Piety or Politics: An Inside Look at the Burqa

Afghan women (Photo: Reuters)
Afghan women (Photo: Reuters)

 

Where did the burqa come from? Is it required by Islamic (sharia) law?

These are question often posed about the garment which covers a woman from head to toe with a slit or netted opening for the eyes.

Dr. Elham Manea, a Swiss-Yemeni academic and author of Women and Sharia Law, answered these questions in an illuminating interview with ABC Australia.

Firstly, said Manea, “The burka is not Islamic. It’s a tradition that comes from the heart of Saudi Arabia, a region called Nejd.”

Until the 1970s, the garment was not worn outside this region until the Wahabi regime came to power, which she said resulted in the “re-Islamization” of Saudi Arabia and the mainstreaming of the extremist Wahabi principles.

Add that to the tremendous amount of money that Saudi Arabia invested across the world to export this ideology.

“With Gulf money you had a promotion of this ideology and a reading of Islam that turned the burqa into an ‘Islamic’ tradition,” Manea explained.

Manea, who is a member of the University of Zurich’s political science institute and a former adviser to the Swiss government, said the Quran requires that both men and women “cover and be modest,” but in terms of specifics, it is left open to interpretation.

“[The burqa] is a sign of segregation, separation, rejection of the values we see all around us — values of acceptance and tolerance and otherness,” she said. “[It reflects] a culture that treats woman as a sexualized object that has to be covered.”

Manea also reacted to the criticism of Australian MP Pauline Hanson, who favors a ban on the garment for security reasons. Hanson showed up to the Senate in a black burqa to make her point.

Manea criticized the bipartisan condemnation of Hanson’s stunt.  Attorney-General and Senator George Brandis rejected Hanson’s call to ban the burqa in parliament, saying, “To ridicule [the Muslim] community, to drive it into a corner, to mock its religious garments is an appalling thing to do.”

Although she does not favor Hanson or her party, Manea said, “To tell me that by talking about the burqa we are hurting the feelings of the Muslims is not only inaccurate, with all due respect, it’s almost racist.”

In contrast, Manea takes offense at comments such as Brandis’, calling them out as Western liberal posturing which put Muslims in one category and then defend them as “the other.”

“Like far-right groups, who believe every Muslim is a potential terrorist, they come [from] the other side and say every Muslim is religious and therefore we have to support these poor people who need our protection,” Manea asserted. “It’s an essentialist perception — they can’t believe that Muslims are people with different identities and attitudes.”

 

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Meira Svirsky
Meira Svirsky is the editor of ClarionProject.org