Earlier this week, British Prime Minister Tony Blair added fuel to a red-hot cultural debate ignited by response to Muslim women wearing the niqab, a face-covering veil with no opening other than slits for eyes.
“It is a mark of separation,” said Blair of the niqab, “and that is why it makes other people from outside the community feel uncomfortable… No one wants to say that people don’t have the right to do it. That is to take it too far. But I think we need to confront this issue about how we integrate people properly into our society.”
I could chew on that one sentence for a year or so and still not be ready to swallow. Let’s nibble at it together, shall we?
Fear Factor. Because we live in the Age of Being Scared Witless, the first thought that comes to mind on seeing someone swathed in a black tent is how are we to know who or what is underneath?
I probed that thought to see if I could get at the point of fear. Would we be frightened of a woman in mid-19th century traveling garb, all voluminous petticoats, hats and veils? Of someone in Ninja attire, complete with mask? Of Christian nuns and monks in old-fashioned habits, showing only their faces?
For that matter, why is it unacceptable to speak in person with someone whose face you can’t see, but okay to have even important, high-security conversations by phone or computer?
Blair didn’t mention security concerns, but surely such fears are part of the subtext, squarely grounded in the invidious habit of associating Muslims with terrorism, or he would have reacted in similar fashion to others whose dress stood out as different.
Varieties of otherness. In my community, I mostly encounter two types of people who set themselves apart by outward appearance: people from the Indian subcontinent, women in saris or salwar kameez, men in kurtas, a few Sikhs in turbans; and Hasidic Jews, men in old-fashioned black frock coats and black hats, women with wigs or head coverings and long, loose dresses (if I lived near Satmar Hasidim, I might see men in shtreimels, cylindrical fur hats, and knee-britches). I have never seen anyone walking around San Francisco or Berkeley in a niqab, but I bet there are a few who do.
I asked a liberal Jewish friend about the “mark of separation” controversy: did either of these groups make her uncomfortable? The Hasidim did, she told me. When she sees them she wonders if they find her dress or behavior offensive, if they feel she is a potential contaminant to be avoided altogether, or if there is a way to create a bridge and if so, whether she should try to do it. Her anxiety rises.
What if she knew the codes, I asked? If she understood precisely how they saw her, exactly what they expected? Would her discomfort wane?
If I knew they were judging me, she said, I might still feel uncomfortable.
How about the Amish, I asked? They are pretty unequivocal in their rejection of modernity and its trappings, implicitly judging us as corrupt, even contaminating. Do they make you uncomfortable?
No, she said.
Me neither, nor, from what I have seen in the news lately, most newscasters and audiences. I think I know why. Because the specific trappings of the Amish—their equivalent of the niqab, the outward signifiers of separate cultural values—resemble the kind of engravings used to illustrate early American life in our 1950s textbooks: horses, buggies and bonnets. Their otherness is cozy, familiar and safe. Their otherness is white.
Varieties of diversity and tolerance. I have complicated feelings about women in the niqab, just as I do about the covered-up dress of ultra-Orthodox Jewish women. I’m a civil libertarian, so I support their freedom of choice in dress. My problem is that I’m not so sure they are exercising full freedom. In both cases, women covering the hair, the body (and sometimes all or part of the face) is explained as an expression of religious modesty. But the flip side of modesty is the implication that the physicality of a woman is in itself an incitement, a violation that needs to be hidden—and often, that the woman who refuses to do so is responsible for any assault a man might make on her person. So as a feminist, I question the thinking behind this idea of modesty. Even though women who practice it often say they are freely choosing to do so—and even though I recognize their right to make that choice—I remain dubious that it is uncoerced. And aware that my skepticism could be seen as condescending.
I am also aware that while growing cultural diversity introduces complications into the notion of a generally accepted standard of decorum, most societies still have one. I doubt there would be much outcry if Tony Blair had asked a delegation of nudists to cover up before visiting his office. Unless the visitor happens to be Jessica Simpson on a photo op for muscular dystrophy, most heads of state would be reluctant to associate themselves with anyone in provocative clothing; and unless it’s Halloween, few presidents or prime ministers will open their doors to a guy in a Batman costume. Where is the line drawn and by what criteria?
Aishah Azmi, the London teaching assistant suspended after she refused to remove a niqab with men present during lessons, was born in Wales, going through the usual schools and acquiring the qualifications to work as a teaching assistant. Tony Blair’s portraying the issue as one of integration of newcomers to the society hardly fits the facts. Aishah Azmi chose to begin wearing the niqab eight years ago, evidently without impediment until her recent clash with school authorities. Yesterday she won a victimization suit against her school, but her case for discrimination and harassment was decided in the school’s favor.
In contrast, in Iran, Afghanistan and Turkey, there have been quite a few documented cases of women being stoned to death or otherwise murdered for the crime of immodest dress. In ultra-Orthodox sections of Jerusalem, women who are seen to dress immodestly by local standards (e.g., wearing trousers instead of a skirt) run the risk of having insults and objects thrown at them.
So the tolerance for diversity that is now being demanded of western societies—and which is being denounced as a retrograde demand to honor outmoded customs creating too much separation—is in fact a call for liberty far beyond that available to women in some of the countries that originated such customs of dress.
Which is why the demand should be granted.
Right now, humanity is undergoing a massive period of adjustment. Out of ambition or necessity, people are moving from their home countries to other lands in unprecedented numbers, with great impact on the places that attract immigrants. Industrialized societies that offer work prospects or social services to immigrants are becoming much more diverse. In time, we will see what Carlos Fuentes has called “a re-elaboration of our civilizations in agreement with our deeper, not our more ephemeral, traditions. Dreams and nightmares, different songs, different laws, different rhythms, long-deferred hopes, different shapes of beauty, ethnicity and diversity, a different sense of time, multiple identities rising from the depths of the polycultural and multiracial worlds of Africa, Asia and Latin America.” But until this new reality settles into normalcy, elements of the old order will push back.
There is an international continuum of discomfort with signifiers of otherness. Over the last 15 years in France, a huge controversy has turned on whether it should be permissible to wear headscarves in state schools. There, a fairly small and innocuous symbol of cultural values can ignite a large response. Despite a good deal of situational rudeness and intolerance, the USA is still on the other end of the spectrum, with a general presumption of official liberty in the exercise of religion and related customs. All of the relevant cases by the ACLU, for example, involve intervening in isolated situations: one woman was forced to remove her niqab to have a Florida driver’s license photo taken (it turns out 15 states have laws exempting people from photographs on religious grounds); another was forced to remove her head covering in front of male guards and prisoners while visiting her son’s father in jail (the remedy was making female guards available for such inspections, not banning head coverings).
Britain is right in the middle, so it gives us a good indicator of adjustment and resistance to the emerging policultural reality. Until quite recently, countless people from former colonies in Asia and Africa emigrated to the U.K., encountering the pervasive expectation that they would adjust to English culture—not vice versa—speaking, dressing and to a remarkable extent eating like their Anglo counterparts. But the world is changing, and with change comes assertion of the right to culture on the one hand, and reaction on the other. Britain today is a polyglot society which been fertile ground for nativist movements such as the British National Party.
I used to live not far from the grounds of an old state mental hospital that had been bought by a Chinese Buddhist association, becoming the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, a compound of schools, temple, residence for monks and nuns, refugee center, even a restaurant. Visitors were welcome to stroll the grounds, so long as they observed the posted rules of decorum. In a part of the country where summertime temperatures frequently exceeded 100 degrees, any person wearing shorts would be politely but firmly turned away with the smiling message that nuns were present. There were pear orchards on either side of the grounds, and the ranchers who owned them steadfastly opposed every permit application for improvement or expansion of the City. It sounded like racism to me, but it had an economic subtext: the ranchers feared that more human habitation would lead to questioning of their sometimes chemical-intensive agricultural practices, that testing for new construction would turn up soil or groundwater contamination, for instance, and they would be forced to change, even to remediate.
I always enjoyed seeing the saffron-robed monks and nuns at the supermarket, shaven heads and loose clothing sometimes making it difficult for this outsider to tell men from women. I never once wondered what danger lurked beneath their marks of separation. The truth is, all of us are in costume. Some people separate themselves with silver, insulating their life with bodyguards, private cars and planes. Some wear the signifiers of danger, top to toe black leather or baggy, falling-down pants that would suggest overgrown toddlers if they hadn’t come to be associated with violence. Some pile on artsy ethnic gear to tell the world they won’t be bound by convention; and so on. Any of our costumes might conceal danger. Any might conceal goodwill. We can’t be understood by our clothes any more than by any other single indicator of identity.
In the end, I see only one path. I might be made nervous by the niqab or Hasidic gear or baggy jeans. They might be marks of separation, and I might not like that. Too bad for me. But for the good of all, I must learn to live with it and hope that day by day, all around the world, my fellow humans will do the same.