Saturday, March 01, 2008

Struggling With The Veil

Last week I put up a post linking to an article about Walmart's apology to a Muslim woman customer who was the target of a jest by a Walmart employee. It was not a post I had set out to do. But when I came across the article while reading the news online, I did a quick post about it in a rather hasty fashion.

I am sorry to say that my comments on the matter were rather visceral in nature, and, in retrospect, perhaps a bit harsh. I gave the impression that I believed that any Muslim woman in this country wearing a veil in public deserved whatever happened to her, which I really did not mean. I certainly did not mean to convey the impression that wearing a veil was a license to taunt or harass a Muslim woman. I have since taken the post down, as it was below my personal standards that I set for myself here.

This is a rather delicate issue for me. I consider myself to be a male feminist. I support reproductive rights for women, believe in equal pay for equal work, and reject patriarchal ways of thinking. So, on one level, I find the idea of Muslim women being forced or brainwashed into wearing veils as a public badge of inferiority. Even worse, as an atheist, I see the veil as an act of submission to an entity, Allah, that I know does not even exist. Like Hasidic males with their locks of hair dangling on each side of their head, or Catholics on Ash Wednesday walking around in public with dabs of soot on their foreheads, the veil represents to me a bold affirmation to society of one's belief in something that I find to be totally insane.

On another, seemingly contradictory level, I find the idea of Muslim women wearing veils in our society to be a provocative act. The veil serves not only as a physical barrier, but a psychological barrier as well. It is as if the Muslim woman views the rest of us as some kind of contamination to be kept at bay. The message I get from seeing a veiled Muslim woman is "I abhor the prospect of having to associate with you."

I understand that there is some validity to the argument that for a Muslim woman, wearing a veil from her perspective is in its own way a feminist act. It is an expression of her individuality and her right to deal with our society on her own terms. But given the fact that we find ourselves in a struggle with an ideology that mandates the wearing of the veil wherever it takes hold, I find it hard to be sympathetic to this point of view. Instead, I can't help but see a Muslim woman wearing a veil as being a public expression of solidarity with the very ideology with which we find ourselves at war.

In the last couple of years, I have noticed Muslim women here on Long Island in our shopping malls and even driving on our streets, garbed in the veil. So, for me, this is not just some academic exercise. It is something I encounter on an increasingly frequent basis, and I feel an extreme discomfort everytime I see it. I want to see an America that is increasingly more rational and secular, and seeing Muslim women openly wearing veils in this country is a sign to me that reason is in retreat.

I don't want Muslim women who wear the veil to be harmed in any way. But at the same time, I can't deny that I desire a climate that serves to discourage them from wearing it. I pride myself on not being a man who succumbs to prejudice and bigotry. I find myself struggling with this issue because it represents a clash of my own values, in this case my respect for religious freedom colliding with what I fear to be the very threat to freedom that the veil represents to me.

This post is a departure from much of my past writing here at Exercise in Futility. I am baring my inner most thoughts about a rather heated topic. I am revealing my fears and prejudices for all to see and to comment on. I would appreciate reading what others have to write about this subject and the publicization of my own thoughts on it. If by chance any Muslims come across this post and wish to add their own two cents, I certainly welcome them to do so. While the veil is not as big an issue as it is in places like the United Kingdom, which have larger and more traditional Muslim populations, I think it will become an increasingly important issue here in the United States in future years.


Stardust said...

I was at our local hospital's outpatient facilities the other day for tests and as I was walking in I saw a group of young veiled muslim women who also had on tight jeans and short shirts that showed part of their bellies. Talk about a visual oxymoron! This is similar to Christian women who wear crosses around their necks while at the same time have a face full of make-up and showing cleavage and dress like hookers.

Some people have pointed out to me that Amish and Mennonites wear funny attire based on their religious beliefs, but Amish and Mennonite are a very passive people who won't even vote. They live in their own "realm" and aren't concerned with the world outside of their own. It's the fundamentalist Christians who don't wear any sort of traditional garb that we must be worried about because we can't really tell who they are until they start "witnessing" to us.

Muslims women in America are choosing to do so for reasons that have little to do with modesty and privacy. It is to make a visual statement of their fundamentalist muslim beliefs, and it concerns me that they are growing in number.

People cannot just walk around in public places with any sort of face mask without suspicion. When people are hiding their identity, others feel threatened. Look at what happened at a mall in Illinois today when shoppers saw a suspicious man wearing a stocking cap which covered his face, carrying a bag. His identity is not known because no one could see his face.

If religious practices interfere with the overall peace and safety of the public, then certain things should not be covering one's face. Veils over the hair are one thing, but hiding one's identity from everyone is another.

Tommykey said...

Hi Star. To be honest, I don't have much of a problem with headscarves. At least I can live with that. It doesn't even have to be a Muslim thing. It could be a cool fashion statement.

What cracks me up are the women with crosses dangling down into their cleavage. I call it Christ In Cleavage!

Anonymous said...

I must say that I agree with everything that you have said in this post, and I am relieved that someone shares my opinion. Most of the posts that I have come across are either strongly for or against women having the right to wear the veil with no in-between.

I struggle with this issue, too. I am all for religious freedom, but at the same time, seeing women in veils scares the living daylights out of me. Headscarves don't bother me as much, as long as women consent to wearing them. One of my friends is Muslim and she wears headscarves which happen to be very pretty. And after all, during the immigration surge in this country, many Eastern European women wore headscarves because it was the fashion at the time. In my ethnic country, headscarves are sometimes part of the traditional costume and I've worn them sometimes while performing traditional folk dances.

But I found pictures of women in Afghanistan under Taliban rule really chilling. I just could not understand (and I still can't) how women could freely accept wearing such coverings, how they could be comfortable at all. They didn't even look like women; they looked like unknown, almost alien beings with no separate identities. Just a mob of faceless, voiceless strangers, completely isolated from everyone.

This rather reminds me of a story my dad once told me. He's a doctor and one of his colleagues was a Egyptian Muslim. They were having a conversation one day, and somehow they started talking about Muslim women and the veil. The Egyptian doctor shot down any notion of the veil being a symbol of modesty by saying that women who wore it were only doing so to show off how religious they were. I thought of it as equivalent to a Christian wearing a gigantic cross around his/her neck and a car that I had once seen having an enormous white menorah strapped to the roof during the month of December.

I understand that these women might be offended because they feel that their religious rights are being threatened. But the last time I checked, wearing a cross or Star of David didn't muffle your voice, make your driver's license photo unrecognizable, completely conceal your identity, and physically hinder you.

Not that I'm saying that this should only apply to Muslims, of course not. Any religious practice that interferes with secular laws or hinders other people should be questioned. And yes, I certainly do not believe that veiled Muslim women deserve to be taunted or attacked. But at the same time, they have to realize that they are living in a secular country and that their traditions sometimes clash with the society and how the country is run. I'm not saying that a compromise can't be made. But yes, for me, the veil is just too extreme.

I apologize if I'm rambling or if I'm unclear at some points. I'll just end this by saying that I agree with you and Stardust, and that I hope that some solution can be made.

Andrea said...

This is a tricky one. I have no problem with headscarves, skullcaps, crosses, crucifixes, etc. But I guess it would be unnerving to not be able to see someone's face, whatever the reason, really.
I can't even recall seeing that kind of veil that covers the whole face but the eyes, like in the pic at the top of the post...except for one time last year in Seattle - as I was leaving the doctor's office, a woman was going in and she was in a full burqa. A gust of wind blew against her and I could see that she was very pregnant, and I felt a moment of sadness, wondering if she honestly felt that she shouldn't be seen.

Not to derail the meaning of the post, but one form of religious/cultural dress that I admire is the sari. I think they're beautiful.

Tommykey said...

Thanks for your comments Anonymous.

Andrea, I like saris too! Sometimes I joke with my wife that she should get one, but she scoffs at the notion.

tina FCD said...

Our faces are what identifies us. To wear a full covering on your face, just raises suspicion.

Stardust said,I saw a group of young veiled muslim women who also had on tight jeans and short shirts that showed part of their bellies.

What the hell?

Stardust said...

tina, that's what I thought too when I saw those girls.."what the hell?" I have never seen Muslim women dress that way, but must be the new generation and they are combining two worlds...their religious world and world of popular culture. It was really quite bizarre. I had to look at couple of times.

When I was going back to school for my Masters, I was outside on the cafeteria patio and as I stood up a veiled woman in all black came swooping from around the side of the building like a ninja and it startled me right out of my skin! It's creepy because we can't see who they are, can't see their expression. It would be a very good disguise for a robber or other criminal.

tina FCD said...

I was thinking the same thing, and I was going to say that too. But, I figured people would think I was going overboard.

Too bad you couldn't get a picture of those young women, I have never seen that type of thing where I live.

Poodles said...

This is a great post. I agree. I believe in the freedom to worship or not as you see fit. However, as I have posted at my site before I also believe in having to live with the consequences of those choices. Not that I'm saying that means violence of any sort. But they have to be prepared to miss out on some privledges like not getting driver licenses if they can't have their face photographed. It also means they might be looked at with disgust and suspicion. Sorry it sucks, but they are making the choice to wear the face covering.

I don't mind head scarves either. They can be pretty.