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Barbara Kay Bashes Burkas and Birthday Suits

July 7, 2009

It’s amazing how much consternation a couple of square metres of cloth can produce in a certain breed of social conservative. Barbara Kay is the latest journalist to endorse French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s insistence that the Islamic burka should “not be welcome” in his country, and she clearly doesn’t think burkas should be welcome in Canada either. She also doesn’t want anyone going to the opposite extreme and running around naked:

Full nudity arouses discomfort because the naked human is seen as animal-like, and therefore less than human. Full coverage arouses discomfort because the wearer is depersonalized and therefore non-human as well. No rational human being chooses full nudity in the presence of strangers. No woman, left to her own devices, would ever choose to wear a burka.

Kay really should get out more. Surely not every single member of the Federation of Canadian Naturists is fundamentally irrational, and I don’t see any reason to disbelieve women like Naima B. Robert (a self-styled “niqabi”, or veil wearer) when they explain that they freely choose to cover themselves. The controversy over Islamic dress in Western societies is often presented as a question of minority rights vs. women’s rights, or multicultural tolerance vs. forced integration, but it’s also an argument about how broadly the limits of reasonable behaviour should be drawn. Should we all conform to a relatively narrow standard of dress, or should everything from birthday suits to burkas be acceptable?

Personally, I think the latter option makes life more interesting, provided everyone is prepared to display a bit of basic tolerance. Of course, tolerance will have to cut both ways, particularly if Muslims continue to immigrate to Canada in large numbers: according to Kay, some non-Muslim European women now feel that they have to cover their heads to avoid being hassled by their new neighbours, and Canadians should certainly resist any pressure in that direction. I suspect we’re tough enough to manage.

Barbara Kay wraps up her piece with an interesting challenge. She wants anyone who thinks women should be allowed to wear burkas to march in a “Burka Pride” parade in the middle of a Toronto summer:

Naturally all of them will be wearing a burka themselves — men and women both. Let them march and march as the sun beats down on them, as the humidity drenches them in sweat so that they are sure they will suffocate.

And then, supposedly, we’ll all see the error of our ways. We’ll accept that burkas should only be worn at chilly northern latitudes, or something. Nevertheless, it sounds like an interesting experiment. I’d be curious to discover firsthand how stifling a burqa in summer really is, and how much it restricts one’s vision, and whether it induces a sense of isolation. So IF Barbara Kay gets this parade organised, and IF I happen to be in Toronto at the time, and IF I can find a suitably flattering burka that isn’t too expensive – she can count me in.

Corwin

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. qudsia permalink
    December 16, 2012 10:11 am

    sorry, i meant knowledge is the CURE to ignorance, not the key, hell no!

  2. August 14, 2009 11:14 am

    I agree with that but I can also think we should be open enough to accept another perspective.

    Northern Ontario Movers

  3. reneethewriter permalink
    July 8, 2009 10:42 pm

    Cor, i think this is a short story ala Ian McEwan, just waiting to happen –

    “Actually, a German acquaintance once told me about two women who lived (separately) in his apartment building. One had what North Americans sometimes describe as a “European” attitude towards public nudity, and the other was an ethnic Turk who liked to swaddle herself in Islamic dress. They would sometimes have conversations in which one woman was practically naked and the other practically mummified, and the contrast didn’t seem to bother either of them at all.”

    Very much have enjoyed your responses to our posts. R

  4. July 8, 2009 1:22 pm

    The Burka is certainly a contentious subject in France right now but maybe not for the right reasons.

    We had the same debate a couple of years ago around women choosing (or not) to wear the veil in public settings such as schools or administrations. France priding itself on being a secular country, all means of attire that can denote a religious belief are regarded as inappropriate in the public space.

    However, the problem today is more about the way the debate was engaged. Some politicians, such as president Sarkozy, use this as a means to advance their own political agenda. There have not been any consultations with the wider public on these matters. Demonizing a dress code is certainly not helping with the integration of new immigrants and may explain some of the unrest the country is facing within its new immigrant population.

    If many people are uncomfortable with the burka, I know of some Muslim women who use it as a way to protect themselves from sexual harassment. There are many different cases that may explain why some choose to veil themselves and making unilateral statements does not promote any understanding or tolerance.

    I certainly don’t have any solution to the problem of women forced to wear the burka, but I do hope that dialogue and consultations are used more often to bring this issue about and not just strategic political statements with the next election in mind…

  5. July 8, 2009 10:05 am

    Okay, I realize I’m treading in difficult waters here, but I personally don’t want to see burquas in Canada. I worked with women in Afghanistan and I don’t know a single one of them who liked the burqua. Some wore it because their brothers or husbands insisted that they did, others wore it for safety reasons and some wore it because it was custom. The only positive word any of them had to say about the burqua was that it allowed them to get through the streets with some anonymity. Otherwise they found it horribly restrictive and repressive. I challenge anyone to wear a burqua for a week and see how you feel. I couldn’t see, I felt like I was suffocating and it restricted my ability to walk.

    I realize I am a middle class woman from the west raised in a non-Muslim family, but what rights are we protecting in Canada when we say it is okay to cover a person from head to toe in a garment that restricts their ability to see and function. I certainly feel strongly that women and men should have a right to decide how they want to dress, which includes wearing a hijab or other head gear, but a burqua, in my mind, is different.

    Please, someone, who understands these issues better than I do, educate me. Where is the line here?

    • corsullivan permalink*
      July 8, 2009 1:17 pm

      Thanks for the very thoughtful response. A couple of replies…

      Some wore it because their brothers or husbands insisted that they did, others wore it for safety reasons and some wore it because it was custom.

      I don’t think “custom” is such a bad reason, actually, provided that there’s no coercive social pressure to follow custom or else. (I’m sure that pressure does exist in Afghanistan, but Canada is another matter.)

      I challenge anyone to wear a burqua for a week and see how you feel.

      This may sound like a very weaselly excuse, but unfortunately I live in Beijing at the moment. People here tend to be strait-laced, by Western standards, and I still don’t have enough Chinese to explain myself properly. I wouldn’t know where to get a burka in these parts anyway. But in future years perhaps I’ll be able to accept your challenge, if we haven’t both forgotten by then.

      I realize I am a middle class woman from the west raised in a non-Muslim family, but what rights are we protecting in Canada when we say it is okay to cover a person from head to toe in a garment that restricts their ability to see and function.

      To me it seems obvious – we’re protecting the right to cover yourself in a big piece of cloth if you want to. You (and Barbara Kay) might assert that no reasonable person would want that right, and your experience in Afghanistan bears this out apart from my quibble about “custom”… but then, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from the internet, it’s that there are a lot of people who have drives, desires and impulses that I can hardly begin to fathom. Almost any bizarre practice you can imagine has its genuine devotees somewhere. And I would still point to Naima B. Robert (linked to in my original post) as a clear example of a woman who freely chooses to cover herself in a burka-like garment, demonstrating that people like that do exist. To me it seems kind of prissy and illiberal to tell them that they’re not allowed to dress as they please.

      Let me turn your question around: what reasonable purpose would we be serving in Canada by insisting that people must not wear “a garment that restricts their ability to see and function”? If the idea is to protect women who might be coerced into wearing a burka by their relatives, or their broader community, it seems to me that providing social services for actual victims of coercion would be an equally effective approach that wouldn’t interfere with people who genuinely think that life is better in a burka. If you have a different answer, I’d be (quite genuinely) interested to hear it.

  6. marakardasnelson permalink*
    July 7, 2009 10:13 pm

    I think the comment “no women, left to her own devices, would ever choose to wear a burka” is not only a gross over-exaggeration, but also shows a huge lack of understanding and basic research into the issue of Burqas. I currently live with a Muslim woman and although she does not wear a Burqa, I have had many interesting conversations with her regarding a woman’s choice to cover up. Burqas and the like are not simply a form of male oppression, but have also, for some women, become part and parcel of their cultural and religious identity. Of course, we must question whether this culture and religion is primarily male dominated, but I do think that simply banning the use of a Burqa will either magically lift the veil of oppression over women, nor allow for greater cultural or religious tolerance of Islam worldwide.

  7. reneethewriter permalink
    July 7, 2009 3:07 pm

    Hey Cor. This is a fascinating one. I’m currently working on a prose poem collaboration with a colleague where she films me tying a “burqa” like black piece of jersey cloth (bought at a local mall in one of those tacky jewelry and scarves shops) in different ways around my neck, head, shoulders and body. I typify each with a signfier: babushka, peasant woman, “pakistani woman” etc. I don’t think Ms. Kay knows too much about women, really, sic, “No woman, left to her own devices, would ever choose to wear a burka.” Ha ha. What a lack of imagination – we women choose to wear/not wear all sorts of things. Good luck in TO.

    • corsullivan permalink*
      July 8, 2009 12:46 pm

      What a lack of imagination – we women choose to wear/not wear all sorts of things.

      I’ve certainly formed that impression over the years, so I’m glad to have firsthand confirmation from a female of the species.

      Actually, a German acquaintance once told me about two women who lived (separately) in his apartment building. One had what North Americans sometimes describe as a “European” attitude towards public nudity, and the other was an ethnic Turk who liked to swaddle herself in Islamic dress. They would sometimes have conversations in which one woman was practically naked and the other practically mummified, and the contrast didn’t seem to bother either of them at all.

      Anyway, your prose poem sounds interesting. I’m sure you’ll make a great babushka, and I hope you’ve got a ninja, a nun and a Sikh guru in there too. Any chance we’ll get to see whatever your colleague puts on film?

      • qudsia permalink
        December 16, 2012 10:08 am

        hi everyone, i am a south african female who lived the fast life in the uk, clubs, bars, wore a few pieces of material when the weather permitted, i then started studying islam at the central mosque there, why? because i went in search of morality and filling the spiritual void ever present in a materialistic society. long story short, i traded in my minis and high heels for a full saudi-style covering like naimah Roberts, why? was it for my husband? no i wore it before i met him, was i forced? by who, i lived alone, was it my culture, no i come from a western, jeans culture. then why the heck would i “swaddle” my feminine form in a black shroud and cover my face? because the God of Mary (mother of Jesus), the God of Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Mohammed (peace be upon them) is the same God that knows the only way i willever be known for my mind, for my intelligent interactions and noble acts, speech, deeds, my social and intellectual contributions, be respected for who i am rather than for whats in my underwear and be treated equal to man without entering my sexuality into the equation………… is to remove it from the equation, completely. knowledge is the key to ignorance, iif some poor afghani woman wasnt educated about her Lord and His infinite wisdom, of course she would hate the veil and find it oppressive,as oppressive as a seat belt that holds you back from putting your feet up, lounging on the car seat…………….. dying on impact?

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