Isn’t A Burka Simply A Mask?

Angelcel, of AC’s Scrapbook brought up a topic of the “Hey, that reminds me!” variety. See the inspiration for the following post here.

Angelcel’s post got me thinking. Isn’t a burka simply a mask? It conceals the identity of the person inside. It creates a nameless, faceless figure that is not easily identified.

Anti-mask laws are debated in the United States. In a simple google search I discovered that many, if not all, states have some form of an anti-mask ordinance in place. And for as many laws I found, I found just as many rebuttals, protests and appeals. Those against anti-mask laws are concerned about freedom of speech and expression. Those for anti-mask laws are concerned for public safety or to discourage offensive behavior.

Where I live, much of the hullabaloo centers around this kind of mask:

I find the above mask and robe offensive. I don’t want someone hiding behind it, spewing hatred towards others under the “safety” of a mask. I also find the burka offensive. But wearing it is an expression of religious affiliation. I believe those forced to wear a burka are victims of hatred. But there are some who willingly wear the burka as an expression of their religious beliefs. Who am I to tell them it’s wrong?

Which leads me to the “Hey! That reminds me…” part of the post.

It was July. My daughter was 8 years old and her US citizenship was finally approved. My husband suggested that we celebrate the fourth of July in Boston, his hometown. Perfect. A Boston fourth of July – there’s no better place to celebrate!

We had a wonderful time. Homes all decked out in red, white and blue. Picnics and Bar-B-Ques. Even a neighborhood parade (she decorated her scooter with streamers and rode with her cousins) that ended at the local park. Sack races and egg tosses. Pony rides and sno-cones. And the fireworks? Amazing!

We spent a week in the Boston area so we had plenty of time for sight-seeing. One particular afternoon, shopping at Faneuil Hall Marketplace, we all split up. Everyone wanted to see something different. When we met back up my mother-in-law was agitated.

“See? That person there? In the burka? It’s a man.”

Her husband scoffed. My husband laughed and called her paranoid.

“No. Look at his hands. His shoes. It’s a man under there. We should do something.”

She was right. Thick, hairy arms. Thick, hairy fingers. Large, black work boots. He noticed us staring and he scuttled away.

“What should we do, Mom?” my husband asked, “He wasn’t doing anything wrong. And besides, we’re not sure it was a man anyway.”

My mother-in-law was still upset. She had been watching him for some time. He appeared to be fascinated with the crowds and the buildings. We just brushed off her concerns. The date was July, 2001.

Two months later, America’s greatest tragedy happened. And the two planes that crashed into the World Trade Center originated in Boston.

Before 9/11, if you had asked me whether women should be banned from wearing burkas in this country I would have defended their every right to freely express their beliefs.

But now? No. No way. Never.

It’s a mask. Plain and simple. And in this country, we don’t wear masks when we’re in public. You are welcome to wear your mask on Halloween. But on every other day? No. In this culture, a mask in unacceptable on a daily basis. It conceals our identity and arouses suspicion. As angelcel pointed out, “If I were to go and live in a different culture I would accept that I should abide by the rules and accept the creeds and standards of that culture.”

So when you are in a western culture, burkas are not acceptable. Because a burka is a mask.



Filed under Soapbox, That Reminds Me!

30 responses to “Isn’t A Burka Simply A Mask?

  1. Nicki

    You are brave to take this topic on. I go back and forth. I have never understood a full burka where even the eyes are not truly visible. I do understand the religious reasons behind a head covering but one that shows the face.

    I really don’t know if I stand firmly on the burka as a mask as you do.

    • I think before 9/11 I would have teetered a bit on this topic but ultimately would have sided with a woman’s right to wear a burka in our culture. But that incident at Faneuil Hall? I’m certain he was a terrorist – or at least a bedfellow checking things out. And I don’t want anyone to be able to hide behind a mask in order to plot wrongdoing.

  2. You make a good point. In our country, our society, a burka is no longer an acceptable form of religious expression. It is tainted, outdated. The world has changed so much, these things need to change to keep up. However, there are always those to whom the symbolism of the burka will be of the utmost significance. It’s hard to argue against that, too.

  3. suzicate

    I agree with you. And as well pre 9-11, I would have defended the right to wear a burka. Now, I feel safety is more important. When a US citizen enters anothe country, he/she must abide by the laws of that country…so tell me why must the US conform to bend our laws for the rights of noncitizens? If one wants to live in the US, one should conform to the laws of this country. I do believe in freedom of religion, but I do not think it should compromise the safety of others.

  4. angelcel

    Well, I toned down what I said so that I wouldn’t attract the crazies but when I see a woman in a burka, peering at the world through gauze it raises my female hackles. To me, the hijab and chador is something akin to Catholics covering their heads when entering church. You want to do it? You go for it. Hiding your womanly figure and hair behind yards of billlowing material is also up to you if that’s what floats your boat, but when we get down to the burka I start to have problems. I can’t *see* you properly so, yes, you’re right, you may as well be wearing a mask. Besides which, as someone who feels strongly that women are still treated as second class citizens across the globe, the full burka strikes me as dangerously close to keeping women in their place and, dare I say it, I actually find it demeaning. It’s simpy beyond my comprehension, as someone brought up in a western culture, as to why I must hid every single aspect of ‘me’ from all eyes. That, to me, is as though I don’t exist outside of my home.

    Good grief – the man in the burka? Chilling – but almost bound to happen. We should stop being so naive about the bad people out there.

    • I know. Your post got me thinking about the incident with my mother-in-law and how I was ambivalent about a women’s right to wear a burka in our culture before. But now? Now, I am much more aware of my feelings about the reasons behind wearing a burka and it shakes my soul. Covering up women, making them faceless, blending into the woodwork as if to pretend they don’t exisit? You brought up some issues I never considered. Thanks for your inspiration!

  5. This gave me chills Jane.
    I have had a lot of inner debate on the whole burka deal since 911. I think ultimately it is a symbol of repression and sexism as well as perhaps hatred. Sure, some have a choice to wear or not. But how many other choices do they have in the rest of their lives that they wind up with this being what they choose. Sort of like those fundamentalist mormom women who claim they have a choice. What have they been exposed to for it to be a fair choice??
    Brave girl to take this on…

  6. Hoo-boy, you’re just jumping into the fray this morning, aren’t you?

    I don’t like what the burka symbolizes, not one bit. I’ve heard some women argue that they feel the burka actually gives them freedom, because they aren’t judged on their looks, but that argument seems wacky to me. Who would want to wear that bulky thing, which you can barely see out of, if scorching hot temperatures. Or ever?

    The man in the burka? Scary.

  7. Good for you.

    I think there are two important aspects here. The first question is one about how can you effectively judge what goes on in other cultures when you are not part of that culture? When observing other cultures we all start from a position of ethnocentrism even if we actively attempt to be unbiased. “They drive on the wrong side of the road” or “I can’t believe they let bulls run in the streets” we say. But some things seem so askew we can’t help but be amazed, repulsed, disgusted, angry, etc. We feel those emotions when safely viewing from afar from the context of our own culture, values and mores, and without total understanding of the culture we are viewing. The second point especially pertains to women, unfortunately, and that is when something goes so far beyond the pale that something really should be done. An amazing number of these cultural practices have to do with the second-class treatment and subjugation of women. They can’t vote, own property, choose their own lovers, expose their face, go to school, etc. Many are subjected to honor killings, forced marriage at ages as young as eight, abandonment, etc. In some cultures they are even subject to genital mutilation. Some of these rise to the level of “something MUST be done” and I personally can see no cultural justification. Maybe that means I’m wrong. But some things make me sick. To me the berka is just another example of the cultural subjugation of women that has to do with the power of men.

  8. What a thoughtful post. And scary. Of course, we might also add that prohibiting burkas in public does not prohibit wearing them at all–it just means you have to stay in your house. This fact might further highlight the problems with requiring the burka (and hence imposing complete invisibility and value in the public arena) in the first place.

  9. This is interesting — and bold. It makes me a bit uncomfortable to say that ‘after 9-11, safety is more important’, because I think it’s a slippery slope saying that some freedoms should be allowed to be curtailed in order to maintain public safety (although I absolutely understand the impulse and feel it myself). Apart from that, I just don’t like the burka. I don’t like that it’s supposed to stop women from inciting men to shameful acts by displaying their sinful physical bodies. I think that the women who say they feel empowered by it and choose to wear it have simply (or not so simply) internalized their religion and cultures denigration of the female gender. I have always tried not to be ‘judgemental’ about other cultures and faiths, but at some point being tolerant becomes indistinguishable from appeasement.

    • I didn’t say that ‘after 9/11, safety is more important’ (and if you were quoting me, I can’t find it) – I was pointing out that after 9/11 I became acutely aware of how safety (and identifying suspicious activity) is paramount. I apologize for not being more clear.

  10. unabridgedgirl

    You -are- brave to take on this topic. Both pictures make my stomach turn for different reasons.

  11. You know what gets me too? When I see woman at the park on a 95 degree day in a full burka…and her little girls are too…but the boys are in tank tops, shorts and sandals. That just pisses me off. What kind of religion is that??? I agree…it is a mask. Take it off!!!

  12. I don’t even like tinted windshields. I remember a brouhaha when a woman refused to remove her burka to have her driver’s license picture taken. I don’t understand… it must not be a religious law, since so many Muslim women choose not to wear them. Sounds more like the bullying and oppression of men who want to be able to blame any of THEIR sexual thoughts on the woman. How sad to spend your life backstage–behind a curtain.

  13. Ah, the burka debate. Jane, you placed it into a perfect context to way it shouldn’t be allowed in outside society, a perfect argument for a law. Me, I’ll argue until blue in the face that it degrades women and puts them as second class citizens for a cultural need to put them there, not a religious right for it’s not in the book at all. Does this making me a judgemental over other cultures? Yup. Does it give me an excuse to make a law? Nope. So I’m glad you found a perfect answer to why it should be a law. You rock, Jane.

  14. A man in a burka? I didn’t realized cross-dressing was allowed in Islam. 🙂 Seriously, though, I’m with you.

  15. Wow, I can’t believe I haven’t put much thought into this topic. I always just assumed that a woman has every right to wear a burka if it helps her abide by her religious beliefs. As strange as I always have thought they are, I just thought I had to be ok with it. The KKK mask, since it’s a symbol of such hatred, I feel differently about and feel it should be illegal since the statement is for an entirely different and wrong reason.
    What you saw in Boston though, totally freaks me out and makes me think that maybe just outlawing masks in general could be the right thing to do…
    Wow, thanks for making me think about this! So interesting.

  16. Tough one. The feminist in me recoils at how oppressive is a culture that says women should never be seen, but I recoil at what most religions do to (and condone doing to) women, so my outrage is not specific to clothing requirements. The burka is not a mandate of their religion, but it is freedom of speech. And as terrible as the human and emotional toll of 9/11 was and is, it’s not an excuse to start curtailing freedoms, including religious freedoms. 9/11 is not a good excuse to wiretap American citizens, or to torture, or to tell people what they can and can’t wear.
    But I still don’t know. Requiring at least eyes to show? Faces? We let people carry concealed weapons, so why not concealed bodies?
    I honestly don’t think any clothing restrictions would be Constitutional, given how strong we were on individual rights, but I also didn’t think the Supreme Court would decide that corporations are citizens, so who knows?

    • I’m going to have to second Nap’s obvious point that we can hardly call ourselves “the land of the free” if we’re going to impose a dress code- even if that code is asking people to take off, not put on.

  17. Much like Becca, I hadn’t really thought about this as a safety issue. I find the practice sexist, and repugnant for that reason. But I’d never considered the mask perspective.

    Apart from the safety angle, burkas just make me sad. Sad for women who are condemned to life shrouded by men’s rules and restrictions. These women don’t know the feeling of a soft breeze against their necks or sunshine on their faces. It breaks my heart.

  18. I’ve been thinking all morning about this topic since I read your post. I, too, feel my heart wrench when I see a woman in a burka. But I’m also a bit horrified by the idea of telling her she can’t. Why? Because I don’t think it’s “respect” to tell a woman what to do. (A 1950’s husband could have surely said, “I respect you too much to let you go out in that crazy world and work.”) I also think it’s interesting to see the burka as a mask, but here’s the difference: we know a KKK member is racist. We don’t know a person wearing a burka is a terrorist. Just like I don’t agree with pulling anyone out of line in an airport or subway because they look like they’re of middle eastern descent. It establishes a dangerous precedent. Think of all the people who wear Christian crosses, and how different their personalities and beliefs are. If a Christian in a Muslim culture was told to take his or hers off, we’d probably get livid about human rights. I don’t know that this is much different. (But the story you told about the man in a burka is chilling.)

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  20. eric

    I doubt the guy was a terrorist. If you wanted to check out Faneuil hall in July 2001, why not just go in street clothes? No one would be watching… That said, burkas seem awful to me–part of a terrible oppression of women that is widespread but seems to have been particularly bad in a lot of Islamic cultures.

  21. zeenat

    dear Jane, just bcoz u saw a man wearing burqa doesnt mean that every body who wear burqa is currurpt. A woman can feel safe wearing a burqa.. she knows that no one can see or touch her without her permission.. yes i agree that its a mask but THE MASK OF PROTECTION..

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