This is a longer version of a column published in the Challenge Weekly July 2011
The Burqa has been in the news since two women were banned from Auckland buses recently. As most readers will know, burqa is the black outer garment worn by women of some Islamic traditions to cover their bodies in public. It includes the head-covering (hijab) and face veil (niqab). It is likely that such clothing was worn by Arab and Persian women even at the time of Christ and before, as indicated by the Greek historian Strabo (64 BC – AD 24). The early Christian leader Tertullian (c. AD 200) praised the modesty of the 'pagan women of Arabia.' Islam itself is divided on the necessity of wearing the burqa with some believing such modesty in public is obligatory in the Qur'an, and others. For those who consider it necessary, the face is considered the most tempting part of the body; hence, the veil.
Many westerners believe that the burqa should be banned. The usual reasons are security concerns resulting from recent suicide bombings – women can conceal bombs in their clothing; identity issues especially in places like banks – how can one be identified when one's face is covered almost completely?; cultural perspectives whereby it is seen as non-kiwi behaviour – New Zealanders do not like the sight of people completely adorned in black with their eyes only showing, this smacks of the sort of thing one sees in movies where the bad guys or girls dress thus; consistency with the banning of other head coverings like hoodies in malls and other places – if it not ok for others to wear hoodies, helmets etc in public, for consistencies sake we should not allow the Muslims who do this either; feminist concerns seeing it as demeaning to women – especially in a nation with rich history of women's freedom; and freedom concerns. What can we as Christians say in response?
A case can be made for expecting people to expose their faces where their identity is required such as when a police officer needs to identify someone or in a bank where people are withdrawing money etc. However, in consultation with the Muslim community, it is likely that ways of achieving this without public shame can be agreed. For example, one could have someone in the bank and a room specially prepared for identification with another Muslim worker. Similarly, there must be discrete ways of dealing with other security situations with sensitivity and care.
Beyond that, as a Christian, I find it hard to find a theological reason to ban the burqa in NZ. Our Muslim community has never threatened New Zealanders as in other nations. Indeed, the small number of Muslims in NZ are peace-loving citizens. As such, we can hardly make the case that we should ban it on security grounds. Further, we can't really challenge it in terms of women's freedom, as many Muslims believe it is 'freeing' to wear the burqa as it removes the threat of becoming a sexual object, it allows them to freely go about their work. Studies have shown that many Muslim women enjoy the 'freedom' it brings. In terms of it being foreign to NZ culture, there are two issues. First, what is NZ culture in terms of dress? We have no agreed statement in this regard, and NZ had always respected religious and cultural diversity. Think of Maori moko etc. While it is different, we have no real cultural grounds to remove it. Secondly, we need to get over our aversion to wearing black as if it is 'evil.' After all, the All Blacks wear black and intimidate with the haka. And we love it. So, aside from our prejudice, there is no real case against it. Indeed, if I admit it, I am always taken aback when I see a women in a burqa, and I have to admit it, it is my prejudice. I am seeking to challenge this attitude – it I believe, is false!
One of the interesting off-shoots of this issue is the issue of dressing modestly vs. provocatively. Christians are encouraged to dress modestly. The 'head-coverings' controversy in Corinth was likely an issue of women dressing with their hair hanging free which was seen as highly sexual, causing offence to husbands and others. Paul exhorts modesty and cultural accommodation in their clothing (cf. 1 Cor 9:19-22). In 1 Peter 3 women are urged to dress modestly in line with their culture as they seek to win their husbands to faith. Shouldn't we be more concerned about the clothing of many people in our culture who flaunt their bodies and dress provocatively than those who dress modestly, even if it is in a way we are not used to – the recent 'slut-march' being case in point? What is the bigger issue we face, provocative clothing that entices sexual promiscuity, the porn industry, the soft-porn of mainstream media, the booze culture in which women and men dress scantily and provocatively. There are men who provocatively touch themselves in rap and other music forms. There are 6-packs all over advertising. Aren't these much more of an issue than women choosing to dress as these Muslims do? While I personally believe there is no need to dress to this extreme, struggle with it myself, and would never expect that a woman must cover herself to this extreme, I wonder if we need to consider how we dress and how it looks. No wonder many in the Muslim world scoff at us on this sort of thing, we live in the defiled west. I am not targeting women with this either, it is men and women who need to consider this. However, where men are concerned, women need to know that we are often visually stimulated, so perhaps there is more of an issue with the way women dress than men.
My strongest interest in this is how Jesus would respond to a Muslim in a burqa, despite all the arguments. Well, we kind of know already what he would do. After all, his world was full of women dressed in black with their heads covered, dressed very modestly with little flesh to be seen. They were limited greatly in what they could do publically, who they could speak to, and how to dress. We see in John 8 how they are treated if they violate culture, they were in danger of stoning – as in some parts of the Muslim world under Sharia Law.
We don't not find Jesus rebuking them or even challenging the culture in a direct sense over their clothing. Rather, we find Jesus accepting and affirming women, loving them, showing them utter respect, weeping for them, allowing them to anoint his feet, speaking gently to them, showing them tremendous care and concern. We find no rebuke of them. Rather, he reached out to them as with all people, including the worst of all sinners. He didn't live in fear and suspicion; he loved them as they were, seeing past their clothing into their hearts. The Christian faith calls for Jesus' followers to accept people despite their sin, let alone their clothing. We are to look at the heart not the externals (1 Sam 16:7). We are to emulate Jesus in this regard. As such, rather than us living out of fear and condemnation of our Muslim neighbours, when we see someone in a burqa we should catch our own prejudice and respond with Christian grace, love and hospitality. Perhaps we should greet them warmly. Men need to be careful in this regard of course, we need to show cultural sensitivity and respect and not embarrass a woman in public. Perhaps a small nod and a hello will do. Christian women however, can engage with them relationally, greeting them, talking to them and reaching out to them in love. They can show them the hospitality of the gospel. They can cross boundaries. We used to live in Mt Roskill where there were many dressed in this way. Perhaps the Christian women of Mt Roskill especially can show real warmth and love to these people. They can make them feel warmly welcomed and not ostracised. This was the experience of the two women from TV3 who went out and about dressed in burqa's recently found themselves marginalised – one woman in a shop even barred them! We must not make the same mistake, these are God's blessed women to be loved and cherished, as all his people.
I believe we Christians should see these Muslims who dress in this way not as something to fear, but something to embrace as an opportunity. Christian women can cross the cultural divide and show love and hospitality to them. Indeed, for the Muslim as for the Jew, such hospitality is part and parcel of their culture. Such efforts might lead to amazing opportunities of reciprocity and chances to dialogue over the things of the gospel. After all, Muslims are deeply religious people, they do not have the barriers of the secular western mind. Often, it is in such contexts, that the power of God is seen as such people are open. We do not need to join the islamophobia of the broader western world.
The gospel calls us not to stand in judgment over people who are different, but to accept them, love them, and draw them to Christ through love – Go deeper.