Friday, 8 July 2011

yet another burqa post

so i've been away overseas while the news about the burqa-wearing women being refused entry on buses happened. so i wasn't able to return the calls from close-up & breakfast to speak on the issue. as it happens, this turned out to be a good thing, because we got to hear from burqa-wearing women instead. probably a first for a nz television news programme, and you could see the women were extremely nervous. this is not surprising, given the general nasty commentary that comes to the surface every time a burqa-related story hits the local news.

i know one of these women very well, she has grown up in nz & is a fully qualified lawyer. which doesn't make her comments any more valid than the other woman, whose history i don't know. what does bother me is the fact that these women should have to defend what they wear, in a way that no-one else really does. it bothers me that every time something comes up, we have to go through all the same arguments, deal with the same ignorant comments and the same belittling of women who have caused no harm. which is why i'm not going to go through it all again in this post. i've done plenty of burqa-related posts already.

i also hate that the public discourse of muslim women in this country centres around the burqa, especially when the vast majority of muslim women don't even wear them. yet we are all defined by it. stories that have the word muslim in them, if they are accompanied by a picture, inevitably have a picture of burqa-clad women. even when the story hasn't got anything to do with the burqa or even with women.

it's an image that is being forcibly associated in the public mind with muslim women, and one that is really very hard to counter. in hamilton, we tried to counter it when a social service organisation produced a pamphlet depicting a burqa-clad woman (who was simply a model), which we felt unfairly stereotyped all muslim women. there was mediation, the organisation agreed to pull the pamphlet but has failed to do so. they agreed not to speak to the media but did. so the mediation, to this date, has been unsuccessful. and this was just one case, which takes a reasonable amount of time & effort to follow through.

i know a lot of muslim women are frustrated by this image and want to change it, and i'd be really interested in hearing about some manageable steps we could make in that direction. muslim women have tried to get positive stories into print media, based on events or visits, but we've been stonewalled. and yes, we've done media training, we've heard about angles and hooks and what makes a good story. we see significant non-stories (or at least ones that have much less basis to them) getting covered when our own stories are ignored.

we are so much more than a piece of cloth covering the face.

note: i'm pretty jet-lagged & probably not going to be in a particularly good mood at the time this post goes up. so expect moderation to be tough on this post.


Lucia Maria said...

They never explain why they have to cover their faces in New Zealand, in other word why it necessary for their religious expression. I always thought it was a cultural thing (enforced in some countries by law) rather than a religious requirement, so that Muslim men would leave them alone.

Acid Queen said...
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Lucy said...

I totally don’t know where to sit with the burka debate. I find both sides so oppressive. 1. Women should be free to were/not wear whatever they like and 2. I can’t help feel a strong sense of female oppression from the burka. I have done a lot of research of the women’s dress reform movement of the late 19th/early 20th century and I can’t help but compare the burka to this this. I guess I don’t know a lot about the burka, and what it stands for for Muslim women, but I would love to learn. And I suppose I would like to know if it is a real choice for women to wear it or if it is just another tool for male dominance??

stargazer said...

they don't owe you or anyone else any explanation. and no, it's not about "muslim men leaving them alone". muslim men are required to treat all women with respect, regardless of religious belief, marital status, clothes worn/not worn, or anything else. the fact that some of them don't means they aren't following their own professed beliefs and are just behaving badly. but there are plenty who do.

stargazer said...

sorry, first comment was to lucia maria. to acid queen, please stay off this thread. further comments from you will be erased.

lucy, i'm at work now so don't have time to find links for you. will see if i can find anything tonight, but i'm sure there's plenty of stuff out there. i haven't seen anything that i particularly agree with - i don't agree with the burqa myself. i think it's irrelevant whether or not we understand their decision to wear it.

for the women i've met in nz who wear it, the decision is entirely their own & one they feel comfortable with.

Lucy said...

Thanks for that stargazer, I would really appreciate it. I'm not a usual blog commenter and I don't want to upset anyone with my complete ignorance of this topic, but I still have a few unfounded opinions which I believe can be changed! And I’m really interested in this dress/oppression/religion debate.

Lucia Maria said...


One of the women said on the programme you linked to that people coming up to her and asking her why she covers her face is the best way to approach her. As if there was an answer. But this answer was never given. What is the point of both women going on TV to talk about all of this if they are not going to explain why they prefer to (in effect) be anonymous women?

It would have been the perfect place to give their side of the story, but they never did. Which unfortunately will give everyone the impression that they are either afraid to show their faces or ashamed to do so, thus sending a message to everyone they come into contact with that we cannot be trusted, therefore subtely insulting everyone.

I honestly was surprised at how creeped out I was watching them talk, and as you may or may not know, I am Catholic and quite alert to religious discrimination. Veiling is a tradition in Catholicism as well, but the full face covering is not.

I really don't see how people reacting to what amounts to a masked person is discrimination or religious intolerance, as the reaction would be the same or worse if they were wearing balaclavas instead.

stargazer said...

LM, you're expecting a lot from a tv interview from women who have had no previous experience with the media & were understandably nervous. just because they didn't give an answer on the show doesn't mean they don't have one, & if you were creeped out, that's entirely your problem and no-one elses. i can't even remember them being asked why they wore it, but i'll have to watch again.

also, the problem is not about people being creeped out. you're free to feel that way, but i don't see why that should entitle you to make rude comments, to deny them public transport or to legally prevent them from wearing what they want to wear.

and as for insulting anyone, i'm sorry but that just sounds pathetic. as i said, they don't owe you any explanation at all. and i didn't see any shame in their behaviour or words. the only explanation i can see is that you are projecting your own prejudices on them, and demanding they convince you that they are correct. that's a pretty high sense of entitlement you have there.

Lucia Maria said...


I also get creeped out by people who insist on wandering around naked, and am quite happy for the police to arrest them, and for busdrivers to deny them transport.

Western countries have a dress-code. Part of that dress-code is being identifiable. Anyone who wants to sit on the outside of that dress-code has to be prepared to defend their actions. In other words, women who want to wear masks, or balaclavas or paper bags or burkas do owe everyone around them an explanation if they won't remove their mask when asked.

Julie said...

I don't understand why wearing a burqa makes anyone anonymous. Your very avatar LM does not show your face clearly and yet you are not anonymous, you have an identity, an online name you are known by, a reputation which is attached to that, etc.

You may not understand the reasons why someone would want to wear a burqa but that does not mean that no one does want to wear a burqa.

stargazer said...

sorry LM, but there is no such general dress-code in nz. nudity is covered by the law, though not particularly well considering that boobs on bikes can still go ahead.

and the onus is on the person asking them to remove their face-covering to provide a reason to do so. there are valid times when requiring the cover to be removed for identification is valid, but riding a bus or walking down the street isn't one of them. also, your balaclava/mask example is pretty irrelevant unless someone has religious or medical reasons for wearing one. in which case they don't owe you an explanation, but you owe them one when you require them to remove it. "it creeps me out" is not a reason, because again that is a problem in your mind which you need to overcome.

Hugh said...

Sidenote, Stargazer, but actually nudity is not illegal in New Zealand. This law has been well tested by nude sunbathers, etc. What is illegal is public indecency, which is pretty vague but in practice seems to be interpreted to mean sexual activity.

I would actually go further than you, Stargazer. I don't think there is a need to remove headgear even for identity purposes - this whole identity/security culture is just a product of paranoia about "crime" and "terrorism" which mostly stems from class and racial anxiety, not any evidence-based policy framework. And I'd also say that you don't need a religious or medical reason to wear a head covering - if I want to wear a balaclava, I don't owe anybody an explanation as to why. Seeing my face isn't a fundamental human right.

As far as I'm concerned the only issue around the burka is people being pressured to wear it, but that's utterly separate from this situation. As one commenter on Dim Post put it - "Your husband may make you wear a head covering, but that's OK because the police won't let you wear it! Do you feel free now?"

Moz said...

I sometimes wear an anti-pollution mask when I'm cycling, and usually only take that off when I get away from the road. I don't get hassled for that, except by cyclists asking whether it does anything useful. Or telling me that it doesn't. I've definitely never been asked to leave or remove it in order to reassure the mask-o-phobe cowering in the corner.

I can't see the difference in "identifiability" between that and a bandanna over the mouth and nose worn by bandits. I definitely expect that if the blue gang talk to me they'll demand I remove it.

The parallel with a burqa goes further - I wear it because I disagree with majority reality, just like Muslims in NZ.

So why don't we have mask-wearing anti-pollution people on TV being asked to justify their delusions?

Fish on bicycle said...
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stargazer said...

fish, you really need to stop wasting your time here.

Fish on a bicycle said...
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Muerk said...

Women wearing a face veil whether for religious, cultural or personal reasons are, in and of themselves, not harming anyone. It's their private choice.

There are times when facial identification is important, but then I think it's reasonable for a veiled woman to show her face to another woman in privacy.

As a Catholic I wouldn't want someone forcing me to explain why I wear my scapular. Some Catholics wear a cilice, they shouldn't have to explain themselves either. I know a face veil is more public than either a scapular or a cilice but the principle is the same.

anarkaytie said...

Hi stargazer,

I'm going to share the link to your post with my daughter and her family in the south island. She is a convert to islam, is in a fijian-indian muslim community where they don't wear hijab but she has discussed with me the possibility that they may come to a decision to do so in the future.

She mentioned this case in Auckland to me when it happened & we discussed it briefly - you have articulated some of my feelings, but I am an outsider, non-muslim, not a target in any way for my responses to this. I feel safe expressing my disgust and disaste at the way this was handled by the bus company, the media, and many uninformed commenters. My daughter did not feel safe putting any comment into a public website.

For me, that meant that I was privileged to discuss this. I express my opinions without thinking about any pejorative effect, and I'm ashamed to see how quickly public opinion can make the opinions of pilloried subjects invisible, because the subjects fear the consequences of speaking out.

So - my stance as a feminist is that each woman is to have autonomy over her body, mind, religious choices - how can I ask for my own autonomy, then say that another woman should only have autonomy if she copies what I do, as a radical feminist?

While I am atheist, I support another woman's choice to have faith.
While I appear bare-headed, I support another woman's choice to cover.

And while I defy a man to disrespect my control of my sexuality, I also accept that some women may find that denying men the sight of their beauty via Hijab, Niquab or Burqua is their preferred way to limit unwanted attention - so be it.

That does not stop them from being beautiful, intelligent, strong women within their own cultural reference. Indeed, some muslim women have told me it gives them strength to have the choice to exercise covering with hijab, niquab or burqua.

Cara said...

Thanks for this post. I was hoping someone from THM would post about this.

I have been pretty horrified to see the recent legislation pass through in France. I have also had some interesting discussions with people about this issue and it's surprising some of the opinions that come across, which quite frankly strike me as discriminatory and intolerant.

I think the association with terrorism, with all the punch that word has carried in recent years has definitely highlighted this debate exponentially. Through this understanding, all Muslims are potential terrorists and thus women who wear the Niqab/burqa (should those words be capitalised? I don't actually know) are associated with an irrational fear of terrorism, even in a country like NZ but obviously more so in Europe as in the French example. It's a very sad state of affairs, and I think there needs to be more education and tolerance around this stuff.

stargazer said...

thanx cara, appreciate your post. lucy, sorry i haven't got back to you, but was too tired last night & pretty busy today.

fish, i see that you don't care to respect anyone's boundaries or polite requests, so i'm telling you to piss off. you aren't welcome on this blog, anywhere. an inability to respect that fact clearly shows you for the asshole you are. you are perfectly free to start your own blog & make as many moronic comments there as you like. just leave ours alone.

George said...

"It would have been the perfect place to give their side of the story, but they never did."

What makes you think that it is their responsibility to explain it to you in the first place, Lucia Maria? Surely you have the capacity to find these things out for yourself. It is your responsibility and your responsibility only to dispel your own prejudices.

There is so much information out there about the topic of the burqa and the veil, it wouldn't take much to do some research into the subject matter and find out why.

I find it hilarious that we feel so sad for these "poor" muslim women who are oppressed by the veil and the burka, whilst simultaneously mutilating ourselves in various ways for the sake of beauty, poisoning ourselves with a litany of toxin-filled beauty products, and stressing ourselves out by trying to keep up with the image of the "iron maiden". Are we really that much more liberated than them? Or do we just like to pretend that we are?

"...sending a message to everyone they come into contact with that we cannot be trusted"

No, that is your interpretation of the situation. Assuming that these women can't be trusted because they are covering their faces for religious purposes sounds like islamophobia to me.

stargazer said...

anarkytie, apologies that your comment ended up in spam for some reason. i've just released it.

i can certainly understand what you say about silencing, and this is actually a proven outcome of hate speech - particularly if it is widespread & sustained. not only does it silence the targets, but actually affects all who listen to it, even when they are aware that it is discriminatory and unfair. to the extent that the targets also begin to take on board those messages.

as an example, i was directed to this piece which was quite good, but the comments are pretty awful. and i just don't feel capable of taking on all that ignorance and hatred. i can't imagine many burqa/niqab wearing women would want to either, though one did comment early on. it's really difficult when there are a few of you and so many of the others - too many to take on. i'm really pleased that some people are providing positive comments and taking on the negative commenters. i always feel a lot of respect for people who are able to do that.

finally, i'm really glad that your daughter has such a supportive mother as she works her way through some pretty difficult decisions. it makes a world of difference.

Suzanne said...

Hi stargazer, thanks for your post.

Lucia Maria, it doesn't have to be religious or culturally necessary for it to be a valid choice. Different Muslim women may have very different reasons for wearing a hijab, a niquab, or a burqua: the simple principle is that in a free society, everyone should be allowed to choose how they dress. As a general rule, difference doesn't need justification.

My religion, as I interpret it, doesn't restrict what I wear. However, I sunburn very easily, and when I'm camping at the beach I tend to wear a long sarong, long-sleved shirts, and a large hat. In that situation, I'm just as covered up as a woman wearing a hijab. If someone told me I didn't "need" to wear those clothes, that I could just wear sunblock instead, it would hardly be the point - it is no-one else's choice to make.

N. said...

I'm culturally Muslim*, and of Pakistani origin, and the hijab was never part of my reality until the 90s. Until then, covering one's head loosely (not the hijab - it looks more like the veil Mary wears) was something a reasonable number of women in South Asia did, whether they were Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, or whatever. Mostly though, it was old women who did it, and that was usually because they had little else to do but read their respective holy scriptures, pray, fast, and get some brownie points in before they ran out of time.

So that was my exposure to this whole head covering business until I hit uni. There, I met women my own age who were quite serious about religion, and many of them were in the process of deciding whether they would take the hijab or not. Some decided they didn't want to cover up after all and didn't. Some decided that they wanted to go ahead with it. A fair few in both camps changed their minds along the way.

Now, obviously, I did not know every single one of the 300+ women I graduated with personally or even the 50% or so that veiled themselves. I can only tell you that most of the ones that I argued with (against the veil) did not veil themselves at the behest of their male relatives. Certainly, some who expected to marry their more conservative boyfriends may have adopted the veil to mollify their future in laws (and a fair few shed it after the wedding). Some did it because their mothers did and they agreed with that. Others did it because their mothers didn't and they disagreed with that. Still others decided against it because their mothers did.

But mostly, it was a decision that, as I said, was deeply personal and had to do with their own understanding of religion or society, or both. One of the reasons I heard most often was that it was a way of opting out of the relentless social pressure to measure one's worth according to appearance. Putting on the veil was, for a lot of these women, one of the only effective ways of telling society to stop it already and let them focus on their work or study or religion or whatever it was that interested them.

The one person whose story stands out is a friend whose husband did not want her to take the veil at all. They argued for about two years before he finally accepted her decision. A few years after that, while performing the Hajj, she says she felt moved to take the niqab as well. This time around, he knew better than to argue.
(Niqab = the face covering, which is not standard - in fact, covering your face is not even *allowed* during what is arguably one of the holiest periods at the holiest site in Islam. Go figure.)

None of this is to say that all Muslim women live in some sort of happy fantasy land where everybody gets to do as she wishes. There are social pressures and conventions at play all the time. It's just that in speaking about Muslim women, the Western media often acts as if there is *no other explanation* for the veil but the social/religious pressure imposed on these helpless women by their horrible male relatives. That simply isn't true.

*By which I mean I am not, and wasn't raised, religious.

stargazer said...

thanx for your comment N, i think it's so useful to have these stories from someone who has lived in a muslim majority country about experiences there. i hate when women are pressured into wearing hijab, but also when they are pressured to not wear it. but we never hear the stories of women who want to wear it but are pushed/forced not to. i guess it doesn't fit into the narratives that pre-exist in many minds about oppression.