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Burqa: a veil on women liberties
by Thanos Kalamidas
2009-07-11 09:49:14
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Sometimes I feel that we are trapped in semantics and victims of our own fear of being prejudice. In doing so we are unfortunately crossing the lines we have put ourselves when it comes to our right to be free and enjoy the fruits of equality and democracy. I’m talking about today’s Europe, the continent that settled ideas and tolerance for people for millenniums beyond background, gender, colour and religion. And we shared our privileges and victories with everybody on this continent, despite all the difficulties, and Europe had a lot of difficulties since every single battle that was won meant the beginning of another war.

In Europe we proved something basic - that social evolution is not a case of competition or comparison, and it is not influenced by politics, religion, colour or gender. The motivation has always been the democratic foundations and the ancient believes of respect. It would be unfair to say that this is a Christian, Jewish or a Muslim achievement, not only because these achievements go beyond religious believes, but because Europe has always been a place of tolerance, where religions coexist peacefully. Please don’t think that I’m forgetting the difficulties religions dealt with in Europe all through those millenniums, or their services to achieve big or little victories. It doesn’t matter if I’m talking about 40 hours working week or women’s liberties.

On the topic of women’s liberties, you would never consider Rosa Luxembourg and Simon de Beauvoir Christians, but their role in achieving women’s liberties in Europe is not only pioneering, but also revolutionary and fundamental. Coming to semantics, to consider Europe and the European achievements on any level and regarding any issue to be Christian is unfair and misleading, not only to the Muslims, Buddhists, Jewish, atheists and I don’t know who else – for everybody living in Europe it will mean misunderstanding of the history on the whole. The same applies to when we talk about the Islamic world.

By using the term Islamic, we identify countries, groups, even art that is influenced by the Qur’an and the Muslim believes. This is the same way people in the Islamic world refer to the western world as the Christian world. You see, this is semantics again. What is not semantics is the use of the term, and further more the use of religion and a holy book to excuse acts that sometimes border on barbarism, and these acts have absolutely nothing to do with the religion. An example is women’s circumcision. Unfortunately, this barbaric act is still being practised in countries like Somalia or Ethiopia; it is covered as a religious act, connected with the Qur’an and blessed by the representatives of the faith.

Women’s circumcision is a barbaric act that can lead to serious health problems, even to death, and it is illegal in most European states. Still people practice it secretly, sentencing twelve and thirteen year-old girls into a life of torture. The amazing thing is that it is mainly women who are involved in the whole procedure; and this because they strongly believe that it is part of their Muslim traditions. The truth is that it is nothing more than a way for their men to insure that women will never get satisfaction from sex, so they will never cheat on them. This also covers their pathetic insecurities, and all that with a religious veil! Sad but true.

The point is that even when it came to women’s circumcision, Europe acted with a lot of delays and after a few women lost their lives. The reasoning, semantics! This is exactly what I said in the beginning. Unfortunately, our fear of being prejudice has become semantics; and this on a continent with a history of tolerance. This leads me to another issue: the last years there’s been a lot of talk in Europe about the burqa - a dress code that demands that every part of the woman’s body is covered with a veil, including the eyes. The discussion became stronger after the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, stated that the burqa should be forbidden in France and in Europe in general.

But let’s see, defining what a burqa is means getting to the facts before the semantics. Burqa has its origins in the desert, long before Islam arrived. It had two functions. First of all, it served as a sand mask in windy conditions. It was worn by both men and women and it is still common today. For women, the masking of the face and body was only used when one group was being raided by another. These raids often involved kidnapping women who were of child bearing age. With the women hidden behind a veil, and the home team fighting back, the chances of being taken were substantially reduced, as women of child bearing age could not be quickly distinguished from the very young or the old. Apologies for my cynicism, but I have never seen a sand storm in Trafalgar Square or in Trocadero in Paris, and I would be shocked if there were groups raiding the centres of Athens, Madrid or Helsinki to kidnap women!

So what’s the truth? Many Muslims believe that the Qur'an, and the collected traditions of the life of Muhammed, hadith, require both men and women to dress and behave modestly in public and this is true, however, this requirement, called hijab, has been interpreted in many different ways by Islamic scholars (ulema) and Muslim communities. The burqa is not mentioned in the Qur’an. Neither is women’s circumcision.

The argument here is that I compare a barbaric act with a dress code. Both cases lead to circumcision. In the first case they circumcise the genitals, in the second the personality. And this happens in the Europe of Rosa Luxembourg and Simon de Beauvoir. By doing this, they abuse the sense of tolerance in Europe and they blackmail the essence of our feelings against prejudice. Yet again it has everything to do with men’s insecurity – and nothing with the Qur'an, Muhammed teachings, or the Muslim faith.

Women’s circumcision is still practised in Europe. It’s done illegally, because aside from the majority of doctors, society including the state have doubts and fears that they might cross a line that protect religious rights. This is lethal mistake. A few years ago I found myself in a seminar with mainly Somali women. The topic of the seminar was women’s circumcision, and I will never forget the face of a very close friend when I naively asked if there was a woman in the room that had gone through the procedure. All of them, absolutely all of them, and some of them were only fourteen or fifteen. My friend added that most of them were lead by their mothers’ or grandmothers! All of them believed that it was part of their faith, and unfortunately the representatives of their faith had made them believe so.

It’s exactly the same thing with the burqa: this is not a dress code. It is not a demonstration of faith; it is a declaration of been a ‘thing’, owned by a man, living and acting as a ‘thing’. And please, I find it hard to believe that it is a case of choice, because that sounds exactly like what victims of constant domestic violence say, that they accept it as an act of love and interest. By accepting the burqa as a sign of tolerance, means that we question our achievements regarding women’s liberties and equalities. It means that we are victims of our fears and that we question our abilities of social evolution.

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ap2009-07-12 20:48:46
It's so strange, you know, to see the summer contrast between the hyper-mini-skirts of english ladies with their breasts jumping out of their dresses and the over-covered burqa ladies, walking side by side exactly on the same streets. Can't people just reach some kind of balance? I also wonder: who is more "a thing" - ones or the others?

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