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No Room for Burqas Here?

The debate over burqas has reached Austria and the approximately one hundred women who wear burqas here. Over the past two weeks Chancellor Werner Faymann and the Minister for Women, Gabriele Heinisch-Hosek (both Social Democrats), as well as the Minister of Interior, Maria Fekter (People's Party), have called for a ban on burqas. Their arguments: Traffic becomes unsafe when drivers wear full body veils; burqas are a symbol for the oppression of women.

Gabriele Heinisch-Hosek said in an interview in April, "the burqa is a symbol for the disdain of women and for their discrimination". She said she was open to dialogue with all parties involved but she also called for a ban on burqas in public buildings, banks, and hospitals. The minister added: "Burqas, being clearly discriminatory, do not belong in our society. There is no room for burqas here."

Let's think this through: the burqa, a full body garment worn by women in some Islamic traditions, is used in public not in the home. If burqas were banned - would these women just go out without it? No. They would stay in their homes, isolated. Would that make them more emancipated? Hardly. The fight against the symbols of Islam is not an adequate tool for the pursuit of Islamic women's rights. (And I may be wrong but I cannot imagine a top politician calling for a ban on burqas in the United States where freedom of religion is a precious right).

There is no doubt that women are oppressed in some Islamic traditions, and it is honorable that we want that to change. But change must come from within - from within a person, a community, a system. If we want to take women's rights seriously we must not patronize women but show respect for them and their situation. Respect starts with dialogue. It may encourage women to speak up.

This is what undertakings such as the Afghan Women's Writing Project are trying to do. The project was started by the American writer Masha Hamilton. Here's what it is about (quoted from the AWWP website):
The Afghan Women’s Writing Project is aimed at allowing Afghan women to have a direct voice in the world, not filtered through male relatives or members of the media. Many of these Afghan women have to make extreme efforts to gain computer access in order to submit their writings, in English, to the project.

The project reaches out to talented and generous women author/teachers here in the United States and engages them, on a volunteer, rotating basis, to teach Afghan women online from Afghanistan. We use women teachers due to cultural sensitivities in Afghanistan. The writing workshops are taught in three secure online classrooms.

Submissions are edited in a back-and-forth process for grammar and clarity, but remain the work of the original author. The goal of the project is to encourage the women to develop their voices and share their stories, something that was not permitted during the years when Afghanistan was Taliban-held.
I would love to hear the voices of the one hundred women hidden beneath their burqas in Austria. Until I find a way to do so, I will listen to the voices of women in Afghanistan. The AWWP website features beautiful, haunting writing. Check it out!


debi said…

It is beautiful writing.

I can't imagine having so little freedom. I'm thankful every day for the incredible freedom we have in the US, though it is slowly eroding.

My heart breaks for their "jail and safety".


Thanks! I am glad you checked out the link. It is a wonderful window into a totally different culture.

Unknown said…
Thanks for this thoughtful post. It is very easy for Western women (and all westerners) to have a knee-jerk reaction in opposition to the constricting burqua. But we often fail to ask for and listen for the feelings and opinions of the women who wear them. If a woman feels more comfortable wearing a burqua when out in public, then I think she should have the right to wear one - no matter wear she lives. Of course, ideally, she should not be REQUIRED to wear one if she does not wish to.
Look forward to checking out this site.
Reese said…
Thanks for sharing such a powerful piece, Christina. Coming from a multiracial country, we too forget to gain a better understanding of each other's belief and culture. AWWP deserves our attention and support.

There is a book called "My Forbidden Face" by a young Afghanistan woman reveals life as a woman growing up under the Taliban. Worth reading!
Reese and Sarah,

Thank you for your comments. Isn't it wonderful to see that women will not be shut up so easily, even under the most oppressive circumstances? I looked at My Forbidden Face on amazon and will read it.

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