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Ban the burqa? An Iranian-New Zealander on why it would be undemocratic and counterproductive

Burqas are so rare in New Zealand that most of us have likely never seen one in real life, but that didn’t stop TVNZ asking online readers whether they should be banned outright. Let’s worry less about how women choose to dress and more about the ongoing vilification of Muslims in the media, says Donna Miles-Mojab.

There’s a lot of irresponsible coverage of Muslim issues in the media, and TVNZ News online’s recent poll on the burqa was a prize example. In response to Morocco’s burqa ban, it encouraged readers to vote on whether there should be a similar ban in New Zealand.

If public opinion polling is justified simply because a law exists in a different country, then I challenge TVNZ to poll on whether or not we should behead people like they do in Saudi Arabia.

Polling on issues like the New Zealand flag made sense because there was an active debate on the issue. People had a chance to hear all sides of the argument and to form an informed view.

But Muslims are almost invisible in Western media unless they appear behind a gun. As a result, we do not hear Muslims telling us what veiling means to them and why a very small number of Muslim women in the West decide to wear the burqa which, except for their eyes, covers them from head to toe.

Afghan women protest the burqa ban in the Moroccan capital Rabat, on 15 January 2017. (Photo by Jalal Morchidi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Afghan women protest the burqa ban in the Moroccan capital Rabat, on 15 January 2017.
(Photo by Jalal Morchidi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

I used to hate burqa-wearing women because my entire teenage years were spent in fear of women who were fully veiled.

You see, I grew up in Iran, where after the 1979 revolution, despite vehement opposition from Iranian women, the hijab (a scarf that covers the hair) became compulsory.

Begrudgingly, and in fear of acid attacks, we started wearing the hijab but never quite to the satisfaction of the Islamic morality guards who used to stop us frequently on the street and hassle us about our bad hijab and how we dressed.

So, our lives became a sort of cat and mouse game with the morality police.

We used to refer to the female members of the morality guards as ‘religious penguins’ because they wore a long black cloth (chador) that covered their bodies from head to toe leaving only their faces exposed.

The religious police were often very abusive and sometimes violent. We knew we had to avoid getting arrested because of the horrific treatment of women in jail.

I never forget the day my sister and I left the suppressive mullahs and their religious penguins behind. As soon as we stepped inside the safety of Heathrow Airport we took off our hijabs and threw them into the first bin we came across.

We felt liberated and free. For us the hijab had become the symbol of post-revolutionary Iran: oppressive and backwards.

Interestingly, the Iranian hijab law has been remarkably unsuccessful, failing to transform Iranian women into pious and obedient soldiers of Islam.

For instance, there has been an explosion of plastic surgery in Iran. Tehran is the nose job capital of the world and some reports suggest that the Islamic Republic of Iran is fast becoming the Erotic Republic of Iran.

The Facebook page “My Stealthy Freedom” which allows Iranian women to post photos of themselves without hijab, has over one million “likes”, mostly from Iranians living inside and outside of Iran. The success of this Facebook page is a huge embarrassment to the Iranian government which sees the veil as a symbol of its power in Iran.

But it’s not just the forced veiling of women that can produce the opposite of the intended result; forced unveiling of women can be equally counterproductive.

In 1936, Iran’s ruling king, Reza Khan, forced women to unveil in public. I remember my grandmother telling us how women who wore the hijab in public were arrested and shot at.

She told us about the fear women felt and how the compulsory uncovering made them feel violated. As a result, many women vowed never to leave their house again.

In the years leading to the Islamic revolution, the religious mullahs capitalized on the hatred of forced Westernisation and paved the path to the Islamic revolution that came in 1979.

New Zealand should learn from this important lesson and never be tempted to follow the countries which have passed specific laws to ban or limit women from wearing the face covering.

Such a ban would only isolate and marginalise our Muslim population, making them vulnerable to extremist elements.

Of course we should oppose the forced veiling of women whenever and wherever it is practised, but when women choose freely to veil themselves, we have to recognise it as their human and religious right to do so.

If you consider some of the most common arguments against burqa, you find that none of them stand up to close scrutiny.

Here are some of the most common reasons cited in support of banning the burqa:

1. Security reasons

Security is often given as a reason for burqa bans. But women who choose to wear the burqa say that they are happy to show their faces whenever it is required for security reasons.

In fact, Muslim women are required by Quran to show their faces whenever giving testimony in courts.

2. Enslavement and invisibility

The French Government, when banning the burqa, referred to it as “a new form of enslavement”.

Interestingly, many of the very small number of Muslims in the West who choose to wear the burqa are converts to Islam who find the burqa empowering.

In a society that reduces a woman’s value to her sexual allure, these Muslim women say the burqa diverts the attention from their bodies and gives more visibility to their character and beliefs.

3. An expression of fundamentalism

The only way to reject fundamentalism is to encourage diversity in Islamic beliefs. That diversity includes secular Muslims like me who do not wear the hijab, as well as those who choose to partially or fully veil themselves.

If we choose to dictate to women how they should dress or practise their own religion then we are not any better than ISIS or the Taliban, are we?

Why is this even an issue?

If we are truly concerned about the oppressive situation of women, we should be talking about pay inequality, objectification, eating disorder, sexism, and violence against women, instead of dictating to women how to dress.

We need to be honest with ourselves and accept that our fear of the burqa is about our fear of Muslims, who are constantly vilified in the media.

Look at it from a different perspective

One of art’s most powerful functions is the way it gets us to see ordinary things differently. Monet’s A Bunch Of Asparagus, Hopper’s Nighthawks and Vermeer’s The Little Street give us a fresh perspective on seemingly ordinary things, forcing us to pay closer attention to things that matter.

Artists Christo and Jeanne Claude completely covered their projects in white fabric. Their wrappings included Reichstag in Berlin and the Pont-Neuf bridge in Paris.

Their work was always controversial and to some people shocking. Art critic David Bourdon described the artists’ work as a “revelation through concealment”.

Think of women who choose to wear the burqa as revealing their consciousness and beliefs through concealment of their bodies.

Think of them as artists who have chosen a different perspective in liberating themselves and practising their religion.

Our mental association with what we see matters.  Our brains have been trained to see black-clad women as oppressed ISIS supporters because that is what we see in the media all the time.

Train your brain to see black-clad women as creative and courageous artists like Christo and Jeanne Claude. That way, you won’t fall into the trap of thinking that all burqa-wearing women are oppressed.

And finally …

Never respond to an opinion poll before familarising yourself with the main arguments from both sides first. All of us need to demand more from the media than the cheap click-bait they have been feeding us.