Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Vatican enters Muslim veil debate

That's a headline from the BBC today. Do you feel like reading the article or do you agree with me that, no matter what, nothing good could possibly be printed under such a headline?


Dr. Strangelove said...

From a practical point of view, of course, the Muslim veil debate does not affect me. But from a theoretical point of view, it has troubled me for some time.

Instinctively I feel that a full veil (burqa or niqab--one of the headdresses that leave only a slit for the eyes) is degrading to women. But then, some people feel a bikini is degrading to women... and just as many people feel that both veils and bikinis are individual choices that can empower women.

Most of us who don't like the full veil probably suspect it really isn't a choice... it is something forced upon women in Islamic culture that some of them have rationalized. While that may be true for some, it certainly is not true for all. Which leaves me in a quandary.

I am willing to require that the face be visible in public school for a variety of little reasons, none of which is sufficient but which add together: teachers need visual feedback from their pupils' faces; minors are assumed not to be 100% able to make their own free choices; a full veil is somewhat disruptive to the environment of the classroom; a full veil can isolate a student socially, which impairs learning... But the real reason is that it just feels wrong to me when parents to dress little girls in a full veil.

Also there are some jobs (e.g. waitress, teacher, bank teller) where I am willing to say there is a dress code that trumps religious preference to the extent that you can wear a headcovering but must leave the face exposed. Other than that, I figure we let people wear what they like.

Anyhow, like I said, it's not an easy issue. There is only one thing I know for sure: like LTG said, there is nothing good that can come of the Vatican injecting itself into the debate. That's just dumb... and sadly typical too.

Anonymous said...

We're all agreed that if it's really a free choice, we have no problem with the veil. We have probably major concerns about whether such a thing is a free choice. We even have concerns whether, in fact, wearing a veil can ever be a free choice. Rules forbidding you from selling yourself into slavery, engaging in polygamy, prostitution, or selling body parts are all motivated, in part, by the strong suspicion that such acts are rarely, if ever, truly voluntary.

All these things being said, I think the American tradition is to bend over backwards for religious oddities, believing that freedom to worship is a very high value. The veil is a relatively small thing compared to the true religious oppression that goes on in some of these fundamentalist muslim communities. I say forget the veil and focus on genital mutilation. 

// posted by LTG

Anonymous said...

What about nuns' wimples and habits? Didn't that style of dress come from the same sort of tradition?

And of course entry into a convent is always voluntary . 

// posted by RBR

Dr. Strangelove said...

Some of this comes down to a culture's view of what we often call modesty: different cultures have different ideas of how much skin a woman is allowed to show. In the vast majority of the world, women must conceal their genitalia. In the Western world (with the exception of certain beach towns) women must conceal their breasts. In some Muslim cultures, it is considered immodest or obscene for a woman to display any skin except the face. In other Muslim cultures, even the lips and cheeks must be concealed: only a small slit around the eyes is permitted.

Even those who believe firmly that men and women deserve equal respect and treatment in all things still usually make an exception in the name of modesty. (Men have restrictions too, but the point is there is no case in which male nudity is restricted more than female nudity. Except maybe on late-night U.S. cable channels.) So when cultures mingle, where do we draw the line? How much disparate treatment of the sexes in the name of modesty will we tolerate in any culture?

LTG notes that, "if it's really a free choice," most people have no problem with the idea of Muslim women wearing a veil... but he goes on to say that he wonders if such a thing can ever be a free choice. I agree and I don't even think we have to go so far as to compare it to slavery. The truth is that few choices in this world are ever free: almost all have consequences. Even if there is no law, no overt pressure, no gun held to one's head... if the price of removing one's veil is exclusion from mosque and community, it is not a "free" choice at all, is it?

LTG says we should bend over backward to tolerate "religious oddities" and focus instead on the worst offenses like female genital mutilation. But I am not sure we must choose: I am not convinced it is a question of allocating some limited pool of moral outrage. To say, "well, there's something worse so let's not worry about this," always seems like a cop-out to me.
To me, the question is: is there some clear "bright line" between an acceptable cultural oddity and unacceptable persecution of women? What is the true moral difference between requiring a woman to wear a burqa and requiring her to wear a bra?

US West said...

Firstly, they usually don't veil little girls. the veil usually comes after the girls reach puberty.

Secondly, the Vatican part aside, the Italians seem to be doing what the French have tried to do (somewhat half-heartedly), which is to try and find some common values that they and their immigrants can agree upon. This always makes for provocative disucssion and I will curious if two groups with what appear to be such divergent values, can come to any agreement.

The other commenters have done a good job outlining the political and religious issues involved and I don't disagree with much of what has been said. I, too, am conflicted and for the same reasons. But there is another aspect that is more visceral. Dr. S. highlighted it well, but I think that what he is describing (disruption in the classroom, etc.) has much deeper roots than what he is describing. I think Dr. S is probably being more prudent in his langauge than I am about to be; I run the risk, perhaps of pulling a Lawrence Summers here, but bear with me. Here goes.

As a woman, I have a problem with veiled women simply because they make me deeply uncomfortable. For starters, I happen to know that the women behind those veils or under the headscarf are often not oppressed nor are they cowed. They are quite clever. They have to be. In fact, the veil sends up a certain warning system in my head that these ladies shouldn't be trusted. It may seem irrational, but believe me, it is very real. Call it female intuition. And I think this is one of the underlying reasons people don't like the veil, but they won't say so, or can't verbalize that unsettling feeling they get in the presence of a veiled person.

Veiled or covered women have a certain power that uncovered people do not. . .it is the power of secrecy. In fact, many Muslim women will tell you that they wear the veil in part because of the advantage it gives them. I am fully visible to the world, thus I cannot really 'lie' or hide my emotions. Imagine playing poker with a veiled person. They, on the other hand, can hide a great deal and this puts others at a disadvantage. I feel the same way about people who talk to me while wearing sun glasses.

I feel somewhat justified in saying that this may be hardwired into us. Scientists have found that babies, especially little girls, study faces intently. And they register faces carefully. Little girls in particular can read very subtle emotions in faces and body language and they will even mirror these emotions. So when a face is covered or missing, this makes children, especially little girls, very uncomfortable because they are shut off from an important form of communication. that doesn't go away as we grow up. (So guys, when your wives and girlfriends claim intuition, it may be your body language that is giving you away!) And this, by the way, was one reason nuns were scary to small children (that and they tended to wield rulers). No one knew they were human because you didn't see anything but their face.

When I was small, I was given a pillow of a pioneer girl. It was a Holly Hobby pillow that was basically the profile of girl dressed in pioneer clothes with a big bonnet. She had no face. I was about 3 and I distinctly remember that I cried and cried and told my mother to take it away because it didn't have a face. That episode makes perfectly good sense to me now.

I can live with my personal discomfort and I can rationally tell myself that the veil is a religious obligation that many women choose to take up. I can respect it on that level. I can respect women's civil right to practice their faith in this way. I can be polite and cordial. And I also know that for many Muslim women living in America, the choice to take up the veil is not easily made. And often, after taking it up, they drop it. There is a great deal of social pressure on them to do so. Knowing all of this, however, doesn’t help much. There will always be a visceral discomfort that I will feel. It is deeply embedded in my cultural attitude and in by bones. Unless I go live somewhere where the veil is so commonplace that I can adjust, I doubt the discomfort will go away.

Anonymous said...

Another quick question and I'll let the fur fly again...

What about the cases of veiled women being told to remove their veils in court while testifying (Detroit)? Or a veiled woman being told she can't wear her veil when she get's her photo taken for her ID?

Oppression and outrage aside, when does the state have a significant but pragmatic interest in getting rid of veils? 

// posted by RBR

Anonymous said...

I believe the legal test would probably be determined by the fact that free exercise of religion is a fundamental right. So the question would be whether there is a compelling  state interest for which the remedy (removal of veil) is narrowly tailored. Being told to remove a veil while testifying would count I suspect, as would taking an ID photo. There are fascinating cases about when prisoners can be forced to shave or remove turbans, or when yarmulkes can be banned. The tradition is to find narrow reasons (e.g., prisoners shouldn't be able to hide knives, but yarmulkes are okay for soldiers if they don't interfere with duties).

Of course, the legal test under current US law is, therefore, much broader than the question RBR proposes - whether there is a "significant but pragmatic interest."

I suspect USWest agrees that her "visceral discomfort" should not outweigh a woman's interest in wearing a veil for religious reasons. There is nothing wrong with that discomfort, however! I believe that tolerance does not always require comfort or "celebration of diversity." Sometimes, it just requires raw tolerance . 

// posted by LTG

Dr. Strangelove said...

"Firstly, they usually don't veil little girls. the veil usually comes after the girls reach puberty." Ah. Shows what I know :-)

USWest says her discomfort with the practice of the full veil derives (at least in part) from a "hardwired" desire to see, identify, and recognize faces and facial expressions. She also makes an intriguing point that a veil also empowers the wearer by enhancing their ability to hide their emotions... which may well be why we instinctively feel discomfort around veiled people.

RbR asks about some court cases... There's a recent
BBC article from a few weeks ago about a teaching assistant at a Church-of-England school in the UK who was told to remove her veil during lessons because children had a hard time understanding her. The court dismissed the idea that religious intolerance was involved, but they did fine the town council for harassing the woman. Hard to make heads or tails of that one, for me.

US West said...

Sorry, Dr. S. I didn't mean to come off snippy in my previous remarks. Thanks for taking my comment in the proper spirit!

Point of clarification: Even I seem to contradict myself. I mention the importance of seeing faces, then I talk about nuns where all you see is their faces. I didn't clearly distinguish between body language which is hidden under a robe, and the veil which hides the face.

RBR mentioned the nuns. Nuns had body language hidden by their robes. But their faces were visible. The fact that they didn't seem to have feet or bodies is partly what made them seem "other worldly". Similar comments have been made regarding burka-clad women. The fact that nuns’ faces were visible made them less disturbing. (And for the record, many orders no longer require such restrictive habits.) Actually, they looked pretty funny. Also, they lived in a specific place and had a specific function. It was a uniform for their job. So they were less mysterious in that way. You knew what you were in for with a nun. Veiled women are a different matter in that they are more randomly placed and they are unknown entities.

Dr. S, some Muslim women have told me that being veiled makes them feel closer to God because it is a barrier between them and the outside world. It actually gives them freedom because they don’t have to worry so much about how they look to others. Instead, their focus is on less superficial things. (This is another way of saying it gives them power and control.) It gives them an identity in that it separates them from others. Some have taken the veil as a form of retreat. The beauty of having the veil as a choice is that she can also take it off when she wishes to re-engage or if she finds that it isn’t meeting her spiritual needs. This is the case in the Western World where the veil is a choice. It isn't the case everywhere. That said, I have even heard Saudi women, who are required to wear it, say that they feel safer with their veils, more respected, and more free. I am not sure what this says about Saudi men.

And yes, LTG, you are correct. Raw tolerance is what we have to exercise because, as rational beings, we live under a social contract that says we have rights. Otherwise, we are relegated to the state of nature.

There are religious rights and then there is cultural identity and a different right to choose. Some women wear the veil to meet a religious obligation. Others wear it to demonstrate their cultural values or ways of life, or to stand out (ironically enough). In the long run, the motivation isn't important. But it is key to the debate in France, where assimilation rather than integration is the goal. So for the French, it didn’t start out as a question of religious rights. That has since changed. And then there is the inconsistency in that they make exceptions for Christians who wish to wear a cross on a gold chain or a medal with their patron saint around their neck. No one stops a French Jew from wearing his talis. So the reliance on the "secular state" is hypocritical.

That said, I also think rights have limits. (Remember my comments about free speech). So no, you don't get to be veiled for an ID photo. It is counter to the very reason you have an ID photo. And if your religious belief leads you conduct an exorcism on your epileptic child rather than seek medical treatment, then don't be surprised when child protective services takes your child away. There is some general understanding of what is appropriate. And if has to be revised and such as thing change, as the shape of the society changes due to new arrivals, etc.

Anonymous said...

Oh boy, this one's been huge  here in the UK lately.

As was rightly pointed out by Dr S, we've had the case of the veiled classroom assistant. Apparently, she interviewed for the job without a veil (later said that she would've worn her veil had she known there were going to be men on the interview panel - if her concern was being seen by men, then surely she would've worn her veil on her way to the interview, and thus had it with her, so she could've then put it on?), and then turned up to work wearing it. Quite rightly, in my opinion, she was asked to remove it, because it was hindering her ability to do her job properly. It was not a religious issue, but she chose to turn it into one (and made money from it too, bonus).

But then a huge UK-wide debate was started by Jack Straw (Labour Home Secretary) stating that he feels uncomfortable talking to veiled women, and so asks them if they would take off their veil when they come to his drop in constituency surgery to talk to him. He's apparently been doing this for about a year, and not had any objections. But has now decided that it's time for an open debate (tons on the BBC website, easily found).

I have to agree with him, I feel very uncomfortable talking to fully veiled women, or even when I just see them on the street - I think for pretty much the same reasons as USWest, of not being able to read any of the body or facial language which is the accepted cultural norm in our society. They're also very purposefully marking themselves out as 'not one of us', and part of me resents that - the implication that they don't want to be like me and all my friends, even though they do want to live here with us, and share all the benefits of life with us - they clearly have no desire for community with 'us'. I'm all for freedom of expression and so on, but we do also live in a democracy, a majority rule (and, incidentally, a country which has been Christian for centuries, heading for a millenium), and so if the majority feel uncomfortable about full veils, maybe the women wearing them should think about altering their behaviour to fit in?

I've read stories of small children bursting into tears and running away from these 'scary looking' women, of reporters getting through airport security checks on somebody else's passport. And possibly the one that made me think about freedoms the most - a man who grew up in Northern Ireland in the heart of the Troubles, who even now suffers panic attacks if he sees someone wearing a dark coloured balaclava or otherwise completely covering their faces... 

// posted by Pombat