Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Ban the Burqa?

Claire Berlinski has a thoughtful post in the National Review online about the evolution of her thinking on the veiling of women. She lives in and reports from Turkey. This was her thinking when she moved:
One woman here told me of her humiliation in childhood when her family was ejected from a swimming pool because her mother was veiled. I believed her. All stories of childhood humiliation sound alike and are told in the same way. It was perverse, she said to me, that she should be free to cover her head in an American university but not in a Turkish one. It seemed perverse to me as well. It would to any American; politically, we all descend from men and women persecuted for their faith. I was, I decided, on the side of these women.

...The argument that the garment is not a religious obligation under Islam is well-founded but irrelevant; millions of Muslims the world around believe that it is, and the state is not qualified to be in the business of Koranic exegesis. The choice to cover one’s face is for many women a genuine expression of the most private kind of religious sentiment. To prevent them from doing so is discriminatory, persecutory, and incompatible with the Enlightenment traditions of the West. It is, moreover, cruel to demand of a woman that she reveal parts of her body that her sense of modesty compels her to cover; to such a woman, the demand is as tyrannical, humiliating, and arbitrary as the passage of a law dictating that women bare their breasts.
This is her thinking now:
There are already many neighborhoods in Europe where scantily dressed women are not safe... Parents in these neighborhoods ask gynecologists to testify to their daughters’ virginity. Polygamy and forced marriages are commonplace. Many girls are banned from leaving the house at all. According to French-government statistics, rapes in the housing projects have risen between 15 and 20 percent every year since 1999. In these neighborhoods, women have indeed begun veiling only to escape harassment and violence. In the suburb of La Courneuve, 77 percent of veiled women report that they wear the veil to avoid the wrath of Islamic morality patrols. We are talking about France, not Iran.

...The debate in Europe now concerns primarily the burqa, not less restrictive forms of veiling, such as the headscarf. The sheer outrageousness of the burqa makes it an easy target, as does the political viability of justifying such a ban on security grounds, particularly in the era of suicide bombings, even if such a justification does not entirely stand up to scrutiny. But the burqa is simply the extreme point on the continuum of veiling, and all forced veiling is not only an abomination, but contagious: Unless it is stopped, the natural tendency of this practice is to spread, for veiling is a political symbol as well as a religious one, and that symbol is of a dynamic, totalitarian ideology that has set its sights on Europe and will not be content until every woman on the planet is humbled, submissive, silent, and enslaved.

...Veiling cannot be disambiguated from the problem of Islam’s conception of women, and this conception is directly tied to gender apartheid and the subjugation and abuse of women throughout the Islamic world, the greatest human-rights problem on the planet, bar none. Nor can the practice of veiling be divorced from the concept of namus — an ethical category that is often translated as “honor,” and if your first association with this word is “honor killing,” it is for a reason: That is the correct association. The path from veiling to the practice of killing unveiled women is not nearly so meandering as you might think.
It could be that I am stretching here, but I couldn't help but read this and think of the Church of the Brethren tradition of women having their heads covered. It is mostly gone but still practiced in some parts of the Brethren world. The argument for it, of course, is that it is scriptural. But the deeper question is how much is this scriptural argument in its context and in its present day practice is tied up with a patriarchal view of women that sees them as either inferior or dangerous?

I am sympathetic to the women who argue from whatever religious tradition that veiling is an act of liberation or personal religious choice. The problem is that there are often men who are a part of these traditions who see it as a woman's appropriate duty to God and religion. And they too often have the power in families and religious communities. Our free choices are rarely as free as we think they are.

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