By Claire O’Connor, Franklin and Marshall College

Have you ever thought to yourself, “What’s the difference between a burqa and a bikini?” Probably not. The main difference is very obvious: one covers the majority of a woman’s body and the other covers the bare minimum of a woman’s body. However, this major difference often stops our society from acknowledging the more important similarities in regards to social norms and oppression.

This is why Austria’s recent ban on burqas and niqabs is absolutely outrageous.

Austria is the most recent of many European countries to ban burqas and niqabs in public places including schools, courthouses, and even ski resorts. They are even considering banning state employees from wearing something as simple as a headscarf. They say that this policy is in an effort to create an “open society that requires open communication”, but targeting the cultural norms of a group of citizens does just the opposite. This ban, along with the burqa and niqab bans in Germany, France, Belgium and Switzerland, only serves to support and fuel Islamophobic ideas in the Western world. If the women who wore these burqas viewed them as oppressive, they would throw them off as soon as they moved to a country that didn’t require them to wear one. But they don’t.

However, many who grew up in Western society believe burqas to be oppressive; something women are forced to wear by men. If you consider bikinis from a non-Western perspective, though, they could also be viewed as oppressive. Most bathing suits show off the majority of a woman’s body, whether she wants to do so or not. Wearing a bikini to the beach is something a woman just does, whether or not she is comfortable “being on display” for everyone around her: strangers, friends, family, men, women, children. She doesn’t get to decide. Furthermore, in our society, a woman wearing a bathing suit that covers more would lead people to wonder why she doesn’t feel comfortable with her body. Women who wear burqas in free countries, however, decide to do so. They decide that this is how they feel most comfortable; or simply that this is how they feel closest to God.

They choose to wear burqas and niqabs. Taking away that choice is no less oppressive than it is to force women to wear these garments. A burqa or a niqab gives a woman the power to choose who sees her without one, which is a choice many women appreciate.

When people in the Western world criticize burqas for being oppressive, many forget that women here follow certain standards of what to wear as well. Though these standards and trends are often geared towards showing more of a woman’s body, that can still be viewed as oppressive. Many people believe that these bans on burqas and niqabs rescue Muslim women from oppressive cultural norms. However, we must keep in mind that when we “rescue” a woman from a set of norms, we automatically place them into another one. And in this case, that “other one” is our own and it isn’t perfect either.

Sources:

“Austria to ban full-face veil in public places”, by BBC staff. BBC News. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-38808495

“Austrian government moves to ban full-face veil”, by Laura Goehler and Angela Dewan. CNN. http://www.cnn.com/2017/01/31/europe/austria-face-veil-ban/

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