"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Should The Veil Be Outlawed?

Images like the one below are very scary. For most of us in the West they are not just women, nor Muslim women, nor Afghan Muslim women; they are throwbacks to a primitive medieval age. Their dress signifies ignorance, subjugation, and retrograde religious law.

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You don’t see many full burqas in Washington, but there are plenty of modified veils:

Women take the veil in support of World Hijab Day February 1, 2013

These are by no means so scary because the face is uncovered and many outfits are stylish, if not elegant. Seeing those one might be persuaded that the veil is what many Muslim say – that it is an outward expression of an inward faith.  Many American women disagree.  No woman, they contend, would willingly deny herself so completely of her femininity and sexuality; and that the hijab is nothing more than a sign of male oppression.

Photojournalist Sebastian Farmborough travelled through Saudi Arabia and happened upon this woman taking a dip in the sea.  A Kodak moment not to be missed, he said, and snapped this alluring, beautiful woman, complying fully with sharia law, but still expressing more of herself than any Saudi censor could prevent.

Epic photo

So what to make of the veil? Symbol of male oppression and a medieval society? A legitimate expression of religious faith? A garment which in fact frees a woman from the constant leers of sexually insatiable men?

France has made the veil a cause celebre and has outlawed it in public institutions.  It cannot be worn in schools, for example.  France is a secular democracy, French politicians and academicians alike proclaim, and the veil is a threat to its foundation.  Since all French citizens are equal, then any deliberate attempt to differentiate, segment, or isolate by race or ethnicity is seen as violating the sacred French charter of liberté, égalité, fraternité.  You may be a Jew, Sikh, or Muslim at home, French leaders say, but out in public, you are French. Considerations of race and ethnicity are deliberately absent from the census, job application forms, and public documents, there is no affirmative action, and it is assumed that once an immigrant is accepted into La Belle France, he or she must act French.

This policy has backfired, for if there is one thing that one can say about Muslims today, they are not shy about expressing their religious identity.  In fact they are often militantly determined to expand their socio-religious as far as possible and to create a Muslim  caliphate.  There is no moderation or compromise in this view.  Modern, secular Western society is not the liberal paradise that we see – liberation for women, civil rights for homosexuals, freedom of expression – but a breeding ground for anti-religious sentiment and a dangerous and precipitous fall from God.  Militant Islam is not only about religion, ethnicity, politics, and power; it is about all three together.  Banning the veil is tantamount to rejecting God, Islam, and Muslims.

It is often curious for the casual observer to see how two republics – France and America – created during the same period of history, and sharing the same Enlightenment ideals, deal with freedom of expression so differently. How did France, famous for the Revolution in which everyone was a citoyen united against the oppressive aristocracy, become so autocratic and statist?  America, it seems, has remained more faithful to its roots in civil liberties.

It is the term égalité which is the stickler.  We Americans believe that equality means equal opportunity, while the French believe in a more substantive, inherent equality. No human being is different from any other; and any outward trappings of distinction should be expunged.  In our system, you can express yourself however you please, and the role of the State – if any – is to remove as many rocks as possible from the road to wealth and prosperity.

Principles aside, it is geopolitics which rule as always.  France maintained many Muslim majority colonies in Africa and in some, like Algeria, fought a violent and bloody war to maintain power.  Although thousands of Algerians were allowed to emigrate to France, they were always – despite official policy – marginalized and were far from equal to their white, Christian counterparts.  Over the decades more and more Muslims emigrated to France which now has the highest Muslim population in Europe.  Its policies of isolation and marginalization erupted in 2005 when the long restive and frustrated communities of the northern, predominantly Muslim suburbs of Paris rioted.  For France this should have been a wake-up call; but instead of joining America and Britain in their openness to and tolerance for racial and ethnic diversity, hardened their égalité stance.  No veils, no special considerations for Muslim women who would only be seen by a female Muslim doctor, no tolerance for any internal separatism.

In addition to its social, religious, and ethnic significance, wearing the veil took on a political character as well.  The hijab has become a symbol of defiance against the ignorant, secular, godless French.

The case of America is different.  First and foremost, our Muslim community is very small and geographically isolated. Perhaps most importantly, Muslim immigrants like their Latin American counterparts and European predecessors of a century ago, have readily bought into the American dream.  Ethnic identity is what holds you back, not what helps you up the difficult slope to success.  Italians, Irish, Polish, and other immigrants worked hard to expunge the cooking smells, dress, and accents of Europe.  While the US has been far more accommodating to bilingualism than 100 years ago, second generation Latinos are fluent in English, more American than Salvadoran or Honduran, and on their way to full social integration. Muslims are no different.  Many may wear the veil, but ‘innocuously’ and quietly, not as a militant symbol of anything.  In America as long as you go about your business of making money and do it quietly and unobtrusively, we will let you alone.

America’s tolerance for certain cultural practices such as female circumcision (or’ female genital mutilation’, the loaded but now-common term for it) is stretched a bit thin. On the surface it is a barbaric practice and one which has its roots squarely in male domination and the subjugation of women.  Unlike male circumcision which does not alter sexual pleasure or performance, excising a woman’s clitoris and sewing up her vagina (infibulation) most certainly does.  If a woman cannot experience sexual pleasure, men state, then she is less likely to stray.

Here the ‘progressive’ Left in America is divided.  On the one hand they speak with one voice on the subject of diversity and multi-culturalism.  Anything goes according to this relativist ethos.  All cultures are equal, although different in belief and expression. Social harmony if not world peace will come about only if all cultures and cultural differences are not only accepted but ‘celebrated’.  On the other hand feminists and moderates alike are outraged that the practice can be tolerated in this country.  Even if women willingly agree to the operation, these American women say, it is really only traditional fealty to prevailing norms and the wish not to offend and be different, and not a truly free and open choice.

Tens if not hundreds of millions of women throughout the world undergo female circumcision, and the international development community has made little headway to eliminate the practice, for it is now so ingrained after centuries of practice, that is as commonly accepted as any other.  In America, there has been a federal law against female genital mutilation since 1996, and given the relatively few immigrants from countries which practice it, it has been a non-issue here.  It has been used, however, as another issue in the increasingly hostile war against Islam.  It is seen, even more than the veil, the archaic, and backward nature of the religion.

The point is that cultural diversity has its limits and when all is said and done, most Western countries are tolerant only up to a point.  As long as immigrants behave more or less like Americans, most of us will turn a blind eye to what they believe or do in private.  Tolerance for Islam – and the headscarf – will become less the more Muslims stray from the middle ground.  Normally tolerant Scandinavian countries are becoming outraged at what they see is the erosion of European, Christian values and culture; and have begun to target headscarves and other Muslim cultural practices.  The increase in the number of mosques is cause for alarm, for it is the visible symbol of a growing anti-European, anti-Christian minority.

History has amply shown that repression usually ends in some form of violence. The suppression of ethnic minorities in the former Yugoslavia was a principle cause of the violence of the Balkan wars.  Tito kept ethnic antagonisms under control by repressing them, and when his rule ended, violence erupted.  The events in the Middle East are no different; nor are the black uprisings in 1960s America.  The Anglo-Saxon model of cultural tolerance appears to be the only way forward; but admittedly England and America are not home to the more radically conservative Muslims found in France and increasingly in other countries of Northern Europe.  It is very hard indeed for a tolerant, progressive country like Sweden to open such newcomers with open arms.  Not only do these countries have little experience with colonialism or with immigration from former Muslim colonies; they have little experience with immigration, period.

The simple headscarf, then, has become one of the focal points for cultural distress.  Many Danes, Swedes, and Americans now look at it as the most visible and aggressive sign of increasing Muslim separatism and militancy; and they don’t like it.  What to do about it is another thing altogether.

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