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Rafia Zakaria: Burka Ban and Earthquakes

April 28, 2010

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By **Rafia Zakaria**

According to seismological surveys, Iran is one of the most earthquake-prone countries in the world. The last major earthquake there, which occurred in the town of Bam, killed tens of thousands of people. Some days ago, conservative Iranian cleric Hojatoleslam Kazem Sadeghi blamed Iran’s women for the occurrence of earthquakes.

During a televised prayer sermon, he said that women who did not dress appropriately were spreading promiscuity in society and that this was the cause of the increasing number of earthquakes.

Meanwhile, a few thousand miles away in Calais, French President Nicholas Sarkozy ordered members of his party in parliament to prepare legislation that would ban the burka from public spaces in France. The French announcement came a day before the Belgian parliament was set to pass a ban on the full-face veil in public spaces which would have made it the first European nation to do so.

While the Belgian ban failed to pass because the government collapsed following unsuccessful coalition talks, the increasingly heated debate on burkas continues across the globe.

In the United States, a little-known blogger heard the statement made by the Iranian cleric and started her own protest, asking all women offended by the pronouncement to “dress immodestly” on Monday, April 26, to see if it would cause any earthquakes. Finally, in Pakistan, theatre group Ajoka claims that the Pakistan National Council of the Arts (PNCA) has imposed restrictions on the staging of its play Burqavaganza, because it discusses burka-wearing women.

These politicized screaming matches over the covering and uncovering of women span the world and traverse varied political contexts. These have specific complexities and nuances. Yet the resounding theme that emerges from the recent outcry over the burka in particular and women’s dress in general is that women continue to ultimately be defined by their bodies and the squares of flesh they choose to cover or uncover.

If they choose to shroud themselves in a burka in France, they are labeled as repressed and unwilling to integrate with French culture and society. If they do not cover themselves in conservative places, their bodies and sexuality are considered the cause of divine punishment in the form of natural disasters. In socio-cultural paradigms where women’s bodies symbolize familial and national honor, as in Iran or Pakistan, their covering is seen as corresponding directly to the piety and righteousness of society. Consequently, there is a brutal and obstinate disregard for women’s autonomy and their status as human beings equal to men.

If the Taliban and the Islamic republic in Iran rely on forcing women to be invisible as a sign of political control, the move to get women to expose themselves as a sign of protest against the Sadeghi’s pronouncement demonstrates just how dead, mute and reductionist the feminist movement in the West has become.

Conversely, in western societies, a similarly reductionist calculus construes the exhibition of the female body as a sign of liberation, with an equally stubborn blindness to how such sexualization debases women. Both versions are replete with untruths perpetuated by men. And just as a woman in a burka is complicit in the lie that the female form is the source of discord, so is the woman who displays her body complicit in demeaning it to a mere sexual object.

The burka has been reborn in the new millennium as a political symbol. French and Belgian politicians can use it as a convenient rallying cry to highlight the ‘otherness’ of an immigrant minority that suffers deep discrimination and is largely blamed for all the ills facing the French republic. Focusing on the so-called ghastly barbarity of the burka—even if few women actually wear it—becomes a convenient means to demonize an already beleaguered minority that has repeatedly been described by members of Sarkozy’s parliament as lazy louts living off the labors of the French people.

On the other side in Iran, where the regime is beset with an insurgency that is gaining power and support, it is easy to amass political support by insisting that arguments that support the autonomy of women to choose their own dress will enervate the pious and supposedly pure society created by the revolution. Control over women, the invisibility that the chador or burka impose, becomes a convenient proxy for the power of the Islamic republic which, if challenged, will lead to divine punishment.

If the Taliban and the Islamic republic in Iran rely on forcing women to be invisible as a sign of political control, the move to get women to expose themselves as a sign of protest against the Sadeghi’s pronouncement demonstrates just how dead, mute and reductionist the feminist movement in the West has become.

With pornographic images of women easily accessible on the Internet and women undergoing surgery to alter their physical appearance, perceiving exhibitionism as a form of protest against the deliberate subjugation of women promotes the erroneous idea that only the forcible covering of women is a product of patriarchy. Western feminists are similarly silent on the fact that US/Nato forces are complicit in supporting in Afghanistan certain re-tribalization strategies that entail subjecting women to child marriage and honor killings.

In the Pakistani context, the restrictions allegedly imposed by a state institution on a play satirizing burka-clad women portray another dimension of the controversy: state authorities intervening to prioritize the rights of women who wear the burka over those who refuse it. Such taking of sides uses state legitimacy to confer moral superiority on those women who wear the burka as the ‘good’ women worthy of support and makes others out to be the ‘bad’ rebels who must be silenced.

The Burqavaganza controversy, in the covert appeasement that it affords to those who believe that all women should indeed be covered by burkas, is thus as repugnant as that raging in France and Belgium. In sum, state intervention in women’s clothing, whether it involves promoting the burka or banning it, achieves the same purpose: subjugating women’s bodies to the dictates of men.

Copyright © 2010 Dawn Media Group

Be sure to attend “Black Sheep and Exploding Turbans”, the free Guernica/PEN event on May 2 where panelists will discuss and debate Europe’s difficulty coming to terms with its Muslim minority.

_____________________________________________________________________

Rafia Zakaria is a U.S.-based attorney and teaches constitutional law and political philosophy.

This article is reprinted with permission of the author. It originally appeared at Dawn.com

To read more blog entries from Rafia Zakaria others at GUERNICA click HERE .

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3 comments for Rafia Zakaria: Burka Ban and Earthquakes

  1. Comment by T Sparks on April 29, 2010 at 1:29 pm

    I am shocked no one has commented on this entry, it is touching on a profound problem that needs societies focus.

    I found the comment about women feeling liberated by wearing whatever they choose, betrayed a bias on the authors part.

    Many aspects of human life have been politicized, the forces of oppression never cease their struggle to control our lives and the choices we can make. Each of us approach the struggle against oppression in ways that suit our nature.

    Thank you for speaking to this issue, I hope more people will comment.

  2. Comment by Anonymous on May 1, 2010 at 9:26 pm

    What is there to comment? Horrible governments make horrible decisions. We all know women should be able to do whatever they want. What more can be said? The citizens should move out of Iran and France if they continue to fail

  3. Comment by Clvngodess on May 4, 2010 at 9:41 am

    It’s not just horrible governments. It’s the lunacy of patriarchy. The sick duality of patriarchy. Women are in the damned if you do, damned if you don’t position when it comes to the practice of modesty or the lack thereof.

    The woman as an objectification, is politicized and disregarded as a human under the systemic control of patriarchal systems.

    In the west we inject our bodies with plastic, carve up our genitals and our faces to present in a more pleasing manner to the male. We starve ourselves in an act that diminishes us and our entire being with Zero being the ultimate size or reward. But what is the value of Zero? Nothing.

    This is imprisonment, no matter how one looks at it. It is the price we pay under patriarchy.

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