Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Fear of Veils

I've been following with some interest the story of the teacher's aide in Britain who's been suspended from work because she wears a face-covering veil in the presence of adult male coworkers for religious reasons.

The official version appears to be that she wasn't able to communicate effectively with the children through the veil, which seems improbable to me. Generations of women wearing face veils have communicated effectively with children. ("Mustafa, get IN this house, and CLEAN your room, and help your grandfather SWEEP the yard before you even THINK about running off to play ball." Kid understood every word.) It's a sheet of fabric, not a diver's helmet.

Somehow, all kinds of people who you wouldn't think would get involved in a dispute between a teacher's aide and her school are getting involved with this one. Jack Straw has weighed in--apparently he doesn't like to meet with veiled women, and pressures Muslim women who meet with him to unveil. And Tony Blair has labeled the veil a 'mark of separation'. (This is bad.) And some other person in government has announced that equal rights for women don't go with the veil, therefore the veil has to go.

In other words, this is not about a 23 year old girl named Aishah who teaches the fourth grade, this is about whether Muslim women in Britain going veiled is GOOD or BAD.

Some thoughts, in no particular order:

1. I have long wondered how it would have changed things if the dominant culture which produced second wave feminism had been Zulu rather than Anglo-American. I rather suspect that there would be considerable distress among Zulu feminists over the disturbing cultural phenomenon in which all women, married or not, are expected to keep their breasts covered, or be severely harassed, in the cultures of the West.

2. I wonder what else Jack Straw tries to dictate about how his female visitors are dressed? If their skirts are too long, does he ask that they be rolled up? Shirts unbuttoned to a respectable cleavage? Who the HELL does this man think he is?

3. Basically, this is about insisting on assimilation as being necessary to the functioning of society. I am not entirely convinced that society has a vested interest in my male coworkers getting to see my nose.

4. My ox is standing near the ox that is being gored. I will not cover my hair when I marry, but that is a decision _I_ made. Many Jewish women, of course, decide differently. I still remember how angry I was in college when a friend who studied Christian theology told me a 'funny' story about how a teacher of hers had sat through meetings with an Orthodox woman professor who wears a shaytel. It was, apparently, rip-roaring funny that this woman was sitting there in her dorky wig, totally unaware of how funny and oppressed she looked. And SCRATCHING under the wig! (I have some issues still. And I didn't voice them strongly enough at the time.) Is the shaytel or the tichel a 'mark of separation'? You bet. Is it going to be tolerated? In what settings? Who gets to decide what gets tolerated? Oh, yeah. The dominant culture. I keep forgetting.

5. Be just like us, they whisper. We'll be multiculturalists, and honor the universal parts of your culture if you'll really be just like us. Of course, if you break this unilateral bargain...we may have to deal with you.

6. Why are so many people so obsessed with ladies's headwear? This keeps coming up in Europe, and I don't get it. Of all the things Europe needs to focus on, in terms of interacting with Islam and Muslim populations, this seems so tangential as to be almost surreal. ("The Mongols are on their way! And they are wearing furry boots!" "AAAAAH! FURRY BOOTS!")

Give Aishah her job back, and for heaven's sakes, someone tell Jack Straw to stop being such a lech.


Conservative Apikoris said...

Yeah, I don't know what to think of this business. On the one hand, it would probably be better for everyone involved if Muslim women in Europe stopped wearing full veils. On the ther hand, making a big issue about it is probably not the way to encourage Muslims to change their ways.

As for the Jews, we tend to forget that when we came to the US (probably the same in Britian when the Ostjuden came) 100 year ago, mainstream America was much more hostile to open traditional Jewish observance. Sure, it was better than the land of the Czar, but Jews who stood out had problems. This was true until very recently. In fact only about 20 years ago, I had a neighbor who was an Orthodox rabbi who earned his living as a programmer for AT&T, and he never wore his kipa to work, thought it would be better not to call attention to himself. And that was in the early 1980s!

We Jews in America had to assimilate quite a bit before we were accepted. Now. most people have no problem with obviously frum people, they're not foreigners with funny accents, they're just Americans with a different religion.

In Europe, with the Muslims, it's different. First, there are a lot more Muslims than we have here, and second, there's all the political tension. It doesn't help in Britian that the Brits are cooprating with Bush an the Iraq fiasco. I suspect right now a lot of British Muslims are pretty conflicted about the British identity becuase of that.

So it's a difficult issue, but maybe it will be resolve when Tony Blair leaves power and the Brits leave Iraq.

Kai Jones said...

I think covering your face conveys a complex message in Western culture. Some parts of that complex message are:
1. Who I am as an individual doesn't matter.
2. I am unwilling to show you my expressions.
3. I don't want to allow you the intimacy of looking into my eyes.

Not being able to see someone's face makes deception much easier. Heck, I make my kids take off their sunglasses because it's rude to hide your eyes from the person you're talking to, in my culture.

Then there's the issue of hearing loss. I have read that Jack Straw has hearing loss, and that a veil both impedes clear transmission of sound and disables lip reading to assist in correct communication.