The Veil in the Western World

Jennifer IzaaksonAs happens from time to time, someone I’ve never heard of starts to follow me on Twitter. Now I fully admit: I’m terrible on Twitter. I’ve been trying to follow Andrea’s lead and be something more than a tired series of “Look what I’ve written on Frankly Curious!” But when Jennifer Izaakson followed me, I noticed. She’s written a couple of articles on the Huffington Post. And regardless what they pay, I want a chunk of that. So I clicked over to see what she had written.

Her most recent article is, A Ban on the Veil Is an Attack on Our Freedoms. Well, having read that title, I was immediately impressed—imagining her as a modern day Isabelle Eberhardt. As a first approximation: of course! There’s a reason why “liberal” and “libertarian” share two whole syllables. All else equal, people should be able to do what they want. And if people want to wear the veil, who are I am to disagree? After all, for most women, it is probably more cultural than anything else.

But it isn’t quite that simple. Let’s suppose the issue were not the veil, but genital mutilation. In this case would we really believe that women were demanding genital mutilation out of some cultural affinity with their mothers? I think we would rightly believe that these women had just been brain washed. So the issue is not as black and white as I’m afraid that Izaakson would make it. Although I’m the first to admit that wearing the veil is well on the liberty side of the question.

What this all brings up is the elephant in the room. (Not Chris Christie; he’s just really big.) How do different cultures fuse together to create a new culture? I’m sorry for this, but I have to go all Thomas Friedman on you. I was riding in this taxi with a Sheikh driver. Because I’m very interested in religion, I asked him about his religion, which I knew a bit about—far more than most Americans. Unfortunately, the conversation quickly turned to the question of how American women dress and how they are a bunch of whores. Clearly, he saw things differently from the way I did. I think men are mature enough to see a totally hot young woman in short-shorts without losing all control. In other words, as a man, I put the onus of control on my own gender and he put it on the other gender. Men are helpless when tempted by the nubile figure!

Obviously, I think my cultural perspective is correct. And I’m not just saying that. His attitude was repugnant to me. I feel as sure of my attitude being better than his as I am of mammalian child rearing is to that of alligators. (FYI: alligators eat their own children.) So I have a very real problem with the veil in the sense that it is a symbol of the reptilian belief that men just can’t control themselves when they see a bit of skin. Sadly, that is what is on the other gender side of the veil debate.

You may well ask, “Does he believe in banning the veil?” Not at all! I believe not only in culture but in the clash of cultures. I believe different peoples who combine become better, in the same way that genetic diversity improves the species. And I have no doubt that over time the veil will become a cultural signifier rather than a scarlet letter. But let us not fool ourselves into believe that the veil does not have a pernicious symbolism for many (Especially men!) in many non-western cultures throughout the world.


Updated to non-drunk standards.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

5 thoughts on “The Veil in the Western World

  1. "The Veil Issue" is a quagmire of racial distrust, religious intolerance, perceived misogyny, and a clash of cultures.

    Anyone concerned with women’s rights, the abuse of women under the guise of religious traditions, and the objectification/ownership of women, will see a woman wearing a veil as an affront. Well-meaning people are projecting their own indignation onto what they perceive to be male-dominated and dogma-fueled oppression. Others see the veil as a defiant refusal to assimilate into a new culture or a silent condemnation for the society that they should be embracing. Still others may feel that the veil will antagonize racists in the community and put the wearers’ safety at risk.

    And to some extent, every one of those opinions is true, which unfortunately can turn an article of clothing into a flying banner of contention.

    Personally, when I see women who cover their hair or shroud their entire bodies, I feel sorry for them. I see them as having embraced religious or cultural practices that, to my mind, diminish them, not only as women, but as human beings. Regardless of my own ideas of what constitutes appropriate public attire, the fact that a woman’s choice of dress, from a miniskirt to a burkha, is seen as tacit complicity with a society that will label her a whore or victim is disturbing.

    To my mind, if a person’s culture or religion does not cause physical or mental harm to themselves or others, they should be left alone. However, violence and cruelty under the guise of religious freedom or cultural tolerance should [i]never[/i] be accepted by the rest of society.

    So, unless you’re sitting next to Lady Gaga and she’s wearing a razor ribbon dress, don’t fret about what a woman’s wearing. Your time would be better spent considering the validity of your own prejudices.

  2. @Andrea – I agree, especially with that last part. But I think that concern about self-oppression is valid. And I [i]do[/i] think there is a line there. But clothing choices aren’t near it.

  3. For what it’s worth, my view is that attempting to reduce sexism (or any other socially undesirable tradition) in a particular group by banning a symbol of it is counterproductive. If change is seen as forced from without, members of a group will often cling to their traditions as a matter of pride. When it is seen as coming from within, some won’t like it, but most will eventually adjust.

    That cab driver Frank mentions reminds me of parents in every group that ever came here. How many European or Asian or Hispanic parents lamented that American kids were too fast, too disrespectful? Quite a few. And their kids adapted anyway. I talk (occasionally) with a Palestinian shipowner who, when his kids are out of earshot, complains about their use of American slang, their loss of the old ways. But he still loves and supports them.

    Consider the American right; its whole narrative is that change is being forced on them. It doesn’t come from groups that want equality (Herman Cain and Sarah Palin don’t complain!), or working people who want justice (Joe the Plumber doesn’t complain!) It HAS to be presented as the malevolence of all-powerful liberal elites, or the illusion vanishes in a poof. (Eventually, they’ll trot out Log Cabin Republicans, just not quite yet.)

    The best way to reduce sexism in Muslim culture is to make our cultures as sexism-free, and as appealingly so, as we possibly can. (Plus all the old tried-and-true methods like providing good public schools for immigrants.) Our Muslim women will follow, and lead the men (some kicking and screaming) along.

    And, yes, Ms. Izaakson is writing about Europe, not America. But the same holds true. I’ve seen women in traditional garb (no veil, but everything else) strolling Copenhagen sites as obvious go-goo-eyed romantic couples, no doubt thrilled to have that freedom. (Which they probably don’t show at family dinners — not yet, anyhow.) As long as people don’t threaten their right to advance at their own pace, from within, they’ll continue to push towards equality.

    European anti-Muslim sentiment is pretty much entirely a cynical ploy to elect right-wing politicians, who claim to be supporting secular liberalism. (When you hear a house painter, who’s been to church twice in his life, for baptism and marriage, complain about Muslims burning Bibles, you know that’s a talking point.)

  4. @JMF – I keep wondering if I wasn’t clear, because I agree with everything that’s been written here. (BTW: go to [url=http://niceatheistgirl.com/index.php?itemid=70]Nice Atheist Girl[/url]–she has a great image there.) Of course, I agree with Izaakson too.

    People who immigrate to this country do not and have never have "integrated." That’s what the second generation does. So I get angry with people who complain that first generation Latinos don’t speak English. Who cares? We’ll get their children, I guarantee it! What’s more, as you imply, if you want to make people join your culture, make it so fucking awesome that they can’t resist.

    But the cab driver was a fucking asshole regardless.

  5. @Frank — You were perfectly clear. Nor do I think anyone’s disagreeing with you! Sometimes it’s just fun to add things (don’t you mathematicians enjoy "adding things"?)

    Thomas Friedman NEVER calls his cab driver "a fucking asshole." (Maybe if he did, I’d have more respect for Friedman OR believe he actually met any of these Wise Cab Drivers. They’re like the bookie at the track who knows all the "skinny" in old detective novels . . .)

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