Thursday, August 13, 2009

London Visit Opens my Eyes to the Burqa Issue

My family's few days in London were fascinating. The city is truly international. When my daughter's British soccer coach jokingly asked me how I "liked the English blokes" I had to pause. Other than a few taxi drivers and the Beefeater who gave the tour at the Tower of London, I didn't meet any. Like us, everyone we met seemed to be from somewhere else.

This was especially apparent at our hotel, the Mariott Marble Arch, located just off Edgware Road. The stretch of Edgware Road north of Marble Arch is the Arabic capital of London. The street is lined with colorful middle eastern cafes and shops, patrons smoking hookah pipes on the sidewalk, movies in Arabic playing at the Odeon. In addition to being the center of the large immigrant population, the area is a hub for visiting Muslim tourists. Many of the women at our hotel and on the street wore the hijab - headscarf and modest attire - which I have to admit, was a bit disconcerting. My head felt conspicuously bare.

As we settled into the neighborhood, it didn't take me long to realize that the practice of hijab is open to wide interpretation. Some women wore a simple headscarf over regular street clothes or jeans. Others wore the scarf with a full length tailored coat. Teenage girls pushed light gauzy scarves back on their heads to reveal glittery headbands. Other women wore full black robes, edged in gold trim. Many of the more covered women sported designer sunglasses and expensive bags. Their eyebrows were fabulous.

But a few women were completely covered by a burqa, and frankly, it made me uncomfortable. No, wait. It made me mad.

With their covered faces and shapeless limbs, the burqa-clad women seemed worlds apart from the rest of the London population, which I guess is the point, but it seems so cruel. The women had trouble walking down the street or opening their handbags - ultimately dependent on their companions for help to do the most basic things. And despite their helplessness, with no facial expressions to mitigate the severity of their heavy black veils, they looked sinister. I've since read that covered women suffer vitamin D deficiencies from not being exposed to sunlight. Could a woman possibly choose this attire for herself?

French President Nicolas Sarkozy doesn't think so. Recently, he announced that the burqa is not welcome in France. He claims the burqa, as well as the niquab which leaves the eyes uncovered, is "a sign of subservience and debasement" often forced upon Muslim women by their husbands and fathers. But it's not that simple.

Although hard to understand by Western standards, some Muslim women wear the burqa by choice, as a sign of religious devotion and commitment to their faith. These women claim that their robes, which do separate them from public society, bring them closer to God. Legislation against the burqa would violate these women's rights, no?

I don't know the answer, but I'll tell you this. It's a gorgeous summer day and I'm about to hit the beach. I'm going to display my hair, neck, arms, legs and even my flabby stomach for all the world to see. And while it may not bring me closer to God, it will certainly give me a chance to appreciate the beauty of nature, as well as dose of well-deserved vitamin D.


Anonymous said...

I don't agree with your comments about hijab and niqab that "it's often forced by parents or husbands" where did get this from and honestly how many women you know personally waer hijab? Knowledge is power . Go learn from the source and not from what they feed you in the media. Women who choose to cover wanted to be judged by what inside their head not their body . Women who wear bikini and sit inthe sun naked are only judged as sex object in the eyes of the men . show me one pic for virgin Mary without a hijab / a cover in her head or without loose clothes. Anyway check this out :

Marjie Killeen said...

I know I chose a sensitive topic here, but I think it's worth talking about. I really appreciate your comments.

I did read the very interesting article you reference before I wrote my piece, among others, because you're right - I don't personally know anyone who wears hijab. It was the experience of being surrounded by so many women in London who did that made me consider it. I'm sure many/most women who cover their heads do so by choice, which I completely respect.

The comment about being forced by husbands or fathers was a quote by French President Sarkozy and referred specifically to the face-covering burqa, which he is trying to ban in France. I think it's hard for most women to understand why a someone would choose to wear such a cumbersome, uncomfortable, isolating garment. What's your opinion of the burqa/niquab?

Kevin Killion said...

Regarding the comment by Anonymous, "show me one pic for virgin Mary without a hijab" -- actually, there are *NO* pictures of Mary. All we have is relatively recent artists' interpretations.

The best and most thorough exploration of what is happening to the formerly "Great" Britain is "Londonistan", by Melanie Phillips.

A broader view is provided by "America Alone", by Mark Steyn.

A good capsule description is here:

Anonymous said...

Our family recently returned from a London vacation just last week. We observed much of the same things that Ms. Killeen did such as the huge amount of ethnic diversity on the streets of London. We did notice many head scarved Muslim women and a good number in full burqas. I was not so surprised at this as I was told there was a large Arabic speaking population in London.

I have seen Muslim women in burqas in the United States in rare instances. Head scarved women do not bother me. At least you can see who you are talking to. As an Asian American woman, I find burqas to be extremely offensive, demeaning, and downright ridiculous. The very idea of making yourself invisible to the world around you except within your immediate family is really sick. How do you eat? How do you talk to people? Just how do you breathe? How do you not pass out when it is hot and you're wearing a tent? Does the Koran actually demand full body/face cover?? This whole issue of physical modesty is so overblown in their culture. Why don't men have to dress in the same way? Why don't they wear burqas? Do you think men would last long if they were to wear these burqas??

It is one thing to choose this kind of "piety" in a free society, but obviously in many Muslim countries a woman can be flogged and imprisoned for improper dress. How's that for free choice?

President Nicolas Sarkozy was right to reject the burqa in France. These burqas symbolize terrible things and do not belong in society.

Thank God for human rights, Thank God for common sense. Down with burqas and chadors, they violate women as much as a bikini does.

Sciamachy Moran said...

Actually, I'm a guy & I'd like to see burqas made popular among men & women, not just muslims but anyone. Think about it: in summer, you could show up to work in a thong & a burqa. Nobody would know you're practically nekkid as you keep cool at your desk. Winter, you've got an eskimo parka on under your burqa. You walk past 380 CCTV cameras a day in the UK - with a burqa you have your privacy back. Fed up of spending money on makeup? Burqa! Bit overweight? Burqa! Having a bad hair day? Burqa! Don't want to be bothered by your annoying sister in law while out shopping? Wear a burqa and be totally anonymous. It's the one size really does fit all solution for everyone!

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