Naureen Aqueel

Burqa, bombs and intolerance

Posted on: January 4, 2011

Published in The Express Tribune – blog, January 4, 2011.

A look through the timeline of bomb blasts and terrorist attacksindicate that a majority of attacks in Pakistan are carried out by young men – some wearing vests, others using cars laden with explosives. I believe this spells out a legitimate case to ban young men, vests and cars from public places. After all, in a country like ours which is always on high alert for terrorist attacks, we can’t allow such security risks to roam about freely, can we?

If you find my logic ludicrous, you might want to take a look at the recent debate on banning the burqa or niqab due to security concerns. In an article in The Express Tribune titled “A mark of separation,” Mr George Fulton makes an interesting case for banning the burqa or niqab in Pakistan based on one case of a female burqa-clad suicide bomber killing 47 people and injuring over 100 in an attack on the World Food Programme distribution point in Bajaur.

As unjust as focusing on one incident against the dozens of other attacks carried out by young men may be, what is more astonishing is the sweeping generalisations Mr Fulton makes to depict the veil as a symbol of suppression because in his view “there is little proof that women actively decide to adopt the veil” and he finds it difficult to find any woman of substance who wears the burqa or niqab.

I am amazed at these views. Why is it so difficult for our so-called progressive class which claims to espouse the values of freedom, liberty, tolerance and personal choice to understand that there are perfectly normal, educated and ‘enlightened’ people out there whochoose to follow their religion? That there are women who have the freedom to fling off their covers and be fashionably under-dressed, yet they choose not to? That there are men and women who have the liberty to disassociate themselves from religion, yet they choose not to?

It has become fashionable nowadays for our ‘intellectual elite’ to pen an article or two reminiscing about the more secular days when religion was a private affair – when there were no beards, no hijabs, no burqas and no preachers on television. Excuse me for my flawed memory, but is it really true that there was no religiosity a decade ago or is it just that having let our religion be hijacked by militants today, we are now more bothered by its physical manifestations in the public sphere?

And for that matter, why has our so-called open-minded progressive class forgotten the values of tolerance that they themselves preached? Do I smell intolerant fanaticism here?

If there is one attitude that marks this age it is extremism – and that extremism is present not only in the religious class, but in the so-called ‘liberals’ as well. Until we all step into each other’s shoes and understand the other person’s perspective, there is no hope for ending the violence we see plaguing our society.

Making a case to ban what many consider a religious practice (and even if we assume it is a cultural practice, there are still no grounds to ban it) only breeds intolerance. Restricting women from wearing the veil is as much a violation of their rights as forcing them to wear one. We must understand that in the case of the burqa bombing in Bajaur and many others, the issue was not the item of clothing, but the lax in security. Where there are legitimate needs for identification, appropriate measures can be taken to satisfy the requirement by asking the woman to take off the veil in private.

The burqa or niqab has as much potential of being misused as say cars, cellphones and the Internet. What is needed is a proper strategy to prevent this misuse rather than banning these things altogether.

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