Monday, October 30, 2006

[Culture, Islam]

The Burqa Meme.

I'm not really sure why this has become an issue right now, but there is of a sudden a sweeping national imperative to force Muslims out of burqa. Anne Applebaum caught my eye with her piece a few days back:
And yet, at a much simpler level, surely it is also true that the full-faced veil -- the niqab, burqa or chador -- causes such deep reactions in the West not so much because of its political or religious symbolism but because it is extremely impolite. Just as it is considered rude to enter a Balinese temple wearing shorts, so, too, is it considered rude, in a Western country, to hide one's face. We wear masks when we want to frighten, when we are in mourning or when we want to conceal our identities. To a Western child -- or even an adult -- a woman clad from head to toe in black looks like a ghost. Thieves and actors hide their faces in the West; honest people look you straight in the eye.... It isn't religious discrimination or anti-Muslim bias to tell her that she must be polite to the natives, respect the local customs, try to speak some of the local patois -- and uncover her face.
First of all, to the extent that law forces us to expose our faces, then there can be no exemption based on religious rights. (The USA could be less nativist and allow burqa-ed women being searched by airlines to do this in screened privacy, by a woman, but that seems to violate American cultural norms.) But there's a lot of hogwash about women being "oppressed" and forced to wear burqa. That's a pretty slippery slope. Theres an Indian family on my block, and the mother still wears a sari. India is a fairly patriarchal country, so should we also demand that she throw off her persecutor and wear jeans? When I hear white Americans place themselves in the position of judging who is "oppressed," I wonder, "does the woman have any say over her emancipation?" Even when it's Anne Applebaum, it's a pretty patriarchal argument.

But what about violating our culture? Another slippery slope. Should we legislate fashion norms? What about people who violate the headscarf rule who hail from, say, Romania? Rip their headcloths off, too? And what about Sikh men, who wear turbans as one of the external signals of their faith? Verboten, too, or do we make exemptions when the headgear is worn by men? If we're banning headgear, how about Yankees caps?

The more I look at the burqa issue, the more I find subtle racist and sexist overtones. The real issue is cultural: we have never lived in a more anti-Muslim time than right now. We impute meaning to burqa of our own creation and then condemn Muslims for our missunderstanding. There's a lot to criticize the Muslim world for right now, sadly. But American Muslim women, the full measure of any American, shouldn't have to suffer the indignity of being targeted by a skittish majority culture who doesn't know how to handle her.


Chuck Butcher said...

If I'm a police officer, I want to see a face on a driver's license and see a face matching it - when I have a legal reason to do so. Same with passports.

The rest is nonsense. We have a culture that legally requires a certain minimum of clothing, that is probably ridiculous, but it is how it is. Any other requirement regarding clothing is an abridgement of free expression of speech and / or religion.

Now if I see someone in a bee-keeper's suit can I ridicule them? I certainly can, it would be rude and stupid, but I'm free to do so (within bounds-"fighting words") on the same basis. If a person wishes to appear stupid to me and wear such gear, that's their "look-out" because I will certainly think it is a ridiculous outfit. So what? I think the Pope looks ridiculous. I could wear a suit and tie with my nail apron at work, it would be stupid and ridiculous, but I could. I won't. (My dress clothes last a very long time, certainly not on a construction site)

If you want to wear a loin cloth, paint yourself purple, and sing praises to the god Ooogaahbooga, I don't care, but I will think you look ridiculous doing it.

In fact, people are perfectly free to be as stupid as they wish - see some fair portion of the Republican Party - and stopping them from doing so removes from society an object lesson in stupidity. (see also the lady who'd like to remove the burhka)

Is the burhka an expression of the codified oppression of women? Certainly looks that way. A woman who wants to live that way in the US certainly should be free to do so, same as wearing shorts and a T-shirt at 0 F, and wearing a "stupid" sign isn't too bad an idea for the rest of us to see.

Is this little rant culturally sensitive? No. I don't care, I don't have to like a culture and I don't have to act like I do. I don't like the gang culture, I don't like the greed culture, I don't like much of our Congressional culture, so there you are. All those cultures have their "stupid" signs that they wear and I'm glad they do.

iggir said...

well, racist and sexist as it may be - the oppression inherit in the concept of the burqa means that attacking the concept is the first step in liberating Muslim women from a most overbearing patriarchy. if you are half-assed about the issue, then those that are the even half indoctrinated not going to get the social acceptance needed to cast off those ridiculous body bags...they need a little social support to get started.

if you want to wear a burqa after you have a full understanding that you're being totally subjugated - religiously, sexually, socially - then have at it. at least you should be able to hear an alternative in the interim.

unless i'm wrong and you're not suggesting that any criticism of religious symbolism (even sadistic symbols) is immediately racist and, most likely, sexist as well. if so, then concerns about issues such as female circumcision are grounded outright by sexism and racism.

Jeff Alworth said...

Iggi, there's a big difference between choosing to wear burqas and having adult men mutilate your teenage body. And the real issue is the assumption that women who wear burqa are as powerless as girls whose genitals are mutilated. It's that assumption that's racist and sexist. We don't hold the same assumption about women from other countries who dress in native fashion--we just assume Muslim women are oppressed. That's the racist part. The sexist part is the assumption that it is we, in our enlightened state, who may grant these women their agency.

Having been to Muslim countries (S & SE Asia), I have a different sense of those "oppressed" women and their actual agency. And American Muslims--I wouldn't touch that.

A little bird said...

I had the same thoughts as Iggi on this topic. From what I've read on female circumcision, it's not usually adult men doing this, but rather the women in the family, often the grandmother. When sexual oppression is, as is so often the case, grounded in religion then the religion deserves criticism. If a woman in these cultures chooses to throw off her burqa she risks serious bodily harm. It's not always a choice and it's certainly not a fashion statement.

I'm not suggesting it should be illegal to wear a head scarf or face covering, but I reject the notion that it's racist or culturally insensitive to criticize the purpose of the garb.

Jeff Alworth said...

If a woman in these cultures chooses to throw off her burqa she risks serious bodily harm.

Fair enough, but that's the case in a minority of countries; the issue I'm raising is for women in America or in countries where it's not oppressive. Who has the right to judge this? Very often, non-Muslim Americans seize that right, even when Muslim women don't offer it. To whom should I grant agency here--the Muslim woman who wants to wear a burqa or the non-Muslim American who imagines she doesn't know better.

To compare genital mutilation--performed on children--to wearing a burqa is a serious misunderstanding of the two situations. (And you're right, my mistake--it is performed by largely women.)

Chuck Butcher said...

I don't understand why agency needs to be granted. People can wear what they like even if it's stupid and people who'd control what people wear are stupid. That's not name calling, it refers to a fundamental lack of understanding of the country you live in.

If you'd like to wear a KKK T-shirt to a NAACP meeting, you have the legal right to be that stupid. Whether a Muslim woman feels oppressed by a burqa is beside the point, she can legally wear it or not. I think it's ridiculous clothing, but I also think sticking a bunch of metal into your face is ridiculous.

A burqa is a potent symbol of fundamentalism, as are side locks. I consider it a warning as well as finding it silly looking. But then, I have a rather furry face, which some find silly. I have my own good reasons for it, but it may also be a warning...

I find it rather extreme to link clothing to forced physical mutilation, but I've never worn a burqa.