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Opinion Pieces: The importance of context

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Today, an opinion piece appeared in a Belgian newspaper. It was a reaction to an earlier made comment by the head of an anti-racist committee in Belgium who said that women have the right to wear the Burqa. The following opinion piece compares the Burqa with the David star given by Nazi’s to identify Jews.

Some background: the Burqa is an Afghan version of all covering clothing where even the eyes are hidden. Not to be confused with the Niqab (a separate piece of clothing for the facial area where the eyes can be seen) or the much more common Hijab (the headscarf either worn tightly to hide the hair, or loosely). The authors of this article uses all these three irregularly.

Why?

With that out of the way, lets follow this writer’s opinion piece. First off, the writer proclaims his in-depth knowledge on the reasons why a Burqa is worn in Belgium.

One of the reasons is that it is legally enforced in Iran, Parkistan and Saudi Arabia. Women in these three countries are required to wear the Hijab (or the Burqa). The authors also include countries such as Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, since society forces women to wear body-covering clothing. And this is an unfortunate situation. We agree that women should be free to wear what they want to wear. It is a shame however that the authors did not explain what this has to do with Belgium. I assume they insinuate that these countries force their ideas on our population.

And the ideas we are talking about are that women are inferior to men, and thus have to wear the body covering Burqa. However, we are not entirely satisfied with that explanation.

In a number of countries where the majority adheres to the Islam, socialist governments came to power that promoted a strict separation of church and state. In some of those, the state (partially) banned head-scarves. Indonesia is an example where the government used to outlaw the headscarf. Ironically, the right to wear a headscarf became a symbol of feminism and freedom. And just like all these Indonesian women, there are millions of women choosing some type of veil for their own personal reasons. And these might be completely unrelated to how men feel about themselves.

Stats

The authors claim that women are increasingly forced to wear the Burqa. It kept my mind occupied as I was driving through northern Schaarbeek. This is Belgium’s most densely Muslim populated region. In between all these macho dads, shouldering pink Barbie back-bags, holding their daughters and son by the hands as they go to school. I was wondering where the Burqa’s were. I had seen them before years ago, I knew they existed. But all I saw were these young dads with pink bags. They didn’t seem to realise that according to our western conception of Islam, they should be covering their daughters, not letting them skip ahead in the most boringly western girly outfit you could imagine.

These authors however, claim that women are increasingly forced to wear the Burqa. They do not cite numbers, statistics or sources. Their article seems to be solely based on their remarkable observation skills. It seems a given that these fathers, mothers, brothers and other family members have no interest in the individual choices of these young women. Seeing the staggering amount of pink bags, I refute that claim by my own personal observations.

The why, part II

The core-argument of the article is based on the assumption that Muslim women wear the Burqa because men feel superior. Without it, they can’t make their David-Star argument (as we’ll see later). But how do two white western men know precisely the complex and often very personal reasons for women to wear the Burqa, Niqab or Hijab ( (be it feminism, personal choices, religion, sense of community, or perhaps, indeed, pressure from society)? isn’t it just a tad arrogant to make that assumption? They readily accept that nuns wear body covering clothes and lock themselves up in a monastery, without resorting to machismo.

Now here comes the comparison with the Nazy David Star for Jews. According to the authors – just like the David Star – the Burqa emphasizes the inferiority of the women. It is to block for an unclean person (the first I ever hear of this), and the Burqa removes the individuality of the person from society. In short: The Burqa is a symbol that emphasises the superiority of men over women. In our Belgian society; we should not allow this symbol to exist.

However, we simply can’t say what drives Muslim women to wear the Burqa. There is a mountain of study material. They try to find the answer through the interplay between Islam, Arabic Nationalism, colonialism and Western influence. But finally, it is up to the women themselves.

small caveat: There are women who are forced by their society, family, fathers, husbands or brothers to wear the Burqa (read: Burqa, not Hijab) against their wishes and desires. It hardly matters whether this is because they feel superior, pious or traditional. If this goes against the wishes of the woman in question, then it becomes an issue, period.

Education

Whatever piece of cloth anyone wishes to wear should not matter to us. Laws dictating what is decent or what is excessively decent are not of the 21st century (with the possible exception of running around naked, and even that…). What we should do however, is make sure that every citizen of our society knows his or her equal place. That he or she can explore her/his own person, talents, wishes, drives, ambitions, dreams, aspirations, and so on.

How do you get these young girls in touch with all that? Education. It teacher these young girls and boys a spectrum of colours. They can – in equality – choose a colour that fits them best. We should make sure that their spectrum of colours does not exclusively contain Burqa Black. forbidding the Burqa – whether they wear is with the same conviction as a nun in a nunnery, or because they fear their husbands will only completely remove them from society, solving nothing.

A David Star for our own society

This analogy is also rather dangerous when applying it on our own society. If the Burqa is a David Star for the Muslim community, then the glass ceiling is a David Star for ours. We don’t allow women to play a representative role in businesses or politics. We hide them from any kind of decision-making power or influence on our society and pay them less because they are not male. They do not have the same freedom, chances and options as their male counterparts.

Moreover – and we realise this is a often repeated argument – our own society also has some questionable unwritten rules for our women’s wardrobe. It always needs to be sexier, hotter, fancier than before. And you might argue that we don’t have laws forcing women to wear such clothes. But then you’re wrong: it is illegal in Belgium to completely cover yourself (i.e. to wear the Burqa).

Concluding Remarks

To assume for millions of women why they are wearing the Burqa is boundlessly arrogant, misogynistic, ill-advised, completely missing the point, creating a problem and blind for where the problem might be and a potential solution.

We do not deny that there are women who wear the Burqa (or any kind of covering clothing) against their will. But assuming that this is true for every women wearing the Burqa misrepresents the facts, and doesn’t solve anything for those who are forced.

When discussing a problem, context is vital. Trying to repair a broken bike in the context of rice farmers in 12th century Japan won’t help your bike. Neither is trying to help oppressed women having to wear the Burqa against their will in the context of male superiority and comparing it to the David Star in Nazi Germany just to get people to read your terrible opinion piece.