Feature photo by fabiovenni
Do not think this ban is something delegated to the west. In 2010, Syria banned the use of the niqab and the burka in Syrian Universities. The hijab as is the abaya (sans face veil) are still permitted, but it is all tantamount to the fact that resentment for the divide between women and men in Islam is growing. The further west the east becomes and vice versa, it blends ideologies, not so much cultures. In my research I have found that in all actuality, the massive event that is the use of this garment stems from the Muslim practice of Purdah and the concept Namus. Purdah is the face-veil portion and is translated from the Persian as “curtain,” while Numas is often translated as meaning “honor”. I begin to ask myself what manner of honor forces women to protect themselves from the hidden evil of men’s eyes by enveloping themselves? Have those men no honor? Perhaps they have too much of it.
Purdah is the prevention of women being able to be seen by men. It is a practice that takes on many forms all around the Islamic world and among Hindu women in parts of India. It employs two major functions: first the sexual segregation of men and women which is followed by the covering up of a woman’s body and face. It becomes of itself a separate entity, that not only are they women, they are fabric and then women. Seeing as though it severely limits her interactions outside of the home in an all encompassing fashion (personal, social and economic), purdah requires women to stay indoors. It is not something that is strictly implemented, but how can a person navigate the social or geographic paths that are found when interacting in the public forum while constrained? However, there are disturbingly specific limitations and restrictions that are required to be abided by when leaving said home. For example, the veiled woman in question should be accompanied by mahram or a close male relative if it should take more than three days and nights. This includes the distance walking or on an animal and taking the usual pit stops. The Ulama or the authorities of shari‘a law, stipulate that this distance is approximately 48 miles. Who knows after that. Secondly and most obviously she should be covered and may or may not expose her eyes. Lastly, she should keep to her mahram and not associate or have any sort of contact with men who are unrelated to her. Even in the home or in public buildings, segregation exists to a point where there are separate chambers for men and women (Mardana and Zenana, respectively). A number of different devices are used in the attempt to separate the sexes, and they include screens, curtains and in certain instances even walls.
So ancient is the practice that the Greco Roman historian Plutarch, when referring to the wives of the rulers of Persia during the Achaemenid Empire, long before the advent of Islam, mentioned the practice of hiding women. This practice was not necessarily exclusive to the Persian. Greek and Byzantine women of the upper echelons of society were also kept for clandestine eyes. In fact, the whole notion of this seems to stem from a cultural practice rather than a religious one. Before Rezā Shāh’s ban of the purdah in Iran, it was consistently utilized. His reign was one of modernization and conflicts with clergy members which resulted in a backlash that eventually turned into the Islamic Republic of Iran, not before the Imperial State of Iran. This subsequently further fueled the need for a return to the practice of purdah which was a symbol of the traditions left behind in the tempest that was European rule. However, in Saudi Arabia, it is seen as purely cultural, yet in Afghanistan it is viewed as political, cultural and religious under the Taliban. In other regions, it is only observed during religious ceremonies. There does exist a difference between purdah and hijab. Hijab is indeed a religious tradition that is based on physical and psychological morality, while purdah does not conform to the religious teachings as people mostly associate it with. In effect, people who implement and force purdah are nothing more than evangelical Muslims who manipulate their own views and opinions onto the Quran.
Namus, which is literally translated as “virtue,” is a concept of ethics in West Asian patriarchal character. It is the foundation for the intensely gender-specific culture that has arisen in the familial relations of the societies in question. This is absolutely not something religious; it is purely cultural, and in fact predates Islam and the Judeo-Christian beliefs and is without support or mention in any religious text. This is something that is defined as a man and his family. The concept is strongly based on the ownership of the name which the man has given his wife and the children she bears to him. In essence he has a strong say in many aspects of the lives of the people who live in his house and when it comes to his wife, it could include even the most personal aspect of herself and her integrity; more often than not, it is a sexual matter. This possession severely disregards a woman’s worth in and out of the home. A woman’s worth is her ability to produce a family and her virginity before marriage is a very important factor which can determine her future. “Proof of Virginity” tests such as blood on the sheets are required in some cultures to prove an adequately successful wedding night. It is a culture of obedience, modesty, faithfulness and something called “appropriateness”. Violations of names often involve the practice of honor killings which can be supported by the most flippant of evidence. Forensic evidence takes a backseat to gossip and rumors which in turn promote the femicide of the section of the populace most vulnerable to accusation and ultimate punishment.
This all lends itself to the archaic prejudices of patriarchal societies. However, in lieu of a full ban by men and women who are not and cannot understand, perhaps something else should happen. These cultural practices are not something to be taken lightly and have been going on for ages, albeit interrupted at times. What needs to change is reaching out to women to help them them see the value of themselves beyond what their uterus can encompass, to see that the brain holds the best path to a fulfilling future and that the family can mean many things. The men must see that a person cannot be acquired and much less the functions that that body performs. The burqa ban is in many ways like the recent Arizona legislation against immigration. It isn’t the best thing to do, perhaps not even the correct thing to do, but it has got people talking. It’s begun the conversation that has so been delayed. We have bit the bullet and now can get past being uncomfortable for under all that fabric, those women in France, Syria and beyond don’t seem to be very comfortable at all, indeed.