The burqa is confronting and a sign of oppression." "It is a symbol of male domination." Comments like these were made after two NZ Bus drivers refused passage to women wearing niqab, because they were scared of people wearing masks.
The underlying message of the comments is that Muslim women wear garments covering faces and heads only because they are forced to do so, and it would be best if they were freed from them, for their own sake.
At first glance, it can look as though the head and face coverings that some Muslim women wear are oppressive. They are worn because religious leaders say so, in some cases they limit women's freedom of movement, and in some cases, they restrict women's ability to move. The clothes are a severe restriction on freedom. That's what it looks like, from the outside.
Pause for a moment, and imagine what New Zealand society, and women in New Zealand, might look like to a person coming in from a different country, such as Pakistan or Kuwait or Iran. She or he might observe that Western women are required to wear make-up to be socially acceptable in public. They must wear high-heeled shoes that can hurt their feet and impede their movement. Facial hair is unacceptable, and hair on legs and sometimes arms must be removed, either temporarily by shaving or waxing, or permanently by expensive laser treatment. Women who don't do these things are looked down upon.
Someone who has grown up inside New Zealand society might object straight away that women are not forced to engage in these practices. It's up to the woman whether or not she chooses to wear make-up or wax her legs and face. As for high-heeled shoes, that's just a matter of fashion, and a woman can take or leave them as she chooses.
That's true. There are no legal sanctions against women who choose not to wear make-up or wax their legs. But there can be considerable social sanctions, ranging from disapproving looks and a degree of exclusion, to the derision that is heaped on women who appear on TV without make-up, or with facial hair.
Before we criticise the clothes that some Muslim women wear, we should consider that their clothing is likely to be their own choice, just as some other women in New Zealand choose to wear make-up and high heels. If Muslim women say that they wear hijab or niqab or burqa by choice, as part of their religious beliefs, then we should take them at their word.
We don't need to rush in and save Muslim women. There are plenty of Muslim women who are more than happy to speak on their own behalf. It is incredibly patronising to assume that they need rescuing, because they can't do it for themselves. As the recent driving protests in Saudi Arabia show, Muslim women are just as capable of resisting oppression and agitating for change as women in the rest of the world.
Finally, let's remember that there are people in our society who wear special religious garb, and are much admired for doing so. Nuns who wear habits and veils as a sign of their religious commitment are respected for doing so. If Christian women are given that respect, then why not do the same for Muslim women?
Deborah Russell lectures at Massey University. She chooses to wear lipstick and flat shoes.
Related story: Wellington Muslims fear hijab prejudice
A Quick Guide to Women's Stuff
Hijab head-covering worn by some Muslim women, covering hair but not the face.
Niqab head-covering and face veil worn by some Muslim women, covering hair and most of the face, except for eyes.
Burqa full head and body covering worn by some Muslim women.
Habit body-concealing dress and veil worn by some Christian women, usually leaving face and some hair exposed.
Lipstick facepaint worn by some women, to emphasise lips.
Waxing practice of smearing hot wax on skin, then ripping it off to remove all the hairs, used by some women and some men to create an appearance of hairlessness.
High heels shoes with extended heels worn by some women and some men, enhancing height and inhibiting some movement.
- The Dominion Post
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