Why Should Anyone Dictate What Women Wear?

As German PM Angela Merkel becomes the latest leader to propose a ban of the full veil, author - and hijab wearer - Ayisha Malik unpicks the argument


by Grazia Contributor |
Published on

I write this, in my hijab, sitting in a mall in Dubai. There’s a burka-clad lady near me. Across from her sits another lady in shorts and a tank top. They hardly look at each other – no smile, but no look of affront or disgust either. Having spent a month here for work and pleasure, I witness this kind of live-and-let-live politeness on a daily basis. I'm not hailing Dubai as the standard bearer, but hearing the news of Angela Merkel's call for a German burka ban, I wonder why the western world has struggled so hard with acceptance.

Because is a burka ban really the answer to our problems of integration? The truth is, I can see both sides of the argument. If your face is covered, then how easy is it to be a contributing member of the society? But everyone has a right to choose how they dress. And why has Germany felt it necessary to ban a so-called religious covering practised by fewer than 2,000 women in their country. I’m not so sure that implementing these laws promotes integration - it feels more like a tactic for Merkel (currently lagging in the polls for the upcoming election) to lure voters back from the right.

If France - which has had the ban in place since 2011 - is to be used as an example of a country attemptomg to form a cohesive society, it’s not doing a very good job. Though at least the fact that you’re also banned from wearing a balaclava in public gives the idea consistency. But these are all stepping stones to a larger problem - if it's not all-out hatred, then at least a sense of antipathy and suspicion. At its worst, it drums up fear and loathing on both sides.

I'm beginning to feel a sense of inevitability in a bleak future. How many times can we argue that these bans cause divisions?

Myself and the Muslims I know are beginning to feel a sense of inevitability in a bleak future. How many times are we meant to argue that these bans cause divisions? Banning a woman from wearing a full veil is not going to make her knock on her non-believing neighbour’s home to chat about the meaning of life and the weather. Comfort, respect and a sense of belonging do that.

I don’t think the burka is a religious necessity. If you make a pilgrimage to Mecca, a woman's face must be exposed. Surely Mecca should be the yardstick by which we measure our practises? Some people argue hijab is necessary. Some think it's to do with modesty, others believe it's so that you're identified as a Muslim. I began to wear it because it felt like a natural progression to my faith. I still wear it because it's formed a part of my identity.

There are issues that go with wearing a burka which are problematic both on a social and personal level. After all, as a member of society, why is there a need to hide yourself entirely when it only makes you more conspicuous?

There are of course women who wear a niqab (a headscarf with a veil for the face) because they're forced to, but there are also women who do so because they feel it's the right thing to do. The feminist in me believes in choice. Do I think it sets us back because of the connotations aligned with such attire? Yes. Can I dictate what a woman should or shouldn't wear? No. If it’s the government’s aim to promote assimilation through such a ban, why they can’t think of other ways to foster understanding between different cultures and religions? And, on a more communal level, this is the time that mosques should be ensuring Muslims aren’t irrational in their reaction to such bans. Now is the time to be drawing on religious teachings about respect, cohesion and compassion.

We must try to expel the fear through working within communities to cultivate understanding. If we don't do it our way, then the governments will do it theirs.

Ayisha's novel Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged is out now

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