'Banning of ‘burquinis’ is a step towards depriving Muslim women of equal citizenship'

Posted by ap507 at Aug 22, 2016 12:21 PM |
Dr Saeeda Shah from the University of Leicester highlights how traditional dress signifies empowerment and equality to Muslim women, and mentions their participation in the Rio Olympics

Think: Leicester does not necessarily reflect the views of the University of Leicester - it expresses the independent views and opinions of the academic who has authored the piece. If you do not agree with the opinions expressed, and you are a doctoral student/academic at the University of Leicester, you may write a counter opinion for Think: Leicester and send to ap507@le.ac.uk 

Two media items have generated a lot of attention during the past two weeks: the banning of ‘burquinis’ in Cannes, and the ‘Hijab-wearing’ Muslim women bagging the medals at Rio Olympics.

The banning of ‘burquinis’ in Cannes is being explained in the context of Nice carnage, aimed at protecting the secular image of France. Mayor David Lisnard’s official ruling reads that 'access to beaches and for swimming is banned to anyone who does not have bathing apparel that respects good customs and secularism'. This was followed by cancellation of a private 'burkini pool party' at a waterpark in Marseille by the local Mayor (and the organisers submitted after receiving death threats), and another Burkini ban on two Riviera beaches issued by Mayor Lionnel Luca also referring to ‘good customs and secularism’.

Civilized society would agree that any type of clothing should respect ‘good customs’ but these customs develop within cultures and societies and their respective interpretations of good customs. In most Muslim societies covering the body in public is considered ‘good custom’ emphasised by their ideology, although how this ‘covering’ is interpreted varies even across and within Muslim societies. Banning any type of clothing by measuring it against secular and religious criteria is not only simplistic and highly problematic, it rightly raises questions such as ‘why 'religious symbols' including the Jewish Kippa and the headdresses of Christian nuns were not being banned’.

Unfortunately, political statements and decisions, particularly where Islam and Muslims are concerned, often tend to be re-active, lacking in rationality or good sense, and may become source of embarrassment as was the case with Mr Donald Trump when he commented about Ghazala Khan (the mother of a American Muslim solider killed in Iraq) that ‘maybe - she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say’. This perception that Muslim women are oppressed, silenced, invisible and confined to domestic is another force that Muslim women have to fight against besides the patriarchal structures in their own societies. Rulings such as banning of ‘burquinis’ is another step depriving them of participation in the public as equal citizen.

Muslim feminists explain Muslim women’s covering head and body when moving into the public space as an expression of personal choice, agency and resistance. They argue that it has successfully allowed Muslim women to free themselves from confinement to the domestic and the discriminating traditional customs in their patriarchal societies, while claiming participation in the public space as Muslim women. Hijab and dresses covering the body are increasingly being perceived and experienced by many Muslim women, particularly the younger generation, as enablers to function in the public with claims of authority and equality. Even conservative societies such as Saudi Arabia for the first time allowed two young women covering head and body to participate in the London Olympics in 2012 and the number has gone up to four women sent to Rio Olympics.

Rio Olympics are another evidence that Muslim women can successfully participate in any public place. Fourteen Muslim women won medals in the Rio Olympics and although eleven Muslim women Rio Olympics winners were not wearing traditional Muslim hijab, three of them did wear it. They were:

  • Ibtihaj Muhammad the first American athlete to wear the traditional Muslim hijab during the Olympics; she won bronze in the niche sport of fencing
  • Egypt's Sara Ahmed the first Arab woman to win Olympic weightlifting medal
  • Kimia Alizadeh, the 18-year old is the first Iranian woman to win an Olympic medal in taekwondo

The diversity of attire across Muslim societies, besides being cultural expression, is not detached from the internal debates within Islamic scholarship regarding the appropriate dress code for religious Muslim women. In today’s global world, it has become expression of many Muslim women’s struggle to move into the public space. Traditional Muslim dress covering head and body is not just an identity statement, for many Muslim women it signifies empowerment and equality. Turning this into a secular versus religious or secular versus Islam issue can be detrimental to societal cohesion and peaceful co-existence in the emerging societies where increasingly people have not only to live with diversity but to learn to understand and respect diversity. 


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