Of Veil and Oppression

As if to defy Obama, France made news recently when their president Sarkozy said of the burka that it

“… Is not a religious sign, it’s a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement… It will not be welcome on the territory of the French Republic.”

“Not a religious sign?”

Firstly, is the burka really “not a religious sign?” What about all the pictures of Afghanistan that we see on TV and newspapers, on which the women are wearing the light-blue burkas? Are these burkas obligatory to all Muslim women?

Not exactly. In Southeast Asian countries for instance, the Muslim females usually choose to cover themselves with hijab only, without covering the face.

In addition to covering the whole body, Muslim women are also required to cover up their hair. Below are some common terms in relation with the veils of Islamic women:


hijab_2That’s the hijab-wearing Fulla doll on the left.

Hijab (حجاب): A covering for the hair. Although the word hijab itself means sartorial veil or covering, the term hijab is used normatively to refer to the veil which only covers the hair. In the Malay-speaking Southeast-Asian region, it is usually referred to as the tudung or jilbab (although in Arabic, the latter actually refers to a loose-fitting attire covering the body). It is also known in English as headscarves.


niqab_2The niqab usually refers to the piece of garment covering the facial area.

Niqab (نقاب): A face covering, in addition to the hijab. Common in the Gulf countries, I would say.


burka_2The burka is the one which is in the centre of the debate in France now. Is it really oppression? But what if the wearer is voluntary?

Burka (برقع): A clothing used to to cover up everything from head to toe, except for the eyes. More common in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

So, why do some cover their face, and some choose not to? It’s not only religious, but perhaps even cultural, which explains why Muslims over the world choose to express their religious belief in various manner and fashion.

In my opinion, Muslim females who choose to practice their religion seriously will opt for the some sort of sartorial veil. Be it the hijab or otherwise, here in Singapore it is always refreshing to see mostly middle-aged Muslim ladies who attest to the command of their beliefs both spiritually and physically.

Consistency of Authority

If a country allow someone walking in the streets in their minimal attire, it is unbalanced to see such a law codified to target Muslims who cover themselves up in a burka. While allowing one extreme (bikini) to be observed, disallowing the other extreme (burka) proves inconsistent with the  law.

Furthermore, if a law is passed stating that parents cannot force their children to veil up, then does it go against the law if a father disallow his teenage daughter to dress in skimpy outfits too? Going further, if a restaurant were to set up a dress code for dinner, or a company set a code of conduct, or a school were to require its students to wear uniforms, wouldn’t these go against the grain of this so-called “secularism”; as not only sartorial freedom is disallowed, but acts and expressions too are “stifled”.

“It’s a sign of subservience… Debasement.”

Or so said Sarkozy. The issue is nothing new. Ranging from low self-esteemed Muslims who go all out to please the secular entities, to non-Muslims who lacks the understanding of the religion, all have attacked the veil for its role in distinguishing the proud Muslim female.

In Europe, religious symbols have been banned in the staunchly secular France since 2004. Denmark bans all religious symbols -including the hijab – from its courtrooms. The Netherlands has proposed banning the burka, while in a Belgian city the niqab is banned. In Turkey, headscarves are banned in schools and universities (source).

In 2006, UK politician Jack Straw urged “full veils” (I’m assuming one which covers the face) not to be used. He has the right to express his view on the issue, but who has the right to dictate what women can or cannot wear?

Nowadays, for the sake of fashion and what little glamour that may entail for her social circle, it is becoming increasingly common for women to starve to fit into some dress, inject themselves with chemicals, and go under the knife to modify parts of the body. For the main reason of looking good (and the claim of feeling good), some are willing to risk their health so that they will get that second look from some stranger.

Is it all worth it? Spending thousands to stir the desire of some male? The debate of degradation of women is only focused on the physical aspect, but at the same time, these “debasements” are also occurring on a deeper level. One of which people are gradually being pestered and pressured through ads and commercials, in addition to movies and magazines, to look like some B/Hollywood stars.

These constant bombardment of physical importance is so overwhelming to the extent that it almost becomes the sole factor to decide the possibility of a relationship between people.

To drink as others would expect you to, to eat in restaurants which affect what others think of you, to carry a bag that makes others envy you, to drive a car of certain make to impress others, to live in an address that makes others think highly of you, and the list goes on.

Compare a fashionista who religiously follow the latest trends and feels insecure if she doesn’t have the latest Louis Vuitton accessories, and a Muslim female who veils herself for her belief, who’s the oppressed one?

More and more people are willingly putting themselves at the mercy of the attention of others, that they simply neglect the purpose of life on earth. And I’m sure consumerism is not it.


Image credit: The Seattle Times, ulrikft


4 thoughts on “Of Veil and Oppression

  1. I found your post really interesting and informative. However, from what you say, it sounds like you are describing a situation in which both ‘western’ women who adhere to male promoted ideals of beauty and burka wearing women are both equally oppressed by male dominated society.
    Surely by your own testiment both forms of oppression are destructive?
    I really found the piece about the cultural differences of Muslim dress informative, so thank you. And you raise some really important points here, great post!

  2. Thanks for your comment. To an extent, perhaps there might be elements of “male dominion” for the burka, since there has been debates on whether the burka is something religiously based. At the same time, one might want to check on the historical/cultural origin behind the burka itself.

    Nevertheless, I do feel that both forms of oppressions are destructive. But are they really equal in ramifications? The so-called “liberation of women” seemingly equates to the fulfillment of desires, while the so-called “oppression of women” seems to be based on the dominion of patriarchal elements.

    It’s the balance that we seek; the elimination of any oppression, and the control of any absolutism.

  3. In Saudi Arabia a foreign woman irrespective of her religion has to cover her body and she cannot go alone on the street. Fine, no questions asked. If you do you will be put behind bars. But when France brings this law only the muslims object. If you are so particular about burqa or veil just go back to your country and wear it. In India the homo sexuality is legal now and here again the Islamic leaders protest it saying it is banned in their religion. Come on, it is a law! Governments across the world cannot function if they listen to the dictats offundamentalists.

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