Secrets Behind the Burqa is a short (145-page) paperback by Rosemary Sookhdeo which investigates what life is like for women in Islam.
The book is a reworking of a thesis which Sookhdeo wrote for a Masters degree, and still retains a distinct flavour of academic writing. The thesis topic was whether contextual change makes a difference to the position of women in Muslim societies in Britain. A wide range of Muslim women of different ages, social classes, and groups (Sunni and Ahmadiyya) were interviewed for the study between over a 9-month period shortly prior to 9/11.
The book covers a lot of ground – lightly touching on the position of women in pre-Islamic Arabia, presenting texts from the Qur’an, and explaining the honour-based framework of Muslim social and family life. Then the remaining four of the seven chapters deal with the situation of Muslim women in the West, and Britain especially.
But it makes for grim reading. Considering just the one topic of marriage, for example, take the following.
- arranged marriages are the norm within the Muslim community even in Western countries
- young women who run away to avoid arranged marriages are ruthlessly tracked down, either by family members or even by ‘bounty hunters’ who can be paid “as much as three thousand pounds plus expenses,” p75
- each year hundreds of Muslim girls in Britain are forced into marriage; “research commissioned by Scotland’s Pakistani community found that almost half of marriages involving Scottish Muslims and a partner from abroad involve coercion,” p70
- although polygamy is prohibited in the UK, second marriages are performed under shari’a law with only a religious ceremony, and no accompanying civil ceremony; if the marriage fails, the woman has very few rights as the second wife and may be left with absolutely nothing
- although it is considered very shameful for the woman to initiate a divorce, “it is not considered shameful for a man to divorce, whatever the reason he gives. One legitimate reason considered for divorce is because the wife cannot produce boys,” p82
- at least 10% of British Muslim women are abused emotionally, physically, and sexually by their Muslim husbands; “some Muslim men accept the idea that it is normal for a man to hit his wife,” p85; “none of the older women [interviewed] would be drawn to comment on violence in the home. The younger women who were not married said that they were very concerned about it,” p93
- up to 17,000 women in the UK are subjected to “honour”-related violence every year, although police chiefs suggest that the number could be “up to 35 times higher than official figures suggest,” p87; this includes girls being forced into marriage, subjected to kidnapping, sexual assault, beatings, and even murder, by relatives seeking to uphold the honour of the family.
There is also a whole chapter devoted to the veil. Sookhdeo points out that there is diversity of opinion on veiling, with some interpretations suggesting that the hijab “refers to the covering of the hair and neck only, with what is called the (Islamic) headscarf,” p95, and others believing that “the woman should be completely covered, including her head, face, hands and feet,” p96. In discussing the reasons why Muslim women wear the hijab in Britain, Sookhdeo points out that in the 1990s it was seen as a “statement of solidarity with the Muslim community” at the time of the controversy over Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, and comments that since the Iraq war, more women adopting this symbol of allegiance is perhaps not a surprising choice. She further mentions that many Muslim men believe that veiling protects women from harrassment and removes a cause of temptation to men; Muslim women also express the view that the invisibility afforded by veiling even in some form frees them from harrassment and for that matter also from the demands of the beauty industry.
However, the case of women who are punished in places like Saudi Arabia for not being completely covered is cited as evidence that in the wider context wearing the burqa is far from being always a free choice, and similarly even in Britain, when girls (some as young as 3) are dressed in burqas this cannot be regarded as a free choice either. Indeed, as was brought out in the case of Shabina Begum (the schoolgirl who took her school to court for not allowing her to wear the jilbab, ie complete covering), when some women and girls wear the more extreme form of covering, this puts pressure on others to cover more completely “by implying that they are insufficiently observant” if they don’t (p114). Even worse, it has been alleged that some women have to wear a burqa in order to “hide the violence that fathers and brothers have done to them,” p102. As Sookhdeo says,
“Women who have fled brutal patriarchal regimes and come to the West have become the most vociferous supporters of [for example] the French law to ban headscarves in schools … The burqa is the next frontier for puritanical Muslims who believe females are dangerous seductresses who must be hidden from sight. … the burqa goes against the principles of individual autonomy and equality between the sexes. In Afghanistan and Iran women fight against wearing it as it is recognised as a symbol of oppression. This symbol of oppression in Islamic countries has become a symbol of oppression in the UK” (p100, 102).
The book as a whole takes (I think it’s fair to say) a more or less entirely negative view of the position of women in Islam. Yet this bleakness is very effectively counterbalanced by the unfailingly human way of dealing with individual Muslim women and girls, if that’s the word I want. Women in the most impossible and restrictive of situations are still treated by the author as equals to be treated with respect and sympathy, and to the extent possible in a formal academic piece of writing an attitude almost of friendliness or neighbourliness shines through.
My abiding reaction to this book – like I say, it’s short – it’ll take you a couple of hours at most, although they will be painful hours – is a feeling of intense gratitude that the principles of the Qur’an and Hadith are not, in fact, the revelation that God has given for how women are to live and how men and women should relate. Whatever can be said for individual Muslim men and women who live better than their principles (or for that matter, Christian men and women who fail to live up to their principles), the Bible’s message for women and men from the one living and true God is vastly and intrinsically different from the demeaning and dehumanising presentation found in the Qur’an. The ‘biblical womanhood’ view which so emphasises “submission”, for example, is worlds removed from a context where beatings are the norm, polygamy sanctioned, “honour” idolised, and men’s every desire to be satisfied implicitly.
This book also, though, reinforced the huge need to be alert and active in our society – whether that includes praying about the situation at large, getting better informed about the encroachment of shari’a law (and resisting it), or helping out in more practical ways. Our freedoms in the UK – civil but especially, I can’t help saying, religious and spiritual – need to be preserved; they need to be put to good use while we still have them; and they need to be proclaimed as worth embracing by anyone from any background as a good alternative (in the civil realm) and the only alternative (spiritually speaking) to the cultural and religious bondage that too many of our fellow human beings suffer under.