A license to Abuse

By • on August 16, 2009


By Kinana

Travelling on a London bus during one of the rare hot Spring days I noticed a Muslim woman next to me.  She was caring for her small child who sat next to her in a push chair/pram.

The woman was completely covered in black and had only her eyes showing.  I was hot, in sandals and a short-sleeve shirt.  I can’t imagine how she must have been feeling.

I wondered: Is she okay? 

How much of her freedom is compromised by this garb – this burqa?  If she has freely consented to wear such a garb then the answer is none, all is okay; I should just relax and hope for a cool breeze to come through the crowded bus.  But how could I know if her choice is autonomous? 

What if she is forced by her culture, religion and/or husband to dress in a manner that is against her will and very uncomfortable, if not dangerous to her health?

Let me change the scenario somewhat.  If a woman was periodically beaten by her husband in public and even if she made no effort to avoid being hit or complain, most people would feel uncomfortable about such a situation and would probably try to do something about it. 

In terms of apparel, would it be okay if she wore a yoke secured to her neck or if she dragged around a ball and chain?   And if she did wear these instruments of torture without complaint and in a calm and deliberate manner went about her daily routine, purchasing supplies for her family, would we not at least raise an eye-brow?  Would not most people recognise such ‘apparel’ as abuse and move to stop it? 

Something close to this scenario actually happened to me once.  Several years ago, while waiting on the platform for a train to arrive at Edgware Road tube station, I noticed what seemed to be (e.g. by dress and complexion) a Muslim couple nearby.  The man began to push and pull the woman in a forceful manner.  The train came in and he forcefully began pulling her onto the same train that I was catching.  She began to complain, raising her voice ever so slightly, saying ‘no, no’; she clearly did not want to go with this man.  I thought, oh my god, what do I do now – and why me?  Fortunately, a male member of staff got to the couple before I did, and asked, ‘Is there a problem?’  The man replied, ‘There is no problem; she is my wife.’  The worker moved between the two of them and invited the woman to his office on the platform, which she gladly accepted, leaving the man behind to take the train without her.

For me and probably for most people in our society there is a presumption of innocence; we want to believe that other people, in general, are free.  But in situations which are contrary to common sense, like wearing multiple layers of clothing on hot days, we take notice and wonder, or should anyway.  The person is either mentally ill, hiding something dangerous, or is forced into the situation.  If we suspect mental illness or danger we call the proper authorities or confront the situation ourselves. 

Burqa-wearing is not only a barrier to seeing the person underneath but also induces indifference and/or rationalisations.  We either quickly put it out of our mind, hiding behind presumptions of cultural freedom or cultural equivalency; or if we really consider the actual woman suffering underneath that clothing, we still ignore it because of the religious aspect; that is, because wearing such apparel is an aspect of religion we are justified in ‘passing by on the other side’ and ignoring the suffering.

We do this because to our mind, people choose their belief system freely and can freely leave it.

However, we should remember Islam is not like that.  Individual freedom is not top of the Islamic list of endearing qualities or characteristics.  To just mention two texts in this regard: Qur’an 4:34 allow husbands to beat their wives/wife, and Mohammed is clear that apostasy is punishable by death (Bukhari (009.084.057).

But all the same, the woman on the bus could have freely consented to wearing this burqa on this very hot Spring day, but how was I to know?  Like the man pulling his ‘wife’ about on the tube platform, intervention may be required.  But unlike physical intimidation/violence we are less certain about what to do.

So prior to intervention, one must know!

People of western societies would not accept in their midst the enslavement of any human being by another human being.  We have matured in that respect.  We would not accept it even if the person accepts her slavery!  But if the woman in the burqa freely chooses to be a ‘slave of Allah’, that is another matter; that would be acceptable.  The difficulty is knowing whether the woman is a ‘slave of Allah’ or enslaved by her community, her family, her husband.  Even the ‘respect for other cultures’ argument is fatuous when compared to slavery.

So information is crucial.  Knowledge is the only way to resolve this moral dilemma. 

I therefore propose a licensing system whereby a woman is able to show that she is really free.  The practical details of such a scheme are beyond the purpose of this article but surely it is not beyond the capacity of the State, in principle, to incorporate this service for the community. 

Such a system of certification and licensing is already in place throughout society for all sorts of purposes.  Owners of dogs must have a license to show ownership and that the animal was given proper vaccinations etc. with the result that the dog wears a tag of some sort.  Car owners must have an annual check up on their car and show a certificate on their car window at all times for minimal safety functionality.  Shops must have and show a license to sell alcohol, farm animals are regularly vaccinated and tagged, etc… 

A visible certificate attached to a burqa would suffice.  This certificate would need to be dated and renewed once a year at a special office of the state.  The certificate would be issued once the interviewer is satisfied that the woman is a free agent and willingly wears a burqa in weather that is normally too hot to wear such apparel. 

So next time when I am on a hot bus and a woman wearing apparel suitable for the artic comes on I will be able to see her certificate and relax, or at least only feel sorry for her choice of belief system, rather than her physical suffering.  If the certificate is not visible, well then, that would be a different situation…

It is not enough to feel sorry for, or simply wonder about, women who boil in burqas.  We must be assured of their freedom or cool them down!

Kinana: iiarop(at)googlemail.com