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Why The Burqa Fits Just Fine In A Modern Democracy

A visitor wearing a burqa at the 2012 exhibition 'Burquoi' at the Kunstverein in Wiesbaden, Germany.
A visitor wearing a burqa at the 2012 exhibition 'Burquoi' at the Kunstverein in Wiesbaden, Germany.
Alan Posener

-OpEd-

BERLIN â€" The ministers of the interior of Germany's 16 federal states have presented their plan against terrorism. Among them, the abolition of the dual citizenship and a public ban on wearing the burqa.

As far as is known, no dual citizenship holder has committed a crime of a terrorist nature. The number of women wearing the burqa in the population is about as insignificantly small as their participation in the total number of terrorist attacks in Europe over the last few years.

The ministers of the interior of Germany's leading conservative parties, the Christian Democratic Union and Christian Social Union, aren’t really thinking about the fight against terror anyway â€" they want to fight the insurgence from the anti-immigrant, populist Alternative for Germany party. With upcoming elections, they hope such proposals can win over voters worried about security and immigrants. It will be in vain. Experience shows that imitating the populists, only makes them stronger.

Having two passports myself, I am, I have to confess, biased. I am forced to ponder, like my fellow British citizens who live and work in Britain following the Brexit referendum, how to exercise our rights of dual citizenship. Why can’t I be a loyal taxpaying citizen, and still root for the English soccer national team? (Which is punishment enough, to be honest) How can you expect Israeli-Germans to be more loyal towards Germany, than the Jewish state?

Ah, but we’re not talking about you, we say. It’s all about the Turkish, we admit without shame. We’re still negotiating Turkey’s accession to the European Union, which would give them the right to two passports, like other EU citizens too, and yet, we’re not really serious about it. It’s about the Turkish minority’s discrimination, as we claim. The Turkish, not the British, not Bulgarians, neither Israelis, nor even Americans, are asked for unconditional loyalty. But the Turkish are. They are constantly under the cloud of suspicion of disloyalty. How this should serve the fight against terror remains unclear.

The burqa ban is, if possible, even more absurd. It has absolutely nothing to do with the fight against terror, but rather with an unhealthy male obsession with the female body and its disguise.

If there should be fear of hiding weapons or a bomb under the burqa, they shall simply, just like people wearing backpacks, be searched before entering security-relevant areas.

As far as identification is concerned, women wearing a burqa can be asked to reveal their face if necessary. That’s the current legislation and requires no additional amendments.

It wasn't so long ago that feminists began burning their bras as the symbol of male oppression. They refused to wear miniskirts and high heels, these garments beaming the male gaze on the female body, reducing them to “sex objects” who are, thanks to the contraceptive pill, constantly at their disposal, simulating a state of relentless sexual arousal with their pouting lips, red cheeks and round eyes.

Mixed message

Endless series of seminars are held about it. I remember discussions with female German professors who welcomed the Ayatollah Khomeini-led revolution in Iran, arguing that the veiling black chador is nothing but the female refusal of the objectifying, Western, sexualized male gaze that colonizes the female body.

A sexist Western billboard â€" Photo: Owlin Aolin

Well, women can be mistaken; or change their minds. But I’m not entirely sure if the German professors were all wrong. Women are, on the one hand, always objects, and therefore victims, of male expectations; but, on the other hand, they have different means to allow them to escape such a condition.

A woman wearing a miniskirt, can signal that she’s aware of her sexual power over men, and that she’s deliberately making use of it; a woman wearing a head scarf can signal that she, as a self-conscious Muslim, doesn’t want to be bothered.

When it comes to the burqa, there’s no doubt about that, the situation is different. We have fought a war in Afghanistan in order to â€" among other things â€" free women from locking themselves away in this piece of garment. But this war was not fought to suspect all women who wear the burqa in Germany of being terrorists, of usurping their right to express and live their personality and religion freely and without constraint.

After all, they’re not harming anyone by doing so, except for themselves. Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleiologus, whom Pope Benedict XVI cited in his controversial 2006 speech in Regensburg, put it this way: “Faith descends from the soul, not the body. Those who want to guide towards faith, therefore need the ability to speak and think rightly, and most certainly do not need violence or terror.”

That was 1391. We don’t want to go back to Middle Ages, many call out disgusted, demanding the ban on the burqa, and even on Islam altogether. But in reality those medieval emperors are much more progressive than them.

And this current Pope has added his voice: “Faced with disconcerting episodes of violent fundamentalism, our respect for true followers of Islam should lead us to avoid hateful generalizations, for authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Koran are opposed to every form of violence.”

Some say the burqa simply does not fit into a democratic society. They are wrong. It fits perfectly well into a liberal democracy where the rights of minorities, even maniacs and cult worshipers, are protected. It does not fit into an illiberal democracy, which is where these latest proposal from German politicians are pushing us.

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Coronavirus

Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."


Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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