Burqa: A Symbol of Confidence or Oppression?

The Burqa: A Symbol of Confidence or Oppression?

Shahin Begum, an elementary school teacher in the Swat Valley in Pakistan, told the New York Times: “‘When the Taliban fled, our burqas went with them.’”[1] The Taliban took control of Mingora, the largest city of the Swat Valley in northern Pakistan, in February of 2009. When in power, they imposed rigid rules governing women’s lives; women were forbidden to go to traditional women’s shopping centers, some feared traveling to their places of employment, and those who worked in public places were required to wear a burqa.

Though it is traditional in conservative Western Pakistan, the burqa felt confining for many women in the Swat Valley. Women had trouble managing the bulky head-to-toe garment and seeing through the netting over their eyes. Shahi Begum, a primary school teacher, remarked that women “‘started falling down’”[2] and a nurse named Asia Habib noted that she “‘had two jobs—managing the burqa and treating the patient.’”[3]

Since the Taliban was largely driven out of the region by a military operation this summer, women are returning to the public sphere; they are once again commuting to work and are no longer required to wear burqas.

For the women in Mingora, wearing a burqa was both a physical limitation and a symbol of social imprisonment. Other women, however, see dressing in a burqa as liberating. The Muslim Student Association at San José State University held Islam Awareness Week at the end of April 2009. The week included a speech by Dian Alyan, outreach director of the Muslim Community Association of San Francisco Bay Area and founder of the Give Life Foundation. Alyan stressed that Islam elevated the status of women and that Muslim women gained the rights to vote, hold a career, and obtain inheritance much earlier than women in Britain or America. She emphasized that Muslim women are neither uneducated nor oppressed, and expressed the belief that the media is partially to blame for the stereotypes about Muslim women. The seminar addressed the idea that wearing a hijab, or headscarf, is a choice for Muslim women. Unlike the women in the Swat Valley who were required to wear full-length burqas, Alyan was never asked to wear a hijab; she began wearing one in her late 20s, when she felt ready to do so. She says that wearing the hijab gives her confidence and shows the public that she is Muslim.

President Nicolas Sarkozy, on the other hand, has expressed that people in France should not be displaying their religious views to the public. In June of 2009, France formed a commission to examine the extent to which women in the country wear burqas and to study ways to restrict its use. France, which has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe, banned the wearing of hijabs and other eye-catching religious symbols in state schools in 2004. President Sarkozy, while calling for respect for Muslims, stated that burqas are a “‘sign of subservience’”[4] rather than a sign of religion. He has referred to the topic as “‘a question of freedom and of women’s dignity.’”[5] However, religious, feminist and human rights groups have expressed concern about the potential ban, as it would undermine women’s authority to make their own choices regarding what to wear.

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