Tapu Misa on current affairs

Tapu Misa is a Herald columnist focussing on Pacific affairs

Tapu Misa: Banning the burqa would not help women

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Gradually, the rules meant to safeguard the prestige of Muhammad's wives came to be applied to other Muslim women. Photo / Thinkstock
Gradually, the rules meant to safeguard the prestige of Muhammad's wives came to be applied to other Muslim women. Photo / Thinkstock

A liberal society should let people make choices that may not be in their interests, writes Tapu Misa.

What a lot of trouble Muhammad's wives seem to have caused. Though not Khadija, of course, the prophet's first wife and Islam's first convert.

The rich Meccan businesswoman, who would not have been out of place in the 21st century, was Muhammad's boss. It was she who proposed to the poor, illiterate Muhammad; she who gave him money and status and the four daughters who were his only children to survive infancy; and she with whom he first shared the miraculous vision which gave birth to Islam, after the angel Gabriel passed on the word of God.

As Geraldine Brooks, a former Middle East correspondent for the Wall Street Journal writes in her fascinating 1995 book Nine Parts of Desire, Khadija was Muhammad's only wife for 24 years, and it wasn't until she died that the prophet began receiving revelations from God on the status of women. How different the lives of Muslim women might have been if she'd lived as long as her husband.

Khadija, the first Muslim woman, "was never required to veil or seclude herself, and never lived to hear the word of God proclaim that 'Men are in charge of women, because God has made the one of them to excel the other, and because they spend of their property [to support them].' Such a revelation would have come strangely from Muhammad's lips had Khadija been alive and paying his bills".

Six years after Khadija's death, and after a battle which left many Muslim women widowed, Muhammad had the revelation that endorsed the taking of up to four wives. (This saved the widows from destitution.) Then, needing to forge alliances through marriage with defeated enemies, he had a further revelation exempting himself from the four-wife limit.

The prophet loved women, wrote Brooks. But as his wives increased in number, so did the "jealousy, intrigue and scandal. Enemies of the new religion harassed the prophet's wives". Soon after, "God sent his prophet a message telling him to seclude his wives ... Now they were expected to stay hidden behind a curtain in their rooms, going out only when shrouded from head to foot". Gradually, the rules meant to safeguard the prestige of the prophet's wives came to be applied to other Muslim women.

And lo, thirteen hundred years later, Brooks couldn't check herself into a Saudi hotel in the 1990s because "a Meccan named Muhammad had trouble with his wives".

Everyone I know hates the burqa. The way it looks, what it stands for as a symbol of female oppression, the way it shuts off normal social interaction (as it was designed to).

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, a columnist with the UK Independent, is no exception. A Shia Muslim who abhors the "prisons of black polyester", she's alarmed at what she sees as the epidemic spread of the burqa. She writes that even in the UK, Muslim women like her who refuse to cover up are labelled "Western whores".

The burqa "makes women invisible, invalidates their participatory rights and confirms them as evil temptresses. Does it stop men from raping them? Does it mean they have more respect in the home and enclaves? Like hell it does".

Muslims are divided over whether veiling is a cultural or religious requirement, but it hardly matters. As a Malaysian businessman in Auckland last week to set up a branch of a Muslim "Obedient Wives Club" made clear: "The issue is not whether it is a cultural law or religious law, it is the husband's law."

That view belongs in the seventh century with the burqa.

What should be done? The Muslim intelligentsia is deeply divided on the issue.

The British Muslims for Secular Democracy, of which Alibhai-Brown is chairwoman, is against bans of the kind legislated in Belgium and France, but supports restrictions in key public places.

A ban is "a hard weapon [that] will make martyrs and is ... un-British", writes Alibhai-Brown. "But those who oppose the burqa must constantly speak out. Modesty is fine, but state schools should not allow pre-pubescent girls to cover themselves. And in schools, hospitals, courts, universities, airports and trains we should insist that faces must be revealed."

There's no doubt the burqa is demeaning to women. But so is Boobs on Bikes and prostitution, both of which are legal here.

As UK journalist and broadcaster Kenan Malik has argued, "a liberal society accepts individuals should be free to make choices that may not be in their interests, or even degrade them". And the burqa is a symbol of oppression, not its cause.

We should never compromise hard-won freedoms to accommodate cultural or religious practices that undermine the principles of justice and human rights.

But I agree with Malik that "the very values that ... are undermined by the burqa, demand that we oppose any attempt by the state to ban it".

Tapu.Misa@gmail.com

- NZ Herald

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