In the feverish reaction to Boris Johnson’s burqa/letterbox comments- and they were jokes that both the BBC and the Guardian have made in the past – this statement from Ruth Davidson caught my eye:
“If you use the analogy of Christianity, would you ever write in The Telegraph that you should have a debate about banning Christians from wearing crucifixes?…It’s the same argument but it’s in a different faith so why are the parameters different for one faith and not the other?”
Good question. There are two issues at stake: first, the libertarian principle that women should be allowed to wear what they want without interference from the State. This is Boris’ perfectly reasonable position which got lost in all the hissy-fitting from the political establishment. (I also argued against a ban some time ago in this debate.) Then there’s the second issue, which is what religious attire represents in the first place and what that says about our values. Are there intellectual and theological reasons to be more concerned about a woman in a burqa more than a woman (or a man – important) with a crucifix? What do these objects say about our society?
Boris said in his article that he “finds no scriptural authority for the practice in the Koran.” I wish politicians would take time to study the Qur’an before they make claims about it. Here’s what it says.
“And tell the believing women to lower their gaze (from looking at forbidden things) and protect their private parts (from illegal sexual acts) and not to show off their adornment except only that which is apparent (like both eyes for necessity to see the way, or outer palms of hands or one eye or dress like veil, gloves, head cover, apron) and to draw their veils all over juyubihinna (i.e. their bodies, FACES, necks and bosoms) and not to reveal their adornment except to their husbands, or their fathers, or their husband’s fathers, or their sons, or their husband’s sons, or their brothers, or their brother’s sons or their sister’s sons or their women (i.e. their sisters in Islam) or the (female) slaves who their right hands possess, or old male servants who lack vigour, or small children who have no sense of the feminine sex. And let them not stamp their feet so as to reveal what they hide of their adornment.” (Sura 24:31, Hilali Khan)
The hadith behind this verse reads:
Narrated Aisha: “May Allah bestow His Mercy on the early emigrant women. When Allah revealed: ‘And draw their veils all over their juyubihinna (i.e. their bodies, FACES, necks and bosoms)‘ – they tore their muruts (a woollen dress) and covered their heads and FACES with those torn muruts.” (Sahih al-Bukhari 4758)
Sura 33:59 “O Prophet! Tell your wives and daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks (veils) all over their bodies (i.e. screen themselves completely except the eyes or one eye to see the way). That will be better, that they should be known (as free, respectable women) so as not to be annoyed.” [Hilali Khan; Yusuf Ali translation has ‘molested’ here.]
“Bodies, faces, necks and bosoms” is not in the arabic in the Qur’anic verses, but the Hadith clarifies that face covering is intended. Allah wants the believing women to cover their faces. And the motivation is sexual: that’s why servant men who have “lost vigour” and small children with “no sense of the feminine sex” are permitted to see their women unveiled. The burqa is Allah’s way of controlling men’s sexual urges.
All of this is very disturbing. Why is Allah telling only women to cover up to such an extreme and not men? Why does Allah think that the sight of a woman’s face or hair or ankles will lead a man into uncontrollable lust? Even a woman stamping her feet is suggestive. Where is his command to men not to molest women? Doesn’t this all contribute to a culture that sees uncovered women as fair game? Isn’t that what the #metoo movement has been campaigning against?
There is no Biblical injunction to wear a crucifix. Men and women can wear them, they are unisex. But you are not less of a Christian if you don’t wear one: being a Christian is all about being in relationship with Christ, through repentance and faith in his death on the Cross for your sins. What’s in your heart is what counts. I wear one because I like to be reminded of Jesus and his extraordinary sacrifice, and because it reminds me to try and represent Him well to whoever I’m dealing with, as they will have noted it too. And it might spark an evangelistic conversation. Nor does my crucifix affect my peripheral vision or my body’s ability to absorb vitamin D from sunlight. Do politicians really not see the difference?
Some people might get offended by why I put the equivalent of the electric chair round my neck; but then I can go to the Bible and show them how this torturous death was not the end for Jesus, and how it’s the only death that brings life for us. There is a happy ending.
But wearing a cross can still land you in hot water. In 2006 Nadia Eweida was disciplined for refusing to cover hers up at work, yet didn’t make for days of outraged headlines. (She went to court in 2013 and won.)
Some women will choose to wear a burqa – though undoubtedly some will be pressured by peers or husbands – and free choice is good. But otherwise there is stifling heat, increased risk of accidents, loss of public identity and the inability to simply feel the wind on your skin. What kind of god does that to women? No happy ending here.