Friday, October 20, 2006

The veil   posted by Razib @ 10/20/2006 09:35:00 PM

Mickey Kaus and Robert Wright addressed the issue of veils over on Mickey dismissed the idea that there is something substantive to the charge that it is important to see someone's face to facilitate communication. I was hopeful that Robert Wright, who knows something about evolution and psychology, would disagree, but Wright seemed to go along with this though I got the feeling from his voice and facial expression (ironically) that in his gut he didn't totally agree with what he was saying. On my other blog I asserted that the reality is that veiling is instinctively disturbing because faces are how we perceive other humans as individuals. Expressions convey essential information. Intellectually we all know that the seat of our consciousness lay in the functioning of our brains, but when we think of our loved ones, our friends, a famous celebrity, we fixate on their face as the token of who they are as individuals. Humans have a gestalt capacity to recongize, differentiate and interpret faces. This is an evolutionary adaptation, and can be lost through specific brain damage. Anthropologically humans have ornamented their face, covered or styled their hair, and so on, but it seems to me that veiling the face habitually is rare. It emerges in a specific sociopolitical context, veiling and obscuring of females and the shielding of their individuality in the public space seems to be a feature of extremely socially stratified societies characterized by patrilineages able to accrue wealth and power. Some Muslim commentators have pointed out that in fact the veil might have been adopted by Muslims from highborn Byzantines and Persians. It was a token of the civilization of the new Muslim elites that they treated their women the way that the Greek and Persian elites they superseded had (they also adopted the court ritual and motifs of the Byzantines and Persians). In India when the Muslims came and conquered high caste Hindus also adopted some of the same practices, including purdah (segregation and isolation of elite females).

When I listened to this BBC Special on the veiling controversy I was struck by the nature of some of the women who veiled themselves: they were not fundamentally socially isolated, and some of them even practiced professions. This is interesting to me because obviously the rise of veiling in civilized Eurasia was not correlated with the rise in status of women, rather, the spread of complex civilization was generally accompanied by a decline in the status of women (even ancient Egypt and Sumeria had more property rights for women than the later Eurasian civilizations). And yet here it seemed that some of these young Muslim women were taking up the veil as an assertion of their individual identity, that is, fundamentally it was a matter of female empowerment. Now, on one level I do agree that veiling is empowering, my own minimal but non-trivial experience with veiled women is that having someone see your face and expression while you are denied the similar privilege puts you in a disadvantageous position. And yet the symbolism of it all seems more important, and I was struck with the thought that this is a case of phylogenetic constraint due to cultural history. That is, as women liberate themselves in the modern West in any given cultural matrix they co-opt and adopt prior motifs and forms in their own culture and reshape and reinterpret them. For young Muslim women a transnational tendency toward modest dress and veiling in the extreme circumstances is a possibility because it is an acceptable and normal part of the range of variation within their culture. But, its origins were fundamentally connected with the control of elite women by high status males in civilizations where communitarian principles and coalitions of males were dominant. An analogy might be with the rise of "feminist theology," which seems to emerge (in my eye) from the reality that "progressive" men and women simply wish to hold onto what is fundamentally a patriarchal tribal religion and yet still espouse universal liberalism as a basic truth of the universe.

Update: Via Pickled Politics, I found this article:
Until only a few months ago, mainstream British politicians were extremely cautious about articulating the fears and resentments felt by many ordinary people on the subject of mass immigration.

Those who spoke out publicly (Enoch Powell's 'rivers of blood' speech is the notorious example) were ostracised. Political parties which raised the issue were thrust beyond the outer margins of debate the fate of the National Front and the BNP.

This self-restraint has now vanished. Practically every day for the past two weeks, another minister has insulted the customs, habits or religious beliefs of Britain's Muslim minority.

1) I have suggested before that the European Left's alliance with Muslims was purely tactical, and Muslims better be careful in assuming that the "sensitive" allies who winked at and enabled their lack of assimilation would back them on principle as opposed to expedience.

2) I think it is totally acceptable for beliefs & customs to be mocked. In particular, some of the customs of Muslims are at sharp variance with British norms. There is no such thing as a "multicultural utopia," now that Muslims aren't marginalia the real war stats.

3) I am heartened by this, even if it is an electoral strategy by "New Labor." The probability that Muslims will be rounded up in extermination camps is very, very, very low. I think the hysteria is over-wrought, and European elites better wake and stop playing PC-politics. The end is nigh, God willing (I have relatives in England who are Muslims for the record).