Burka debate: what’s at stake is equality of women

Ayaan Hirsi Ali: Burka debate: what’s at stake is equality of women

I once wore a burka. But I did not wear it as Pauline Hanson did this week, which was to attract attention to herself and her campaign to ban such garments. I wore it because, as a teenage Muslim girl who had enlisted in the Muslim Brotherhood, I was desperate to affirm my modesty and religious faith.

The burka is a garment that is designed to cover the whole body of a woman. Two main lines of argument are put forward for such shrouding. Both have their roots in Islam.

The first is purely religious and is a part of what I call the modesty doctrine. In this view a girl turns into a woman as soon as she starts to menstruate. From then on her entire body, including her face, hands and feet, her voice, her scent and sound are seen as a provocation of male sexual desire. A woman is modest if she does all in her power to avoid such provocation. She is deemed immodest if she is careless in the unwanted ­effects of her attributes or mere presence.

A Muslim family that attaches a lot of importance to its honour and therefore to the modesty of its girls and women has various tools to choose from. Some of these tools predated Islam. Others were introduced by Mohammed, the founder of Islam, and are commanded in the Koran and Hadith.

The modesty arsenal includes keeping girls at home, away from the public. Inside the home the only males they may interact with are their direct relatives: their father and brothers. But when the need arises for a woman to leave the house she has to cover all those feminine attributes that could cause provocation.

Some modern Muslim families are content with the headscarf along with long-sleeved, loose attire that shields her body. Such families also may be willing to let their women wear makeup, attend recreational venues, go to school and work in places populated by men. Such families think of themselves as forward-looking and liberal.

Other families are more strict. They forbid their girls and women from leaving the home. They may step out when absolutely necessary only in the company of chaperones. They are to wear the burka or niqab.

In other words, they are to cover every inch of their bodies including their eyes. They are not allowed to wear perfume or shoes with heels that tap. They may not raise their voices or laugh out loud.

Such families typically marry their daughters off at very young ages. In many Muslim-majority countries it is common for girls to be married off as early as the age of nine. The most important mechanism families have of enforcing the modesty doctrine is that of early childhood inculcation. Girls as little as five already know the difference between shame and honour; modesty and immodesty. By the time they get their first periods they are so aware of their bodies and the dramatic effects it supposedly can provoke that many voluntarily follow the rules of modesty. Some go as far as “choosing” to wear the burka.

When indoctrination fails — and it often does — a strict family often pulls the punitive gear: girls are beaten, shamed, isolated, forced into marriage, forced to wear the burka and subjected to all kinds of physical, psychological and even sexual abuses for their violations.

The second line of argument for the burka is more political. With the rise of Islamic extremism, funded with petro dollars from Saudi Arabia and other wealthy Gulf states, the burka has become a political symbol. Today, paradoxically, we hear female Islamists claiming to be empowered by their near invisibility behind their burkas.

I find such arguments profoundly unconvincing. Whether they are used to uphold the modesty doctrine demanded in sharia lite or are symbols of the hardcore sharia in political Islam, the burka and other veils represent for me an affirmation of women as chattel.

Pauline Hanson can and should be reprimanded for her unparliamentary behaviour. She did not need fancy dress to make the point she wants to make, which is that burkas ought to be banned for security reasons. But for me the issue is not security alone. It is the equality of women. Expecting half of humanity to go around covered in black sacks is just evil sexism. We should no more want to see it imported into Australia than we should want to see wife-beating legalised.