So France is debating whether to ban the burqa in public places.

Rather it is supposed to be a a ban on clothing that covers the face. But much of the rhetoric surrounding the proposed law has centered around Muslim women and what they wear. French President Nicolas Sarkozy set the stage with his comments that the burqa was a “sign of subservience and debasement”.

Let me state at the outset that I am a little confused. If face-covering is banned, are ski-masks illegal? Are big Chanel sunglasses and a face mask (such as the kind people in HK wear if they have a cold so as not to infect others) against the law if worn together? Would these go down better if paired with a bikini? What if one has a cold and it’s sunny? Would one require a medical certificate to wear a face mask? What about female tourists in burqa – will they be confined to hotel rooms? (well too bad for luxury stores who will lose their wealthy Saudi clientele then).

There might be some argument made in the interest of security concerns that requires people to reveal their faces in public. (Though it has been argued that in cases where there are security concerns, such as airports, veiled women are required to reveal their faces). If this is the case, then why surround the ban with rhetoric about the suppression of Muslim women?

The argument in France seems only marginally to be about public safety and more about liberating women and the French way of life.(Note that only around 2,000 women in France wear the burqa with the face veil covering amongst a population of 5 million Muslims. This is according to the French Ministry of the Interior, which concerns itself with public safety). Moreover, while the ban extends only to the full face covering, much discussion in Europe and elsewhere seems to surround Muslim garb in general (whether burqa, hijab, or headscarves) as symbolic of the suppression of women and therefore not desirable. French law has already banned headscarves in schools and government offices (to be fair, they have also banned priests from wearing collars while teaching in public schools. This is not the case apparently in Germany where nuns are still allowed to wear their body-hiding outfits)

Thus I ask – Saudi Arabia insists that women in the country cover up; France/Belgium want to insist women do not… how are they different?

It might interest you to know that the feminist position does not necessarily condemn the burqa or hijab. The discussion centres around the idea of choice (or in more academic jargon “agency”).

Much of the debate around the burqa deals with the idea that women are not being allowed to choose what to wear. The proposed French law recommends a more severe punishment for those who force women to wear the burqa, which is good, but proving coercion is more tricky.

Many of the women who wear the burqa might say that they do not want to do away with it and wear it willingly. Of course, the “liberal” mind wonders – are they really free to choose or have they been brainwashed into thinking this is what they want? Are they really choosing or is their community pressuring them to make this choice?

In university, I encountered a new idea – the fallacy of the idea of truly free/unconstrained choice or what is technically known as “agency”. We are all subject to outside influences that determine the choices we make and who we are – whether it is the law, the community we grow up in, our religion, the media, the conventions of the workplace etc.

For the most part, Muslim women who wear the burqa grow up in communities where this is the norm. They are raised in a value system that decrees this is an appropriate way to dress. Strange as it may seem to some of us, for these women, the idea of not wearing a burqa might not be that appealing.

Now take me. I was raised in a community in which women wear dresses (even short dresses), trousers and shorts. In my community, not being covered from head to toe is considered appropriate. The option of covering myself up in a burqa was never presented (except in a negative way) and so I thought it was weird.

Just as the Muslim woman’s community would be hugely upset if she suddenly stopped wearing a burqa, my community would be very upset if I started wearing one. My parents would be horrified, my family embarrassed and I would have a lot of difficulties socially and probably even professionally. So there is actually a lot of pressure on my NOT to wear a burqa.

But, you might say, the burqa is the symbol of patriarchy and your family is right to stop you from wearing it. (It is true that whatever the origins of this tradition of dress,it has now become entrenched in discourse such as ‘a woman should only be seen by her husband’).

Then again, push-up bras, the content of most fashion magazines, high heels, Mills and Boons and waxing our legs are also symbols of patriarchy but somehow not only do many of us choose them but our families are fine with these choices too. I find women changing their names after marriage a horrible and offensive symbol of patriarchy but many in my family actively encouraged me to do so. (I didn’t.) Neither has any move been made to ban the practice of women changing their names after marriage anywhere in the world!

While high heel shoes have been proved to be bad for health, I have seen no studies that say wearing a burqa is.

In fact, while using public transport in Mumbai and Hyderabad in the summer, I found myself wearing a salwar kameez (coolest in the hot weather) with the dupatta covering my hair (to prevent it from flying) and part of it covering my mouth (pollution control). I might as well have worn a burqa and removed it when indoors.

When I was in Italy in winter, it was so cold, I ended up leaving no inch of skin exposed. I had sunglasses on for the most part, the only part of my face that was exposed was around my mouth and I ended up getting a severe case of chapped skin due to the wind. Had I worn a burqa (maybe a cashmere or flannel one), I wouldn’t have to traipse around Florence with a peeling mouth being stared at!

In Australia, I was advised to cover up my arms and legs, so big is the hole in the ozone layer above their country. I chose to wear shorts and a tank top and not only was I denied entry into the Sydney Cricket Club (which insists on knee length skirts for women) but I sat in the non-members section wrapped in newspaper for an entire cricket match to prevent myself burning up. A burqa would’ve been more convenient.
When I first got pregnant and was pukey and nauseous, I rather wished for something like a burqa. The idea of choosing what to wear, combing my hair and putting on makeup for work everyday was unbearable. Of course, turning up at work in a burqa was not an option. There was no older male relative telling me what to wear, but there was Society.

Men in Hong Kong wear suits and ties to work. It is hot and humid but it is seen as unprofessional to not do so. Due to this, the men crank up the aircon, leaving the women shivering and donning shawls indoors in the summer (the convention of dress for women in the business district is rather sexy office wear). The result is that the contrast between indoor and outdoor temperature is huge and leads to colds and flu outbreaks. Moreover, there is a cost to the environment from turning up the aircon. Although there has been a move towards encouraging office-goers in Hong Kong to not wear jackets, customer-facing staff and senior management people still do so. In Mumbai, senior bankers still have to wear suits. How come no brouhaha about this form of imposed dressing that is really nothing but a colonial hangover and detrimental to health and the environment?

My point is that we are ALL forced in some ways or other to dress a certain way. Some of us have more choices than others but we are never absolutely free and we are much more restricted than we think. Why single out Muslim women?

Why assume that a woman who covers herself up is less free than someone who puts on makeup everyday and wears little high fashion numbers?

Even if you insist on believing that free and unmitigated choice is possible, how do you separate the women who have by this definition of free choice “chosen” to wear burqa from those who have not (and there would be varying degrees of not being given a choice, and maybe then a line has to be drawn there too and how is it to be determined)

The issue has become even more complicated in recent times because there are liberal educated women who have “chosen” to wear the burqa (in the same way that I chose to wear only a white shirt and jeans to work for months on end). Some for religious reasons, some for the convenience of not having to keep up with fashion trends, some for cultural reasons – because they see it as the costume of their community and aesthetically pleasing just as we see the sari as beautiful. To foreigners to our culture, the idea of winding nine yards around oneself might be more absurd and restrictive than wearing a shapeless tent over ones clothing.

And then there’s Islamophobia. So much of the attention to how Muslim women dress is tied up to the perception of the community itself as patriarchal and fundamentalist. Even if it is possible to make such a generalization, is it fair to target the dress of the community in such a concerted way, while ignoring the enforced and inconvenient dress forced on members of other communities (such as bankers in suits and peons in office uniforms)?

My feeling is that given the context – Islamophobia and the trend (probably minor in India but less minor in Western countries that are seeking to ban the burqa) of well-educated professional women choosing the burqa for a variety of reasons – it might be best to approach empowering women in that community in ways other than dress. As women gain more freedom in those sections of the Muslim community where they do not have it, they may decide they want to wear other kinds of clothes. Then again, they may not. So what?