Women’s Issue: The Burqa and Harassment

As you may know, many women say that they wear the burqa in order not to get harassed by men. At the same time, women who do not wear the burqa still do not want to get harassed by men. Hence, it is safe to assume that no woman wants to get harassed by men. Men, unfortunately, still harass women whether women like it or not. When men harass women whether they like it or not knowing that women do not like to be harassed, this puts women in a place where their will is undermined. For a woman’s will to be undermined, women become imposed to deal with the situation in two ways: Accept the harassment and see it in a less harmful light in order that she is not harmed further mentally. Or reject the harassment and try to find a solution to assert her will. Hence, some acts of harassment towards women are now seen as friendly and flirtatious. And some women have found justification and refuge in their religion by covering up. To see harassment in a better light does not mean that this “better light” should become the way we judge harassment. And the assertion of a woman’s will through covering up does not mean that she is acting within her own will all of the sudden either. Therefore, the burqa is not to be seen as an act that is in respect to a woman’s free will since even though it asserts her free will, the assertion was needed due to the undermining of it. And to see harassment as a flirtatious act is not to be seen as an act that is in respect to a woman’s free will since even though she aligned it with her free will, it is not in relation to the harassment ending and being replaced with friendly engagements. When looking at these two ways women are dealing with harassment from men, we see that both sides are forced to be okay with that which is against their will nevertheless: One side is forced to see harassment as okay due to perceiving it as a friendly gesture. And one side if forced to see it as okay due to perceiving the assertion of her will as part of her religion and as part of her duty.

To be harassed, here, means: the repetitive treatment of men towards women in a sexually objectifying manner where this sexual objectification becomes an entitlement that men assert as having over women. This entitlement creates an obligation in the woman to like the harassment and/or to accept it. And this entitlement asserts harassment to be a matter-of-fact act that women can do nothing about. In addition, this entitlement asserts harassment of women to be part of a man’s nature where the woman is acting against his own nature if she was to hold him accountable. Furthermore, this entitlement asserts the harassment of women to be a part of a man’s nature where the woman may feel like it is part of her nature to receive it and accept it. Hence, it has become the norm to see those who do not like to be harassed as wrong as it has also become the norm for a woman to hold herself accountable for being harassed.

It is true that wearing the burqa speaks about a woman’s will not to be harassed. But it is not true that wearing the burqa allows the woman to live in accordance to her free will which means that it is not true that a woman wears the burqa in accordance to her free will when it comes to harassment. When it comes to harassment, the woman wears the burqa to assert her free will as it is being undermined by men. It is similar to me telling you that, “I want to go home” but you refuse to allow me to go home…so I precede by rearranging your entire house so that it looks like my home in order to assert the fact that “I WANT TO GO HOME!” To rearrange your entire house to look like my house does not mean that I have been granted that which is within my will and it does not mean that my free will has been respected. The assertion of “I WANT TO GO HOME” is not the same as me going home. In that same regards, the assertion of “I DO NOT WANT YOU TO HARASS ME” when a woman wears the burqa is not the same as her not being harassed.

While being unable to stop the harassment against her and while being unable to do much about it, many women have found refuge in Islam (both Muslim women and those who convert to Islam). And the reason why Islam becomes a place of refuge is due to the fact that it gives women the feeling that they should take manner in their own hands as it also gives them a way to assert their original will by making a “louder” statement. Unfortunately, however, “to take manners in one’s own hands” is something that comes from the lack of harassment. To not be harassed gives one the ability to take manners in her own hands and it makes her feel like her own destiny is in her own hands. Hence, to be harassed, in and of itself deprives a woman from feeling that she is able to take manners in her own hands. And when men assert it to be his right to harass women, women often may start seeing this harassment in a better light as it helps them feel that they are still able to take manners in their own hands. And unfortunately, when Islam gives women the feeling that they are able to take manners in their own hands by reasserting the importance of her undermined will, it only serves to redefine the terms of harassment as being that which is in a woman’s hands to avoid and overcome. Hence, the louder statement made by wearing the burqa replaces the feeling that harassment deprives from women: the feeling of being in control and having the power to take manner in her own hands. And the same goes for women who see harassment in a better light where doing so replaces the feeling that harassment deprives from women: the feeling of being in control and having the power to take manner in her own hands. It is no surprise, therefore, that those who wear the burqa feel like it replaces (gets rid of) harassment.

Most of the women who wear the burqa live under a culture that believes in honor killings and arranged marriages. This means a few things: 1st, a woman’s life is dependent on the words of strangers. 2nd, when it comes down to any issues, everyone else is above the woman and she is put last. 3rd, gossip is more than gossip—it is almost a “final judgement”. 4th, the woman carries the burden of her entire family’s (often extended family) reputation. When a woman’s life depends on the words coming from strangers and when men are free to harass women and make sexual advances towards them at the same time, it becomes a very anger fuming environment. I went to the Middle East a while back and I started to understand why it is better to just cover up. In fact, after a week being there, I did not want to leave the apartment at all. It is a combination of vulgarity (that is, believe it or not, worse than you would encounter in the west) and the entitlement of it despite the repercussions and precisely due to the repercussions that made me pick up a huge rock and throw it at this man once while I was walking. So women are living a life where if one was to say something about her, her life is put in danger…all while these men are harassing them in a nonchalant manner. Due to honor killings and how the woman is seen as the problem if she was to act in a sexually inappropriate manner, women face the extra insult of having all people put above them in relation to gossip, worth, reputation, integrity, and value. Hence, many women may truly feel that it is more freeing to put on the burqa. Again, going to the Middle East, I myself wanted to hide under a rock. In addition, everyone knows everyone in most areas in the Middle East and the family must “keep an eye” on the women within it which makes for a very restraining and very controlling life. When women wear the burqa, it appears that their family let loose on being so controlling of them. Hence, many women “choose” to wear the burqa because it assures her family that she will not be acting inappropriately when she leaves the house. The combination of honor killings and arranged marriages give men a sense of entitlement over women that is more bothersome than women in the west have ever experienced.

When Muslim women move to the west, they are still looking at things from a foreign perspective. Seeing women wearing sleeveless shirts and short shorts is still looked at from how much of a nightmare that would be back in their home countries. Simply put, these women WOULD get raped…absolutely and positively…if they were to walk around like that back home. And the combination of honor killings, arranged marriages is now added to the idea that women in the west are more inappropriate sexually. This makes women feel like they need to protect their reputation thereby holding onto the wearing of the hijab and the burqa in order that they are not seen as “corrupt western women”.

While western women face harassment from men on the street and other places, eastern women face what I call, “cultural harassment” that comes from honor killing and arranged marriages. These cultural harassments are very life determining and they cannot be brushed off simply by ignoring what this man has said and what that man has said. When people speak about these women, it is a huge deal and it is taken with as much seriousness as a murder is taken precisely because it can lead to these women being killed or it can lead to one family killing a member of another family. I spoke in the last paper about the appearance in relation to the burqa. And trust me, it is not about appearance. It is not about the importance of beauty. It is about a peace of mind that a woman may gain and it is about a tiny extra bit of freedom that she may gain from wearing the burqa that may make her put it on.

To tackle the issue of the burqa, these couple of things need to initially happen: First, we need to address the issue of honor killings. Second, we need to address the issue of arranged marriages. Third, we need to address religion from a perspective that does not get fueled by cultural ideologies. I will be addressing all of these areas here in a fashion that leads to change. Am working on 20 issues at the same time but I need to make sure that each and every issue is addressed from its basics all the way to its complexity so that all of us are on the same page and all of our concerns are accounted for.

This is my second paper on the burqa. You can read the first one here. I will be writing more on the burqa before moving on to honor killings and arranged marriages.

About the Author
Liliyan Hassan

Liliyan Hassan

Founder: Go for Women

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