Sentletse Diakanyo
Sentletse Diakanyo

Burka violates women’s right to dignity

Freedom of expression, subject to particular limitations, in all democratic societies is guaranteed to all citizens. Democratic values of human dignity and equality are affirmed by such freedoms, which we hold dearly. It is generally accepted in our country that while we exercise these freedoms, none of us should extend them to advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm. Despite these clear prescriptions in terms of the Constitution, there are those who see themselves towering supreme above the Constitution; who prescribe and dictate to society the nature of public discourse and the direction it should take in all matters relating to religion and culture. These people attempt to silence others who wish express an uncomfortable view on matters they have decided not to be open to discussion.

The president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, caused an uproar when delivering a speech at the Palace of Versailles recently. He intimated that the Islamic garment for women, the burka, is unacceptable and must be banned from France. He said: “We cannot accept in our country women imprisoned behind netting, cut off from any social life, deprived of any identity … This is not the idea the French republic has of a woman’s dignity … The burka is not a sign of religion, it is a sign of subservience … It will not be welcome on the territory of the French republic.”

The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) immediately responded as expected and expressed their disgust at the view expressed by Sarkozy. Dr Reefat Drabu of the MCB said: “It is patronising and offensive to suggest that Muslim women wear the burka because their male partners or guardians pressure them to do so … Instead of taking a lead in promoting harmony and social cohesion amongst its people, the French president appears to be initiating a policy which is set to create fear and misunderstanding and may lead to Islamophobic reaction not just in France, but in the rest of Europe also.”

The question that arises out of the overwhelmingly angry reaction to Sarkozy’s view is whether anything associated with the religion of Islam is beyond intense scrutiny and interrogation. There already exists a trend that suggests that those of us who do not follow the religion of Islam are prohibited from examining certain practices widely embraced by faithful Muslims and expressing a view on them. If the issue is the manner in which Sarkozy expressed his view, so be it, but nothing in his view suggests he was intent on promoting Islamophobia and many other things that Dr Drabu accuses him of. The MCB attempts to bury public discourse on the issue of Muslim women’s rights being subjugated.

Every Muslim would correctly state that nothing in the religion of Islam promotes the oppression or abuse of women. Prophet Muhammad said: “I recommend that you treat women with goodness. The best of you are those who treat their wives the best.” We must accept based on these words and in line with universal democratic values that Muslim women too have the right to human dignity and equality; that their gender should not be the basis upon which certain prescriptions are imposed upon them and used to deny them certain freedoms.

There are those who insist that people like Sarkozy are imposing Western values and beliefs on Muslims and that he seeks to undermine their religion and cultural practices. Whether you are Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu or atheist, there are universal values of peace, freedom, social progress, equal rights and human dignity that apply to all of us and which we must embrace and promote, instead of sowing the seeds of mutual distrust and divisiveness. There cannot be rules, whether informed by religious beliefs or not, that apply to one particular gender and places restrictions on the other.

The common argument among the open-minded Muslim men I have had the pleasure of engaging with on this issue is that Muslim women have the freedom to choose what they want to wear or not; that not a single Muslim woman is forced wear a burka; that this is their personal choice. This assertion is far removed from the truth as Muslim women under Taliban rule in Afghanistan suffered fatal consequences if they chose not to wear the burka. As extreme as this case may be, the fact of the matter is that the Taliban had imposed strict rules on the people of Afghanistan based on their incorrect interpretation of the religious prescriptions contained in the Qur’an as well as the Hadith (set of teachings by the Prophet which are not contained in the Qur’an).

Under sharia law certain prescriptions oblige Muslim women to dress and conduct themselves in a particular manner that seeks to entrench patriarchy and render them inferior to their husbands, fathers and even their sons. The rationale is that Muslim women should not expose themselves in a manner that would compromise the righteous conduct of Muslim men. This assumes that Muslim women would not lust after uncovered men and compromise their own beliefs.

In absence of all these religious or cultural prescription there would not have been any Muslim woman who would have chosen out of her own volition to hide her face and rob us of the inalienable right to admire her ravishing beauty. Muslim women wear the burka because they have been taught that it is their religious duty to do so. Indeed, women should have the right to choose what they want and wear what they want, but in this instance Muslim women are following the dictates of their religion and culture. It is not their choice in the true meaning of freedom. Religious beliefs exist within a certain framework that consists of a number of rules. If you subscribe to that religion you are required to abide by such rules and Islam is no different.

The question that must be posed to those who claim Sarkozy’s suggestion of banning the burka would in fact violate the right of Muslim women to wear what they please, is why then if some of these rules do not promote male chauvinism are Muslim men not required to cover their faces?

Though everyone is sensitive when it comes to preserving their cultural and religious beliefs, it is equally important that we are all cognisant of the realities of the day and continue to pose difficult and uncomfortable questions in relation to long-held customs and beliefs as society progresses. Equality among men and women and human dignity are inalienable rights that neither religious prescription nor long-held cultural practices should inhibit.