My earliest memories of the burqua are indeed as ancient as me myself! In my native place all the women in the family wore burqua...the black all-covering garment under which if they wore nothing else no one would ever know! My late father had left his home town in search of a better future and landed in the then Bombay almost immediately after his engineering. His postings took him to some of the most beautiful hill spots in Maharashtra and all the employees of the company posted at one particular place lived with their families at the company's residential colonies built near the work sites. That was an out of the blue experience for my mother who does have an interestingly vivid memory of how difficult it was for her in the beginning to do away with the burqa.
The reason I have recounted this is to emphasise one greatly overlooked reality in the debate over the burqa/hijab issue, and that is this: burqa in most cases is a "family tradition" that inadvertently became a habit obviously as it got passed down the generations. Hence it must be noted with clarity that there is no love of God or making a choice involved here.
I have been hearing this since childhood that Islam is more about intent: to become a good, God-fearing human being rather than peripheral rituals that change from place to place and culture to culture. When for instance one is praying to God Almighty, its actually the connection with the Supreme Creator that is at the center of it all. The way one prays could be of lesser consequence, but a certain manner has evolved logically for the sake of uniformity...and perhaps even the health benefits one can reap from the exercise.
After the French and the US presidents giving their verdict on the burqa, and even before that, various interpretations of the Qur'an have been doing rounds, each one claiming to being authentic and well-researched. So we now hear that burqa was meant as a respectful covering for the prophet's (peace be upon him) women. The others were supposed to be modest (and decent) in the manner they dressed and carried themselves. But this divine message for modesty was applicable to both men and women.
To my great amusement I find men very vehement in their fight for the female "modesty and rights" in choosing to wear the burqa, but sadly their voices seem to choke when it comes to family planning, triple talaq, a widow's right to the guardianship of her minor children and such other matters.
Yes, indeed women must have the right to choose, as some benevolent men are suggesting in the context of hijab/burqa. President Sarkozy's diktat is being equated to Talibanisation of cultures that has taken place in some parts of Asia in the recent past.
President Obama has taken a middle ground on the whole issue, saying US does not dictate to people what they should wear. (Well...the US has other more barbaric things to do, but that is another story!)
The point is: these gentlemen, Sarkozy and Obama, and all those who comprise the Taliban, are they religious or even humane representatives of the oppressed people...in this case the "religiously imprisoned women"?
I think it will be worthwhile to note that they are all politically motivated power-hungry people. Just like Taliban cannot be deemed to be friends of Islam for what they are doing, Sarkozy cannot be pronounced an enemy of Islam. They know it, like we all can understand too, that it is essentially none of their business whether a woman wears or shuns a burqa.
Also like it or not, and forgive my bluntness here, the fact is that the burqa has of late become more of a fashion statement used by the dollar-and-dinar-rich kitty-party kinds who can spend fortunes on clothes and accessories (remember wasteful extravagant expenditure is prohibited in Islam), burqa being a recent addition as a "religious" adjunct.
At the heart of my debate is the basic right of a woman to choose...to be able to use her intelligence...like my mother: when she got a choice, she stopped wearing the burqa, and I think most of the truly liberated women would do the same if their minds are not filled with the fear of "Allah's wrath" falling upon them and the fire in hell burning the "exposed" portions of their bodies...
I wonder why we do not hear any such diktat in the context of men?