Few issues related to Islam and Muslims seem to raise the attention levels to the same heights as the topic of Muslim women’s dress. Not hundreds of millions of lives displaced or endangered by floods in Pakistan. Not environmental hazards across the island of Sumatra. Not even the dress of Buddhist or Catholic nuns. So let’s be clear: this is not purely a religious discussion. We become intensely involved in public or international debate over the dress of fewer than 2000 women in France because they choose (or are influenced to choose) to wear the niqab. The niqab cover the face, except the eyes with a cloth, usually black and usually also accompanied by a full black garment. The burqa is specific to the regions of Afghanistan, but some times gets called in for any extreme forms of covering outside of the countries in which it is culturally prevalent.
There are three angles to consider with this issue. For one thing there is the perspective of the French authorities, the ones taking the matter to court, eyeballing photos or drawings of the offensive garments. Then there is the public perspective mostly characterized as out cry, whether pro or con. As I said, few issues give us so much broo-haha. But there is also the perspective of the women who wear the niqab. Theirs is the voice of the other, make no doubt. It’s not that we don’t hear them, but we always only hear them when they articulate an affirmation of their own otherness. “I will not go out”, one woman niqab wearer said. You cannot force me to uncover my face by a law prohibiting and then fining me, so I will not go out.
But who cares?
Who cares really if this woman does not go out? No one probably; that is no one more than the woman her self. Emily Dickerson was a permanent recluse. In her isolation from the public, she produced numerous volumes of eloquent and exceptional poetry, creating a canon of its own. No one comments on whether or not she went outside her door to by suggesting that she should be forced to this because of some federal statute. It really doesn’t matter: in or out, covered or not covered, as long as she was productive. We forgive her.
On the one hand I abhor entering this topic. I think less is more. The less attention we give to the matter of niqab in European and North American public space, the more affective we are in removing it as a topic of interest, and then removing it as an item of dress choice. But on the other hand, it is in the news again and I was asked. I know, I could easily just say no; I do not wish to discuss it. In fact, I took one of those informal polls on facebook and twitter, and most said don’t do it. But, here’s the thing, from my perspective.
It is infinitely easier not to challenge myself to write something about it. Even as I do accept my own challenge, I am 100% certain nothing I say will change one iota the perspectives of most people, who have already taken sides on the matter. I am also certain there is really little chance that I will add vital information to the not so opinionated, or even the plain uninformed. It’s too out there. Most people have some details.
So I won’t try to do that, be informative or persuasive that is. I will simply engage a few of the aspects in my own way. I can consider this a kind of sharing of ideas over a topic I do not wish to have an impact on. Who does that? Who purposefully writes about something when they think what they write will have no impact? Well, if you think about it is very similar to the wearing of the niqab in the public space of Europe and North America. If it had absolutely no impact, it would go away. Trust me on that one.
For me personally, I chose to wear the niqab way back in the mid 1970’s in the city of brotherly love, Philadelphia. I was strongly influenced by a few things. Once I had accepted to practice Islam I became very ambivalent about my relationship to all things not Islamic, especially those which I had once been a part of. I wanted a partition between myself and the rest of the world. All of it.
It’s like taking literally the spiritual implication of the statement “be in the world but not of it”. I did not go out of my home very much either. I didn’t want to. I had read Maulana Maududi’s book called Purdah. He recommends face veiling as part of protecting Muslim women from non-Muslims, men and women. How could a good Muslim woman mingle with those people? I took that to heart. After all, now that I have this mantle of Islam I was better than them, right?
I would have been incredulous if my right to make this choice had been forced either way: to do it or not to do it, no matter what my reasons. I was glad to be in the U.S where the idea of secularism is wedded to the first amendment idea of freedom of religious practice. In France, no such complimentary relation between secular and religious freedom exists. Laicite is the kind of secularism that is anti-religion, anti-religious expression, and anti-religious identity. They are the ones that give secularism such a bad name in most parts of the world that still identifies with their religion as part of identity. A really good book on this particular aspect is called, Beyond the Politics of the Veil, I highly recommend it to those who want to get clear on what is happening in France in particular, but Europe in general.
Never mind that most people, whether religious and non-religious tend to use the word “secular” to mean not-religion, or, anti-religion. They don’t use it to simply mean the separation of religion and state politics. From the perspective of the French government, you really have to look at their notions of national identity. They were the first to make a ban on the head scarf or hijab, but not so much as making it a crime to wear in the public spaces as in public government or educational institutions. Just for your information that includes for government issued identity cards and passports.
From the perspective of the public, there are innumerable factors to discuss, so I will take another anecdotal approach. The first time I took part in an interfaith retreat with hundreds of Muslim, Jewish and Christian women, we had a weekend of personal encounters of the third kind. On the last day of the retreat, we sat in smaller sessions in smaller meeting rooms with closed doors and I happened to be in one with no men. So I took my scarf off. As it was, we were there to address those silent fears or inhibitions about “the other”. I was pretty strict about my scarf wearing at the time and never uncovered in front of men not related to me by blood or marriage. This opened up one can of worms that I found interesting.
The Christian and Jewish women admitted that they found the head scarf intimidating, off putting and offensive. Now, I cannot say why this would be so, but I can imagine what it must be like in the public space, when a woman approaches with her face of covered and the rest of her body in large draped black. It is not like a winter scarf wrapped against the cold. It’s not like dark glasses against the sun. It is just about everything that we actually characterize as essential for face to face identification. What do you do when you encounter them but look away or stare neither of which is really polite if you think about it.
People are intimidated. But let us not excuse them their intimidation because there is also an insidious status of Islam-hating these days, I do not wish to make the mistake of identifying it as Islamaphobia. To use the suffix, phobia puts all the blame on the Muslims for igniting fear, and ignores the power imbalance against Muslims, especially in Europe and North America. It is not fear that motivates some of the hatred of Islam and Muslims and to over look that in the discourses over niqab is naïve. It is also not just about whether a Muslim woman’s dress is represents Islam, unless Islam itself is under attack.
So from the perspective of the individual women who wear it, I also cannot speak for them. I refuse to speak about them. But I do remember this. When I chose to stop wearing niqab after 4-5 years, 2 years outside the U.S. in a Muslim majority country, I was asked about it by other American convert women, some who wore and some who were just curious. I said, “It does act as a barrier between the wearer and the public. Both the good and the bad are blocked.”
Decades later, I made a conscious decision to stop wearing any head covering especially one that was identifiably Muslim. I was surprised how many of my friends—and I don’t mean the kind I have on facebook—reacted so strongly with this state of undress. These were people I had known for 10 or 15 years and suddenly they were congratulating me! I thought: if my dress made no difference to you before, really, then why should my undress make such a difference to you now?
I never got an answer to that question but my development on the matter moved on. After one year hijab-less, I decided I really, personally prefer to wear hijab. I told the story before about my slave ancestors denied the option to cover certain parts of their bodies on the auction block. So I resumed wearing hijab until I went to Indonesia. To be certain there are the politics of women’s dress every where, including in Indonesia. But I lived in a small suburban town, almost village, and at least close enough to the village where the overwhelming majority of women are Muslim. Many do cover if they go to the city or to their jobs. But where they lived communally, head covering was not a part of their identity or efficacy.
Finally I had escaped the politics of Islamic identity. Truly no one cared if I covered my hair or not. After more than a year I became liberated from my own ambivalence. Now I play any role I want regarding dress. I choose to wear it in the public and there fore accept the harassment at the airport, every time I go through security. But I almost never put it on just to run my errands in my neighborhood or in my car, going across town.
I am also not intimidated by women who wear more cloth than me, whether at the mosque or on the street. I not intimidated by women who wear less cloth than me but I do avert my eyes at too much cleavage or too skin tight pants revealing the full shape of the buttocks. That’s just me. I don’t think it show respects the decency of their own bodies.
A few months ago my daughter encouraged me to go to one of the hot spring spas in Northern California. This was a nude spa. I have gone to nude beaches in my teens, but I no longer feel I demonstrate my liberation only by taking off all my clothes. So I wore a bathing suit. There were many years in my life when I would not wear that little in public, I would go even swimming in a short cap and tee shirt over a pair of leggings. So there’s progress. But honestly at some point at the spa, it was just plain exhausting to avert my eyes from so many penises and breasts. Now when she invites me I decline politely. I am clear on this: to each his own and that is not mine. To the burqas be their way and to the nude be theirs.