Veiled truth

Veiled woman - Istanbul, Turkey

There has been much talk recently about women wearing veils in the West. Adding fuel to the debate was yesterday’s statement by Sheikh Taj el-Din al-Hilali – Australia’s most senior cleric – who said women who did not wear a hijab (head dress) were like “uncovered meat”, somewhat implying that if they get raped they are begging for it. This statement was particularly insensitive since Sydney was the scene six years ago of a series of gang rapes committed by a group of Lebanese Australians, who received long prison sentences.

The comment will certainly reignite the heated debate that took place in the last few weeks in the UK about the niqab, the full-body veil that only has a slot for the eyes. But it also will raise more questions about Muslim attitudes to women in general. Three articles are quite illuminating on this front. The first one, from Anne Applebaum on the Washington Post, brings our attention to the fact that fully-covered faces in the West are as culturally insensitive as miniskirts in Indonesia. It’s not just a matter of politeness, I would add. Hidden faces in the West are associated with bandits, robbers, kidnappers or at best actors (sic!), and in this moment of heightened tension between Muslim and non-Muslim communities in the West, what might be an act of piety can only come across as a provocation.

The second article, always on the Washington Post, is by Asra Q. Nomani, who points out a deeper – and more difficult – issue:

Western leaders, including British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, have recently focused on Muslim women’s veils as an obstacle to integration in the West. But to me, it is [verse] 4:34 [of the Koran] that poses the much deeper challenge of integration“.

The verse – “and (as to) those on whose part you fear desertion, admonish them and leave them alone in the sleeping-places and beat them” –  has been preached by some Muslim scholars as moral justification for “mild forms” of domestic violence in many Muslim homes. Clearly, this is not to say domestic violence is solely a Muslim problem, or that there aren’t similar verses in the Bible pointing to women’s inferior status or to the physical punishments they should receive in case of sinful behaviour. But clearly we have a problem when Muslim preachers are unquestioningly spreading these teachings, something that – to my knoweldge – other religious leaders are refraining from doing.

This comes in stark contrast to Yvonne Ridley’s account of How She Came to Love the Veil, also on the Washington Post (you can tell John had a hand in all this). While her feelings about how Islam offers a new route to female emancipation, with the veil offering a concrete means of creating a visual identity, might be true, her dismissal of male politician’s understanding of the issue (their arrogance [is] surpassed only by their ignorance) is simply misplaced.

It is worth remembering here that the problem is not the head-scarf (hijab), since there are plenty of examples of veiled women in the Western traditions, from nuns to brides. The problem is the face-veil (niqab). I can see how the niqab – allowing a woman to see without being seen – can be very empowering. But the niqab represents a real cultural clash between the Muslim world and the West, one which poses real difficulties to politicians trying to defuse the current tensions, and which cannot be simply dismissed as ignorance. A covered face is threatening in the West, be it of a man or of a woman, and what Ridley fails to understand is that the West, like other cultures around the world, has its taboos, prescriptions and social norms that have to be respected like in any other society. When I decided to get a tattoo, for example, I knew I’d never be allowed to enter a Japanese public bath, because tattoos in Japan are associated with criminality. I accept the (small) consequence of my decision. So should Muslim women who live in the West.

The debate, I am sure, will continue on a newspaper/TV set/website next to you…

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7 responses to “Veiled truth

  1. i have a hard time working out why women wear knickers never mind veils.

  2. Blimey, you are much more hard-line than me. While I object to overtly religious displays in public institutions – whether schools or courts – I am prepared to accept that it would probably be unreasonably separatist to prevent people from wearing displays which don’t actually interfere with them doing their jobs (turbans, headscarves, crucifixes are probably ok, while niqabs when you’re teaching kids probably aren’t). You seem to go further, and argue that a veil should not be worn in public because it is somehow “threatening” to those of us who live in the west. Speaking for myself, I find people wearing dark sunglasses so you can’t see whether or not they’re looking at you are much more threatening. Should all sunglasses be banned because I feel threatened? Or is me feeling threatened more my problem than the person wearing the sunglasses? As you write, they should be showing cultural sensitivity to the people in whose company they are. But what about if they’re wearing the glasses because they have a medical light-sensitivity? Whose rights or feelings should take precedence?

    The fact is, I find lots of people threatening, and lots of people annoying, and lots of people aesthetically unpleasant. So what? That’s what multiculturalism means, doesn’t it? I’m prepared to concede all sorts of religious symbolism in the world around me, even though I find much of it vaguely offensive, provided they’re prepared to concede that my lifestyle has as much validity and right as theirs. Alas, most religious groups are not prepared to be quite as tolerant of me as they expect me to be of them…

  3. I think you missed the point of what I wrote – or perhaps you are being facetious as usual! I do not object to the ‘veil’: the word ‘veil’ means a lot of different things, and using it in this debate is just confusing. Let’s start calling things with their names.

    On the one hand, the hijab is prefectly acceptable and in no way clashes with our cultural traditions. It’s a modal expression – you are communicating something to another person, whether it’s your religious belief, or your modesty, or perhaps even a threat – and it’s down to what you want to interpret as a ‘viewer’. The niqab, on the other hand, sends a very different message: I do not want to be part of the cultural standards of this society, I reject them. Comparing this message to the one sunglasses-wearers send is just absurd. Yes, they are technically all ‘ornaments’, but they mean very different things and exist for very different purposes. You cannot just dismiss this as secondary.

    It would be like lumping up men, chicken and cucumbers under the same label of ‘food’, because – technically – they are all edible.

  4. Alberto – I liked your point about cultural flow; two friends of mine recently went on their honeymoon to Thailand and, in preparation, read a guidebook on Thai culture and customs which remarked on things such as crossing your legs, shaking hands, etc. Discounting, for now, any claims that might be made as to the Orientalist nature of such a book, I think it was a good faith attempt to be sensitive to the norms of a different cultural and geographic space. And, as they later reported back to me, most of those norms were not widely practiced anyway – at least not in the destinations (widely traveled by Westerners) they visited (we should also ignore, for the moment, a discussion of global monoculture or globalization as Westernization!). I suppose the case could be made that vacationing carries more of a burden of cultural accommodation than permanent residence (as many Muslims in the West are taking up) – but in general, there IS something of a double standard and, unfortunately, the discourse of cultural sensitivity kind of stifles any productive conversations that might be had on this front sometimes.

  5. Actually, for once I wasn’t being facetious. It seems to me that you are assuming a cultural supremacy for your feelings – you wrote of being “threatened” by women wearing a niqab – over the feelings of others. You now appear to be suggesting that, because they are immigrants (a statement that conveniently ignores the fact that many niqab-wearers are not!) they should be sensitive to “our [sic] cultural traditions” in the UK.

    I say bollocks to that. Your cultural tradition is not the same as mine (clearly, as this discussion shows!), so whose norm is to take precedence? And I really don’t think you can get away with assuming that all niqab-wearers are not British-born (my view is, anyway, even if they are not, who cares, but you seem to imply that people who were born here get some sort of cultural precedence). If a niqab-wearer is British-born, does that mean that you now accept that they are a part of this society and therefore have a role in shaping its cultural standards – presumably to include wearing the niqab? Or are they somehow discounted because they are choosing to be outsiders (like queers, perhaps?).

    You say they are wearing a niqab to send a message that “I do not want to be part of the cultural standards of this society”: I think this is a big assumption on your part. Some may wish to do that, others may wish to avoid being looked at (which is, I guess, what some of those people wearing dark sunglasses are also seeking). Even if that is their message, so what? None of us should be obliged to participate in this scummy consumerist society if we don’t want to. We should all have the freedom to live our lives by our own standards (assuming, in good liberal fashion, that this doesn’t actually involve harming anyone else…).

    Equally, if we choose to take public money to do a public job, we should accept that we lose some of our rights to express our individuality – just as, for more than a decade as a local government officer, I forfeited the right to slag off the views and policies of the democratically-elected politicians that I was being paid to serve.

    Sorry, albeo, but in this case I think it is you that is being overly simplistic: firstly by assuming that the “cultural standards” you are articulating are the “right” ones, and secondly by assuming that everyone has to live by them.

    Although I do like the idea of lumping together things and giving them provocative titles. I remember the (very welcome) jolt to my system which I experienced the first time I saw humans described as “sentient meat”. Sometimes reframing things can give us valuable new insights.

  6. Uhm… first of all, look I know where live (sort of). Show respect to the godfather or else…

    Secondly – and more seriously: I never mentioned once the word immigrant. In fact, when you start looking closer at WHO wears the niqab, it is usually second or third generation women, born and bred in the UK or other European cities. First generation immigrants are usually all too keen to comply with the cultural standards of their new home (I dismiss your accusation of i>big assumption on the topic – in this case it is simply undeniable that not showing your face – not just your eyes – in European societies is not a standard practice).

    This throws a complete different perspective on the matter, if I may suggest. It is people who – for a variety of reasons – feel alienated from our society (which you call scummy consumeristic) that decide to express their feelings and opinions in this way. As long – you argue – as they don’t get in my way, I don’t mind. Now who is applying a personalistic interpretation of coexistence to the matter? Who are you to say it doesn’t offend/scare/disturb other people?

    Moreover, there are bigger issues at stake here. This is not about libertarian societies allowing you to do just about anything that crosses your mind – btw I don’t think this kind of society has ever existed in Europe, there are hundreds of more-or-less explicit norms and regulations we comply to every day without ever complaining, even in the highly individualistic Britain. No, the debate is taking place in a complex context of tension and misunderstandings between Muslim communities and ‘other’ communities in Europe. Again, you dismiss the context as unimportant, while I say it makes all the difference.

    And finally, I think only Hannibal Lecter might find the definition of humans as ‘sentient meat’ stimulating. Therefore, I might have to decline your invite for dinner. I’d like my limbs to stay attached to my body for the near future…!

  7. Forgive me, I assumed that you thought all niqab-wearers were not British-born. If, as you state, you assume the majority are, then I can’t imagine what your argument is that they should not wear what they damn well please. Do these people not have any right to create the “norms” by which we all have to live, or is it only non-niqab-wearers who are allowed to set the rules?

    You say that some other people find niqab-wearing inflaming – apparently there is some sort of context. Would that be similar to the context of my youth, where faggots were by definition offensive: where you could be sacked from your job because someone you worked with thought that queers were sick? Would many people today defend that sort of vicious prejudice? Why do we think that wearing a niqab is any different?

    You can’t turn it round and argue that I am imposing my own norms: I am not. I am arguing that — short of assaulting someone or, as they say, shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre — pretty much anything goes. If you are offended by me, that is really your problem. If I am offended by you, that is my problem. It is not society’s problem to deal with offences such as these. If society makes it its problem, how long before Pretty Police reappear targeted at Muslims? What sort of shitty society would that be?

    Sorry you don’t now fancy my cooking, though you’re probably wise to think carefully. Cath refuses to commit to a date for a dvd matinee orgy while she is cuddling Henry F., so food may be some time off…

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