The Burka: Empowering or Means of Subjugation?

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article reflect only those of the author and not necessarily of SFU Volunteer Services.

In one of my senior communication courses CMNS 346, I had the opportunity to debate the function and purpose of the burka, which is used in predominantly Muslim countries to cover up women in public so as not to provoke sexual desire from strange men. It’s a piece of clothing designed for women by men, for very specific reasons. The book I am currently reading, “The Bookseller of Kabul” by Asne Seierstad is sheds some light on the origins controversial garment.

Unlike the niqab, which only covers the face but not the eyes, burkas cover the entire body, making breathing difficult and inhibiting walking, since women cannot see their own feet. One writer compared them to blinders on a horse, since they make it impossible for women to glance sideways unless they turn their entire head.

The perception Western society has of the burka being a traditional form of women’s dress, which many of my classmates shared, is false.  It was implemented by fundamentalists who were illiterate and uneducated – they were opposed to women leaving the house without covering themselves up. In Afghanistan, the burka was specifically used only for women from harems – they wore it to avoid being recognized when in public. It is from these origins that the burka grew to be perceived by Muslim society as a necessary covering for all women to wear.

According to reliable sources, the Qur’an only suggests that Muslims exercise modesty – it does not explicitly state that female Muslims must wear a burka. It is the men who force women, against their will, to cover up. In my opinion, these burkas have become masks that are used to subjugate Muslim women.

Some people might argue that Muslim women choose to wear the burka because it saves them time in the morning and helps prevent unwanted sexualization by onlookers. However, educated female Muslim scholars and my own Muslim friends condemn the burka. They claim it forces them to mask their identity as women – it implies that femininity is shameful and is to be concealed.

But is it fair that women must feel shame for a body they are born with, and conceal sexuality all humans share? Is it fair Muslim men mustn’t take such proactive measures to conceal their bodies?

So, I want to ask you, readers: in which situations and circumstances should the burka be allowed? Should it be banned from public society, as has happened in France, to protect the public from potential attacks from those wearing them? What are your experiences with burkas?

I look forward to reading your comments.

By Ayla Horga