Debating The Burqa: Sarkozy Proposes Ban French President Nicolas Sarkozy wants to ban Muslim women from wearing the burqa, a religious traditional covering, in public. American Muslim Mehded Maryam Sinclair explains why she appreciates the right to cover her face and head in public, while Muslim feminist and columnist Mona Eltahawy tells why she sees the garment as a source of oppression.
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Debating The Burqa: Sarkozy Proposes Ban

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Debating The Burqa: Sarkozy Proposes Ban

Debating The Burqa: Sarkozy Proposes Ban

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I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, a special Thursday Barbershop, the guys weigh in on this week's political news. But first we continue with our Thursday International Briefing. And we want to talk about French President Nicolas Sarkozy's controversial bid to ban the burqa.

NICOLAS SARKOZY: (Though Translator) We cannot accept women in prison behind the screen (unintelligible) and cut off from all social contact, deprived of their identities. This is not the French Republic's idea of human dignity.

MARTIN: Sarkozy is referring to the loose fitting garment worn by some Muslim women. If it's over the head, covers the entire body and there is a meshed screen that allows wearers to see. The proposed ban has prompted heated and varied responses among Muslims. Some feel that the ban would be an upfront to personal religious beliefs. But others do believe that the burqa oppresses women.

Today, we want to talk to two Muslim women with very different opinions about the ban. First, Mehded Maryam Sinclair. She is a Muslim. She is an American. She is currently living in Amman, Jordan. She chooses to cover her face and head in public, only her eyes are exposed to public view. In a few minutes, we'll also speak with Mona Eltahawy. She is a Muslim, she is a feminist and a syndicated columnist and she strongly opposes women wearing the burqas. Mehded, thank you both for joining us. But Mehded to you first, welcome.


MARTIN: Before we get started. We were...


MARTIN: ...talking about the burqa. So the burqa, as we said, is it covers the whole body, goes over the head and there's that sort of little screen - I - that sort of mesh screen. And then there is niqab, which you cover your face and the eyes are exposed and there are different styles of niqab...

MARYAM SINCLAIR: Right, that's what I assumed but I did some more reading last night and it seems to me that people are mixing it up. So, I'm wondering what the French president is talking about.

MARTIN: Okay. But let's just...

MARYAM SINCLAIR: Is he talking, is he really saying that it's only the burqa and so women can use the niqabs?

MARTIN: I would say for purposes of our discussion that what I think people are concerned about, and we've also heard concerns about this in other parts of Europe and in the United States about covering the face except for the eyes. So let's talk about that, and so you wear a niqab. When did you start wearing niqab to cover your face? And when did you start wearing it and why?

MARYAM SINCLAIR: I started wearing it about seven or eight years ago. And for me it's a matter of personal preference. The niqab is not required in my religion but I chose it. I choose it. And I just feel this immense certainty that us been given what I asked for. I've given this connection and the sweetness of that connection is worth more to me than anything, anything the world would ever give me.

MARTIN: Do you feel that wearing that niqab enhances your piety, your connection to faith?

MARYAM SINCLAIR: Yes. I definitely feel that it enhances my connection.

MARTIN: Now you've made it clear that this is your personal choice. And in fact you - also said that this - you don't believe it is a requirement of the faith?

MARYAM SINCLAIR: No it's not a requirement of the faith.

MARTIN: So I wanted to ask you, there are those who believe that there are those who are not allowed to choose. And that part of the reason that an intervention of some sort is appropriate. Is that that some women are forced by their husbands or by government or by cultural practices where women are harassed if they don't make the same choice that you do? What do you say about that? What do you think of that?

MARYAM SINCLAIR: I guess I'd like to hear about, you know, where all this harassment is going on.

MARTIN: Well, I don't know. I think that many people have had the experience if they've traveled in some areas that if they're not dressed a certain way that they are subject to ridicule. I think that other people have had that experience?

MARYAM SINCLAIR: Okay, but you're saying dressed in a certain way, you are not talking about having face covered. Okay, you see what I mean? There is a difference. They're just talking about two different things.

MARTIN: You don't believe that social pressure attaches to women who don't want to dress that way, in certain communities? You don't think that's so, that's possible?

MARYAM SINCLAIR: I haven't ever encountered it in my own life and in the places that I have been. The niqab is a choice that a woman makes and people - there are lots of people that don't wear niqab, but I haven't ever seen people be harassed for it.

MARTIN: For not wearing it?

MARYAM SINCLAIR: I've heard that - in Afghanistan a woman will be whipped if she doesn't wear the chadar, you know, but I don't know whether that's actually true or not. And one thing I do know is that I - have been - okay, I've been living out of the States for about 17 years now or more, little bit more. And I remember how I felt about some of these things, some of these issues when I first lived in a different place other than America. I felt really threatened by women covering their heads. I remember being near school when the bell rang and some, you know, like a couple of hundred girls suddenly came out of the school and they all had their headscarves on and I felt threatened. I felt like this, ah, this can't be right. This isn't, you know, that those poor girls they must be just so oppressed, you know?

MARTIN: So you're familiar with the discomfort some people feel when they see women attired this way. What do you say about that now? What do you say to those people?

MARYAM SINCLAIR: I mean, I think in any - society there's a sort of collective brainwashing that goes on. And we're not necessarily aware of that. But what's to be worried about - when you see a woman with a headscarf on, what's to be worried about?

MARTIN: Well there's one more thing...

MARYAM SINCLAIR: Why is it such a big issue?

MARTIN: I am going to bring Mona in in just a minute. But I have one more question I wanted to ask and I'd love it if you'd stand by, if you like to. But there are those who say that it's - really that there, you know, in a society you have to balance various needs and there is a need for security and that a face covering makes it difficult to identify someone. So say if you have to present identification to get on an airplane, if you have to go to a bank or a financial institution that the people there have a right to understand that the person with who they are dealing is the person that she says she is. How do you address those matters of security and balancing security needs with personal religious beliefs?

MARYAM SINCLAIR: When I go to the bank - and someone needs to identify me I take my headscarf - I mean, I take my niqab down. It's not required to cover the face. That is not a requirement. There's no problem, you know, I can be taken into a room with another woman and I can show her my face. When I go through the security of the airport I go into the little frisking cabin and I show her my face. It's what's the big deal? There is no big deal about it.

MARTIN: If you are just joining us I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I've been speaking with Mehded Maryam Sinclair. She is a Muslim woman. She is living in Amman, Jordan. And she chooses to wear a niqab, she keeps face and head covered in public. And we're talking about the proposed ban on the burqa that's been proposed by French President Nicolas Sarkozy. For another perspective, we're going to turn now to Mona Eltahawy. She is a Muslim also. She is a feminist, a syndicated columnist and she strongly opposes Muslim women covering their faces with burqa, in particular. Mona, welcome to the program.


MARTIN: First of all, you've been hearing our conversation with Mehded. And I understand that you used to wear a headscarf and you no longer do. Do I have that right?

ELTAHAWY: That's right Michel. I wore a headscarf for nine years from the age of 16 to 25.

MARTIN: And you chose to stop wearing it. Why did you make that choice?

ELTAHAWY: I chose to wear the scarf because I thought it was an obligation for Muslim women. And the older I got and the more I read Muslim women scholars like Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi and Egyptian American Harvard School of Divinity Studies scholar Leila Ahmed, I learned from them that it wasn't a requirement for Muslim women and that, too, was a choice and so I chose to take my headscarf off.

MARTIN: What about - what is your view of French President Sarkozy's proposal to ban the burqa? And I thought Mehded did make an important point. Is he talking just about the burqa or is he talking about covering the face entirely, the niqab? And what's your view of this proposal?

ELTAHAWY: Right, I think it's important to point out that the niqab and the burqa are usually used interchangeably to mean the covering of the face, as opposed to the headscarf which allows the face to be seen. Now I'm not usually a fan of President Nicolas Sarkozy but on this occasion I do agree with him. Because to be quite honest with you, I detest the covering of a woman's face because for me it represents her erasure from society. And in a very disturbing way it associates increased piety with this disappearance of women from society. And so, for those reasons I support a ban on face coverings of any kind.

MARTIN: What do we say of those who argue that this is a matter of personal preference? That it is as important, that your ability to choose piety even in a manner that may seem extreme to others is a matter of personal and human dignity?

ELTAHAWY: Well, I would say as a feminist, my support and my loyalty goes to women. And just because another woman choses to do something it doesn't mean that I have to support her. This is what I call the Sarah Palin doctrine where in the Republican party introduced Sarah Palin as the vice presidential candidate thinking that woman across the United States would support her merely because she is a woman. And so as, I said this erasure of women from society I find incredibly disturbing.

And I don't like the way it's so associated with piety. It's very different that, you know, for Mehded to wear the niqab in a society like Jordan, which is very conservative and traditional and where it's much more accepted. It's very different to wear it there than to wear it in a country like France or Scandinavia, and I travel regularly to Europe to give lectures.

The societies are completely different. And at the end of the day, we have to ask, whose rights are we supporting? And I will support women's right to exist. The face is a very important part of our bodies, and you know, as a Muslim, I'm a very proud Muslim, and you know, I believe God addresses humanity in the Koran by saying that God created people of, you know, different races and difference ethnic backgrounds so that we can know each other. And how do we know each other? We know each other through the face. So this erasure of woman I totally oppose.

MARTIN: But there are other religions in which there is an erasure of self as a commitment to faith. And for example, the robes that monks wear, the robes that some clergy wear in a number of religions, is all about the erasure of self in the service of the faith. Why do you feel this is so different?

We do, in the West, permit these forms of personal, individual, religious expression. Why do you feel that this is so different, to the point where the government must, in your view, intervene or can intervene?

ELTAHAWY: Because for me it comes down, you know, bottom line to the face because the face represents so much. I mean, when I speak to you, you know, if I were in the studio with you now - I'm in a studio in New York - if I were in the studio with you now, you know, in D.C. recording this show, I would be able to see your face. I would feel so much more comfortable.

Now erasing the self is something else. The self is not the face. They're not interchangeable. Now, you know, in the Sufi mystical tradition in Islam, you know, this idea also of erasing the self as a way of getting closer to God is there. It exists across religions and faiths across the world, but I go back to that point about the face because when you put a woman behind a burqa or a niqab or any kind of face covering, she is removed from society.

I don't know who that person is anymore. And so I find - and I lived in Saudi Arabia for six years, and this is where the niqab is also very prevalent, I find again, disturbing this idea of women are these precious things that must be hidden away. And the more hidden away and the more unseen they are, the more pious they are. This is a kind of linkage that I want to break, and that's why I support the ban.

MARTIN: Is part of it also the fact that although modesty is expected of both genders that this degree of modesty is only expected of women? Is it specifically gender-oriented, that even though men are expected to dress, you know, modestly for purposes of worship and piety that to cover the face specifically is something that is only asked of women?

ELTAHAWY: Well see, it's not even asked of women. I mean, as Mehded herself said, it's not a requirement in the Koran. Now in the Koran, men and women are asked to be modest. I thank you for bringing that up, and there are various ways to be modest, always in this huge deed of interpretation, the verses in the Koran regarding head scarves and the way women especially should dress have been interpreted differently. As I said, that's what helped me make my choice to take off my head scarf. So that's where a lot of the debate goes on, but the majority of Muslim scholars, you know, would say that the niqab is not a requirement.

MARTIN: And finally, I'm going to ask you this, Mona, and I also wanted to ask Mehded this question, if she chooses to engage it. There are a number of instances in which the U.S., people in America, people in Europe, seem to be at odds with the Islamic world. And I wonder if you think this is the right fight for right now?

ELTAHAWY: You know, it's the fight in France, and I'm glad we've moved on to this because talking about it theoretically is very different than talking about it in a country like France, for example, that has the largest Muslim population in Europe, and where a growing right wing across Europe is a very real danger to Muslims.

There is a very real danger of Islamaphobia there. The Muslim community in many parts of Europe do not enjoy the same rights and freedom as those of us here in the United States. So it is a very troubling time to be a Muslim in Europe. But at the same time, I would urge your listeners to make - and this is what I say to my fellow Muslims.

It's one thing to stand up to the right wing, and I detest the right wing, obviously. And you know, I support any fight that fights their racist and their hatred for Muslims, but I would not sacrifice women for the sake of standing up to the right wing. I think too often we give in to - you know, to kind of standing up to the right wing, we must show that we hate what they represent, and too easily give up on women's rights.

I want to oppose the two things. I want to oppose this Islamaphobia and this hatred for Muslims in Europe, and at the same time oppose the erasure of women that the burqa and the niqab represent. The two are very interlinked in my eyes.

MARTIN: And Mona, thank you for this. Mehded, you don't have to engage with Mona's point if you choose not to, but we did want you to stand by and listen. So there are a number of areas in which the people of the U.S., the governments of the United States and in Europe are at odds with people in the Muslim world, and I wondered if you think this is the right fight for right now?

MARYAM SINCLAIR: The first thing I would say is that it seems to me that Mona is equating society with public life. And society does not equal public life. Society equals public life and private life, the seen and the unseen, and all is in there together, and it's all necessary. But sort of the approach of the modern world is it's only the public life that matters.

It doesn't matter who people are in their homes or what they're doing; it matters what they do on the street, and that's what's significant, and that's what is, quote, "society." In terms of whether it's the right fight for the right time, I don't know. I'm not able to answer that question.

MARTIN: Well, I thank you for your perspective. I thank you for being willing to speak about this. I understand that you were somewhat reluctant to talk about this because you do feel so strongly about this as a matter - as a personal issue, as a personal religious issue for yourself, and so I do thank you for speaking with us about it. This is Mehded Maryam Sinclair. She's a writer and a storyteller living in Amman, Jordan. Mehded, thank you for speaking with us.

MARYAM SINCLAIR: You're welcome.

MARTIN: And we also spoke with Mona Eltahawy. She is a writer, a Muslim feminist and a syndicated columnist. She writes frequently about politics and issues pertaining to the Muslim world, and she was kind enough to join us from New York. Mona, thank you so much for speaking with us.

ELTAHAWY: Thanks for having me on, Michel.

MARTIN: And now we'd also like to hear from you. Have you ever walked down the street and seen a Muslim woman covered from head to toe with only her eyes exposed? What was your reaction? Do you think it's appropriate for government to get involved and ban this garb or not?

To tell us what you think and to hear what other listeners are saying, you can call our comment line at 202-842-3522. That number again is 202-842-3522, or you can visit our Web site at the TELL ME MORE page at and blog it out.

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