Wednesday, November 01, 2006
Talk of the Nation had a segment on the full face veil today. A few points:
1) One of the guests, who wore a full face veil, basically implied that women who don't dress the way she does are sluts. OK, not really but it was close enough. Her basic contention was that dressing the way she does sends a signal to men that she wants to be respected, that she has good morals, and is not an object. But the reality is that we need to frame this in its proper context. Yes, compared to Dirty Aguilera the contrast is stark, but there is a wide range of dress between black-moving-object and barely legal. The recent firestorm over the Australian cleric who compared women who went unveiled to "pieces of meat" who invited rape is simply another elaboration on the same general thrust, so to speak. There are particular cultural sensibilities common among many (not all, see below) Muslims that seem bizarre in the West. Getting drunk at a frat house and not bringing back up is really bad news for a woman, walking down the street in pants and a t-shirt is generally not a situation of clear and present danger.
2) The problem here is that social context matters. Today, a one piece swim suit is relatively modest beach attire in the West. Not so 100 years ago. In much of Europe toplessness is accepted as normal on beaches, but here in the United States it is very transgressive. Social norms differ. Now, it is true that men are extremely lascivious visual creatures, but, the "I'm a slut" signal differs from culture to culture, because sluttiness is a matter of scale and relativity. To be perceived as modest and not draw attention in the West doesn't necessitate taking up the niqab, or, frankly even the hijab. If one has an absolute scale of modesty this might not be so, but, if the concern is how others perceive you, then that is the reality. Similarly, dressing a certain way that might seem modest in the West in Muslim countries might necessarily invite unwanted attention (e.g., short-sleeved shirts). Social context matters, you aren't an island.
3) Which brings me to the point about attention. One of the callers was a Muslim convert who declared that a) she believed that the niqab was necessary for her practice of Islam b) resented the insults and intimidation that she received from others around her due to her wearing a niqab. I addressed what I feel are the basic human necessities which make the veil (as opposed to the hijab) problematic before, so I will simply focus on the social context again: by wearing the veil a woman makes herself covered meat who invites abuse. Now, I am being unfair and consciously echoing what the cleric above said. There is no excuse for abusing and intimidating women in public because of how they dress, or don't dress, but there is a social reality that exists. In public places I have regularly seen "goth" or "punk" kids being abused, taunted or mocked. When I lived in Pennsylvania some of the rougher kids would make sport by mocking the Amish, and even running off with their hats and making fun of their clothing when they had to come into town (to put in perspective how pathetic these creatures were, recall that the Amish are pacifists and so they would never fight back). Wearing the veil is a statement, just like getting a lot of peircings, or tatoos, or dying your hair is a statement. If the goal is to be modest and keep a low profile, walking around in a full body veil is not doing that. That's just the reality.
4) If you listen to the interview you'll note that not all the Muslims are particularly comfortable with the veil. This is an important point which needs to be reiterated: wearing a fully veil is an interpretation of Islam. By analogy, interpreting the Bible "literally" is a particular way of viewing Christianity, but it is not necessary for Christianity. I'll be honest that I'm not particularly excited by the gymnastics and accommodations that the US government makes for religious practices, that being said, that's the reality. If the government perceives that practice x is necessary for major religion y, then steps to accommodate will be taken. Once those steps are taken a feedback loop may emerge which defines the cultural trajectory that that religion takes in shaping and defining itself.
5) Finally, a major problem that I think needs to be addressed is that veiling was never really normal in any society that is like a typical Western society where women are independent and are out and about in the world. The report notes, as usual, that veiling was an elite practice common in the ancient world which was adopted by Muslim ruling castes. There were women who had a bevy of servants and lived secluded lives in their own compounds, complexes and places. There are only two types of societies which I know practice ubiquitous veiling
a) Primitive and underdeveloped tribal societies like Afghanistan
b) The oil rich Gulf states
The only reason that "modernity" (in regards to amenities) exists in Saudi Arabia concurrently with massive sex segregation and veiling is that oil wealth subsidizes this lifestyle. In places like Afghanistan women and men live very separate social lives, and society is segmented into tightly knit clans. I have known of Muslim women who have veiled themselves fully in the West who never made waves, because they never left their own house. Yes, some Gulf Arabs who come to study in the USA and bring their family simply cloister their women as they do in the mother countries. The problem is when women want to venture out into the big wide world as normal peers with men and non-Muslim women, but they want to dress like they live in a cloister! In the end to satisfy women who want both to dress and interact as if they live in the court of King Khosrau and have a fullfilled life in a technological society we might have to transform Earth into Solaria.
Addendum: Let me also state that of course Muslims are correct that men are fixated upon the physical form of women and sex. But, I do not believe that Muslim societies themselves have particularly healthy attitudes toward this topic, and, there are many general "unnatural" aspects of liberal democratic societies as a whole. The separation that full veiling entails seems to come with costs which I believe are problematic for a republic of citizens equal before the law and naked before their peers.