The burqa is the head-to-toe garment that is worn by a small minority of Muslim women. It conceals even the face. In this photo of two women in Marseille, the woman on the right is wearing a burqa.
President Sarkozy declared that the burqa was not a religious symbol but a sign of women’s “debasement.” “In our country,” he said, “we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen… deprived of all identity.”
United States President Barack Obama criticized Sarkozy’s stance, suggesting that the burqa was part of a religious practice that government should not impede.
With these two world leaders taking opposing views, the burqa debate is now raging. It’s amazing how this garment can inspire such strong feelings.
For me, it’s a debate that calls to mind the summer when I was an anthropology graduate student working on an archeological dig in Israel. Physically, I did battle with scorpions, sand and sun, but mentally, I was enmeshed in the religious imagery that surrounded me.
At summer’s end, I joined friends in Belgium and then traveled south with a Moroccan friend to attend a wedding in Marrakech. I felt so honored to be invited.
We stayed in the home of a family member in the ancient, maze-like medina of the city. Never in my life have I encountered more hospitable people.
It was a Berber wedding with 5 days of feasting and dancing. We arrived just after the wedding itself, with the post-wedding celebration in full swing. It was a sensory overload of spice and sweat and music and drums. Men were singing and women were ululating. It was the first time I had ever heard that unique sound of ululation, and I was mesmerized. According to tradition, all this was going on while the bride and groom consummated the marriage in a room off the courtyard.
I was told that the bride was 15.
Late into the night, a roar went up from the crowd, and I glimpsed a wave of something white. I was told it was the bloody sheet.
The next afternoon, I went back over to the house of the wedding party and sat down on a cushion in the women’s room. The women danced for one another… old and young in turns… moving their hips and swaying and laughing. I couldn’t understand any of the chattering because the women didn’t speak French or English, and I didn’t speak Arabic or Berber. But I joined them in the universal language of giggles and grins. I was told that this was when women shared with the bride the secrets of marriage.
The bride herself sat huddled at the end of the room underneath her bloody sheet. I would occasionally glimpse her hennaed hand when other women would lift the sheet’s corner to pass her a morsel of food. Sometimes I would hear the sound of a low moan from that amorphous mass beneath the sheet.
The blood was spread and splattered. It was a lot -- more than just a spot. I tried not to look at it. I kept hoping that maybe it was the blood of a goat because I had heard that brides sometimes ensured the display of virginity by carrying a vial of goat’s blood into the bridal chamber.
But in one brief moment, when the sheet was lifted, I suddenly found myself looking straight into the girl’s kohl-lined eyes. What I saw in them was fear.
In that moment, I lost all sense of anthropological detachment. I was overcome with the sense that something was wrong. And I couldn’t intellectualize it.
Perhaps it was my own ethnocentricity, but for me, there was no escaping what I felt. I was bearing witness to something wrong.
I view this practice of proving up of a girl’s virginity as more of a cultural practice than a religious practice. I feel the same about the burqa . . . though culture and religion are obviously intertwined.
Of course, the mixing of culture and religion isn’t unique to Muslims. And Muslims don’t have any lock-box on religious authoritarianism and paternalism. If there is one thing I know for sure, it is that any religion can be misused for oppressing the weak and perpetuating the powerful. That’s a lesson I learned from my own westernized Christian religion.
Though Baptists don’t display bloody sheets, there is nevertheless much about Baptist culture and belief that is often misused to train girls into the bondage of a subservient self-image. And if you’re a Baptist clergy abuse survivor of either sex, you are virtually guaranteed to experience religiously-fueled oppression, particularly if you dare to try to report it.
I don’t purport to know what the “right answer” to the burqa debate is. But I do believe that, if the debate is to be honestly engaged, we should not pretend that a burqa is nothing more than the equivalent of a Texas Baptist’s bolo tie, or a Jewish man’s yarmulke, or a Catholic’s cross necklace.
A bolo tie doesn’t deny human dignity. A burqa does. A yarmulke is worn by choice of the wearer. A burqa is typically worn by choice of the wearer’s male relatives.
Those hidden women are at least deserving of a reality-based debate.
When all the celebrating was done, I got on a train to try to make it to Luxembourg in time for my discount flight back to the United States. The last of my money had been stolen, and I didn’t even own a credit card back then. I had only my train ticket, my plane ticket and my passport. But I wasn’t worried. My train ticket was good, and with lots of connections, it would eventually get me all the way there. Or so I thought.
Between Marrakech and Tangiers, the conductor came by. He became irate, but I couldn’t understand because his tirade was in Arabic. Still, there was no mistaking his tone, and the two young girls across from me grew eyes as big as saucers. Before, they had been engaging and curious, eagerly practicing their limited French by barraging me with questions about myself and America. But after the conductor left, the girls fell totally silent.
Their djellaba-dressed dad told me that the conductor was upset because of the Israeli visa in my passport and because I was on the wrong train. It was a train that went to the same destination, Tangier, but it was a faster, more expensive train than the one allowed by my ticket. The conductor was going to put me off at the next station.
Sure enough, when the train started slowing down, the conductor was waiting in the corridor. I looked out the window and knew I was in trouble. The station was little more than a stop in the middle of the desert. Without any money, how would I get out of there?
I think the girls’ dad must have seen the fear in my face. He pulled out his wallet and pressed some bills into the conductor’s palm.
I wept with relief and thanked him, but he simply shrugged. “I have two daughters,” he said. “I hope someone would do the same for them someday.”
In the desert between Marrakech and Tangier, a Moroccan father gave me sanctuary.