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On Banning the Niqab

By Sabahat Ashraf

Don’t get me wrong, I am not myself for stopping people who want to wear what is loosely (and historically inaccurately) called a “hijab”, or a niqab, or a burqa. My grandmother and her generation wore a burqa all their lives – into the 21st century. My mother – a Pakistani professional who has headed up educational institutions on two continents and taught Islamic history herself – wore it. She wore it whenever she visited my grandfather in my father’s family home in a hamlet on the outskirts of Lucknow, India. She did it out of respect for tradition and her father-in-law. At one point, in the late 70’s he – a traditional Awadhi “zamindar“, or feudal landowner, himself – told her he didn’t think it was necessary any longer. That is how our culture has evolved. Choice. Respect for tradition. Choice in respecting tradition.

But very frankly, when we engage with the issue as one of freedom for women versus preventing the oppression of women, we’re buying into the Islamist-Islamophobic binary. The whole hijab-niqab-burqa thing (at least in Europe, they make the distinction between the three; in the US, most younger Muslims couldn’t do that) is a power play on the one hand by the neo-purist/Islamist crowd and on the other hand by the xenophobic/Islamophobic crowd. And, like these things have been, for centuries, is being played out on the bodies and modesty of women.

If you need help understanding this, think gay-marriage initiatives and laws in US elections; they are not put on the ballot because gay marriage is a pressing threat to The Republic, but to get out the right-wing vote. That’s what the Islamist fringe is doing with hijab; and that’s what the right-wing fringe xenophobes are doing with the ban.

And illiberal policies like the one in France are not new, either, or limited to the West; Attaturk’s policies in Turkey were as illiberal as this ban – and they weren’t restricted to women, either; he banned turbans, too. And, of course, we now have the ban in Syria.

But the point I am making is that this recent surge of “hijab”, burka and niqab-related news has less to do with the heritage of these particular Muslims and more to do with a certain (and rather recent) religio-political movement using it as a political rallying point – much as god, guns and gays are used by the Christian Right in the US.

Sabahat Ashraf is a freelance journalist.