By Licia Corbella, Calgary Herald, June 27, 2009
A while back I was asked to give a talk at my kids’ school about my December 2003 trip to Afghanistan.
As I waited to be introduced, I hid in an auditorium storage room wearing a burka I bought in that war-ravaged country, thinking I’d be out in a minute, maybe two. But the introduction took a lot longer than I had anticipated and by the time I came out to greet all those shining faces, I was very nearly hyperventilating from the oppression of it. I didn’t time my self-imposed confinement to the burka, but I probably wore the suffocating tent-like garment with mesh over my eyes for no more than 10 minutes. I told the kids I felt like I was buried alive.
I also told them that while in Afghanistan, I asked all of the many women I met there whether they liked wearing a burka. Not one said yes. In fact, they all said they hated it almost as much as they hated the Taliban.
It’s no wonder. The burka’s toll on these women was harsh. Many had lost most of their teeth and hair as a result of not having enough vitamin D, which comes from the sun. During the time of Taliban rule–from September 1996 to November 2001 –no portion of their skin, save their hands, was ever allowed to be exposed to sunlight. Think about the horror of that. The Taliban insisted that homes with women in them had to blacken their windows, lest a man pollute his delicate sensibilities by gazing upon the uncovered face of a woman behind the glass.
On Monday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy stated during the first presidential address to a joint session of France’s two legislative houses of Parliament in 136 years, that the burka was “not welcome” in France.
“We cannot accept to have in our country women who are prisoners behind netting, cut off from all social life, deprived of identity,” said Sarkozy.
He’s right. Women in burkas don’t seem human. After just a short while in Afghanistan, women in their blue burkas seem like ghostly apparitions devoid of a face, individuality or humanity.
At first, when my translators would tap me on the shoulder and suggest I “take a picture of that burka over there,” I would gently correct them by saying, “you mean, that WOMAN in the burka?” In a couple of days, however, I too was referring to them as simply burkas.
In France–where it’s already illegal to wear any conspicuous religious symbol in state schools including a head scarf–a parliamentary committee is studying the issue of whether or not to allow women to cover their faces for supposedly religious reasons. As Sarkozy said, the burka is “not a sign of religion, it is a sign of subservience.” The Muslim Canadian Congress agrees and urged Canada’s government to ban the burka.
“The decision to wear the burka is by no means a reflection of the genuine choices of Muslim women,” said MCC president, Sohail Raza in a news release. “The argument that Muslim women opt to wear the burka does not withstand scrutiny when considering the repressive nature of orthodox Muslim society in general.”
Reached at his Calgary home, Mahfooz Kanwar, Mount Royal College professor emeritus of sociology and criminology, says many well-meaning Canadians believe it is “tolerant” to allow Muslim women the “choice” of wearing the burka.
“There is no choice involved in this, and allowing it will lead to intolerance,” said Kanwar.
“Some people say banning the burka would be a slippery slope and would lead to the banning of wearing a scarf over your mouth in the winter while outside,” said Kanwar. “But the real slippery slope can be seen in some Islamist ghettos in Paris or in Denmark, where non-Muslim women are harassed for not covering their hair to the point where they have been forced to start doing so to prevent verbal and physical attacks by semi-literate Muslim men. That’s the real slippery slope.”
Kanwar, a Muslim who has written eight books, including one on the sociology of Islam, echoes Sarkozy’s comments. “The burka is not mandated by Islam or the Qur’an and is therefore not religious and protected under the Charter. In Canada, gender equality is one of our core values and faces are important identifying tools and should not be covered. Period,” added Kanwar, who is also a director with the MCC.
Many French politicians are on the side of a burka ban including some prominent Muslim politicians like Fadela Amara, France’s cities minister. Amara has called the burka “a coffin that kills individual liberties,” and a sign of the “political exploitation of Islam.”
Funny, but “coffin” was a word several women I met in Afghanistan used to describe their burka. Consider the words of Massooda, a 36-year-old widow, who looked more like 60 as a result of her harsh life. “I will never wear a burka again,” she said defiantly. “They will have to put me in a coffin before I walk around in one again.”
That’s choice. No sane, free person would ever “choose” the burka.
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