas because they simply let themselves be bullied and didn’t stand up for themselves. (This is greatly paraphrased to avoid other kinds of issues).


In case you are wondering why or how I would have an opinion on this topic, I studied Islam in order teach a course on Islamic Art and Architecture at my previous employer, Cheyney University of Pennsylvania. The face, forms, and artistic output of Islam is far more interesting, colorful, and beautiful than the current face of Islam we see most often in the news. The reason women are wearing burqas in the regions shown in that video are many and complex, and certainly not something that can be summarized in a pithy, snappy reply to someone’s comment on Facebook. However, I felt that something needed to be said, and in a place and platform where those who want to read about it can do so, and those who don’t will hopefully go on their merry way.


In the United States, Muslim women can choose to wear or not wear the burqa (the long full body covering dress) or the hijab (the headscarf) without being oppressed, based very much on their personal circumstances. In the country of Iran, the Hijab was outlawed from 1939 until 1979, when the Shah was overthrown, and Ayatollah Khomeini took power, and instituted a fundamentalist form of Islam as the state religion. Khomeini instituted a state law requiring women to wear the hijab shortly after seizing control of the country. Since 1995, a woman caught not wearing the hijab can be imprisoned from 10 days to two months, and/or required to pay fines from 50,000 up to 500,000 rials adjusted for inflation. How could anyone possibly assume that women in Iran and similar countries have any recourse regarding what they choose to wear?


When I was studying Islamic art, I fell in love with the beautiful glittering tiles adorning the inside and outside of mosques, homes, and other buildings. The prohibition against images in Islam usually means that we don’t see very much of the human figure in Islamic art, but we do see artists finding ways to delight the eye with brilliant geometric patterns, exhuberant leafy foliage border designs, and elegant calligraphy turned into the highest art. As I was learning about Islamic art, I was also seeing on the news how many of these beautiful and ornate mosques and palaces where being destroyed by the Islamic State because they represented a kind of Islam with which they did not agree. It is heart breaking for me as both an artist and art historian to see this destruction.


This destruction goes hand in hand with the oppression of women, the absolute oppression of gays, lesbians and trans people in the Islamic world. This is what authoritarianism looks like. I recently read Canadian writer and activist Yasmine Mohammad’s book Unveiled: How Western Liberals Empower Radical Islam where she spoke of abuses she suffered through her childhood and into early adulthood living in a fundamentalist Islamic household. As child, she was forced to wear a hijab, was unallowed to play with non-Muslim children, and was severely abused by her stepfather for infractions such as forgetting verses from the Quran. She was forced into a marriage with a man who later was involved in the September 11, 2001 plot to destroy the World Trade Center. Her freedom came only when Canadian officials contacted her when she had to take her mother to the hospital. From there, she escaped and changed her name and took student loans so that she could attend college. Anyone who reads her account would hardly say that women in these situations can simply say “no” to their husbands, fathers, mothers, imams, and an entire culture that sees women only as breeding stock.


Why are women made to wear the hijab and/or burqa in these cultures? There is an emphasis on “modest” attire in place already in the Quran for both men and women. Just as we see with Fundamentalist Christianity and the Bible, there are several ways more conservative Muslims have interpreted what is modest and for whom. The burqa is intended to completely obfuscate the female figure, to make women less distracting or sexually attractive to men. There are women who see it as a way of expressing their faith and keeping unwanted male attention away from them, however there are still more who feel it is a symbol of the patriarchy.


Yasmine Mohammed, the Canadian activist and author mentioned earlier, has been known to pass a burqa or a niqab around at her talks to allow non-Muslim women to try them on. She then asks if the garment feels empowering, as some Muslim women have said. For her, the burqa is part of a system that forces women into marriages, encourages female genital mutilation and honor violence/killings. It was my education about these issues from reading Mohammed’s book that made me need to speak out for women who have had the right to speak out ripped away from them.



Now that I have said all that I came here to say, I feel it is important to make a statement as well about things that are said or unsaid on Facebook. I do my best not to vaguebook or say things that might be misconstrued. I was only half joking when I made the following statement on my own Facebook page: “Someone is being wrong on the Internet. Do I step in? Have I evolved past this...... type type.... delete...type.... delete....” I was attempting to be humorous, but this was one case where I saw that our best intentions will not save us.


I was actually going to just let it all go and return to my day and go about my business, but after reading friends’ comments on my post, I realized there was indeed something to be said. I was surprised that one person responded by asking me if by “being wrong” I meant instead to be judging them for their behavior, pointing out that I am not them, they are not me. It occurred to me that perhaps I should have just skipped my post about whether to add my voice on my friend’s page and replied as I am doing now. (To my friend’s credit, they have already taken down the offending comment).


Sometimes when something seemingly small grabs your attention and seems to demand an intervention it is wise to act. Other times, one can just scroll by. However, in case anyone has any doubt about whether in some places a woman has a say about what to wear or if the State has made that choice for her, I think some education is not a bad thing. I always try to remember the old phrase, “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”


I think for me the biggest lesson here is that we should never assume we know all the sides of one story. We shouldn’t assume that a woman wearing a burqa is doing so because it is of her own choosing any more than we should assume she is a terrorist because she is wearing a burqa. This applies to all parts of our lives and circumstances. Please try to err on the side of kind.



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