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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Veiled references

There's a topic I've been wanting to touch on for some time.  This post is going to be a little light on references and links, though, as I'm sitting in a coffee shop with bad Christmas remakes in the background, using a PITA laptop. *L*  I might be able to update later, but no guarantees at this point!

All joking aside, the topic I want to address is no laughing matter.

Ever since France moved to ban face veils, I've been thinking about how and why veiling the face is such an issue in so many countries, the history of veils specifically, and facial coverings in general.

As someone who leans strongly towards the notion that people should be able to wear whatever they want and the state has no place in telling us how to dress, I do have limits to this.  For example, I object to outright nudity, not because I have any problem with seeing the nude human body, but for reasons that range from sanitation and hygiene (would you want to sit in a chair after someone nude sat in it?  I sure as heck wouldn't want to sit in someone else's butt sweat) to the fact that it's inflicting one person's preference (to be nude) onto someone else's (to not see some stranger's nude body).  It's along the lines of, your right to punch me stops at the tip of my nose.

So generally, I have no problem with people's dress.  If some guy wants to wear long flowing skirts and a belly dance shawl, I have no problem with that.  In fact, my only regret is that I never got around to finding out where he bought those beautiful skirts!  I haven't seen him in ages, and it looks like I've missed my chance. If another guy wants to wear brightly coloured spandex biker shorts with a thong on the outside?  Weird, but fine.  It's a bit hard on the eyes, but it's none of my business.  Likewise, if women want to wear their pants so low they're showing off their thongs and butt cracks... that's their business, though I would make an exception;  I would really prefer if they didn't wear them while working in the food industry.  Someone's butt crack and underwear out for display does not go well with food hygiene.  When I had my first job as a waitress, health regulations stipulated that we had to wear sleeves long enough to cover our armpits.  If we couldn't flash our stubbly pits, we sure as heck shouldn't be flashing our cracks.

In other words, I expect reasonable limits to our freedom to dress however we like. 

Enter the face veil.

First off, I do not have any problem with "traditional Muslim dress," whatever that may be.  Any objections I might have are of a more pragmatic nature than anything else.  The long flowing garments women wear can be stunningly beautiful.  They can also, however, get caught on things and be a danger.  There was a story not too long ago of a woman wearing a burka who was killed when it got caught in the wheels of the go-cart she was driving (note on the link:  I believe the file photo identified as a burka is actually a niqab).  While it happened to be a burka that got caught, I've seen other traditional garments that don't cover the face that would have been equally risky.  I have similar objections in mind when I see people walking around with long chains or belts hanging off their clothes, or women teetering along on high heels.  If the people wearing them are willing to risk physical injury for fashion, it's generally none of my business.  It might become my business if, say, I were an employer and the dress would hinder their ability to do the work I've hired them to do, or if a particular dress code or image were required.  Otherwise, it's no big deal and part of what makes people so interesting.

I do, however, draw the line at covering the face.  I agree with France's stand in banning the burka and niqab, and would support such a move here in Canada.

Before I explain my reasoning, let's take a broader look at face veiling.  This is not isolated to Islam.  Covering the face for one reason or another probably goes back to the beginning of humanity.  Islam developed in a geographical region of hot sun and a dry, harsh environment.  People covered their faces then, as now, to protect themselves from the elements.  At the time of Mohammad, few people actually veiled themselves.  They are impractical garments that get in the way while working.  The women who did wear veils were of the nobility; they were wealthy enough that the women didn't have to work in the hot sun, getting all dirty and sweaty.  Smooth skin, untouched by a harsh sun or sandblasted by winds, showed that a woman was from a family of high status and wealth - their women didn't have to work for a living!  When they did leave the confines of their homes and risk exposure to the elements, they could minimize the damage by wearing a veil.  When Mohammad said that all women deserved to wear veils because all women were equally noble, this was what he was referring to.  While some branches of Islam have taken his meaning to the extreme and turned it into a reflection of modesty, Islam itself does not require women to veil their faces.  In reality, the wearing of veils is not rooted in modesty, but vanity.  When Mohammad made this statement, most women still didn't wear the veil because it is such an impractical garment; their need to work for a living trumped the vain desire to protect their skin, and this was perfectly acceptable.  With this historical perspective, the argument that wearing the burka or the niqab is a religious requirement doesn't wash.

The veiling of women in Islamic countries is very much a cultural tradition, wrapped under the guise of religious requirement.  Growing up in a culture that expects women to cover their faces, one might have difficulty understanding why other cultures have a problem with it.  So let's take a moment to explore facial coverings in other cultures.

Over the centuries, women in European countries wore veils of various kinds.  One significant difference is that these veils, which often covered the entire face, were all open mesh or lace.  The face was not completely hidden, and women would still be recognized as individuals.  Lets look at other facial coverings which, like the burka and niqab, actually hide a person's identity.

Perhaps the most iconic Western example of face veiling is the cowboy with his ubiquitous bandanna.  While driving large herds of cattle, a tremendous amount of dust could be kicked up.  Weather also played its part as dust storms arose. Cowboys wore a number of things with very special purposes.  Chaps protected their legs.  Dusters were specially designed to protect them from the rain, even while riding a horse.  Hats had brims that drained rainwater out the back.  Bandannas were worn around the neck, where they could be easily pulled over the nose and mouth during dust storms or when thousands of hooves kicked up clouds of grit.  No cowboy would be without his bandanna, unless he liked the crunch of grit in his teeth or breathing clouds of particulate matter.

Of course, living in Canada, we have our modern facial coverings to protect from the elements.  Balaclavas, scarves and deep hoods all serve to keep our faces warm and protected from our often harsh winters.

There are those who make the argument that the burka and niqab are no different than wearing a balaclava. I always found that a rather silly argument.  For starters, no one is forced to wear a balaclava, while in too many Islamic cultures, a woman without a veil can be beaten or killed for her crime.  Even for those branches of Islam that view it as a sign of modesty, rather than the vanity its rooted in, there is a significant difference.  When people protect their faces with scarves and hoods and balaclavas, they don't leave them on when they go indoors.  In fact, in our culture, those who hide their faces are considered suspicious.  In the days of the wild west, bank and train robbers would use the ubiquitous bandanna to hide their faces while committing their crimes.  In modern days, sunglasses and hoodies are used the same way.   Before anyone suggests that it's not illegal to wear sunglasses or hoodies, therefore it shouldn't be illegal to wear a burka, the city of Edmonton recently made the news for banning sunglasses, hats and hoods.  It turns out there were so many jewelry store robberies where security cameras were rendered useless by criminals wearing hoods and sunglasses, a law was brought in.  If you go into a store or bank with your face hidden, they have the right to tell people to take off their sunglasses and hoods.

But what about outside the store?

Eldest and her friend, Raider King, found out about that.  Some time ago they did their "post apocalyptic" walk.  They wandered around our city wearing their costumes which, for Eldest, included a "scarfkerchief" worn over the face like a bandanna, with her eyes hidden by home made goggles.  Raider King wore a gas mask.  When they entered a mall, they were approached by a security guard and told they had to uncover their faces.  They understood why and complied, but Eldest did wonder what they did for Muslims or at Halloween.  Obviously, they make an exception for Halloween - the one day of year when people are actually encouraged to disguise themselves.  Just as obviously, they don't tell Muslim women to remove their veils.

From this Western cultural perspective, face coverings are viewed with significant suspicion.  People who hide their faces are doing so specifically to hide their identity while committing a crime.  This extends even to protesters who hide their faces, since they are obviously trying to hide their identities from authorities, even if no actual crime is perpetrated.  Those wearing facial coverings are far more likely to become violent during demonstrations, since they're more likely to get away with it.  For all that I agree and support people's right to protest something, even if I wildly disagree with their cause, I fully believe it should be illegal for protesters to cover their faces in the process.  If you believe in something enough to protest about it, you should believe in it enough to be identified, even if there's a risk of being arrested.  Once protesters start hiding their faces, it tells me that their motives are less than altruistic.

When it comes to the burka or the niqab, security concerns are completely valid.  There have been several incidents of late that have demonstrated this.  One was the now infamous video someone posted on youtube where veiled women bypassed airport security.  There's also the incident where some women made a fuss until the security staff let them through, without checking their identities.  As they were walking away they were overheard, speaking in their native tongue, mocking Canadians.  The man who overheard them did speak up, in their own language, calling them on it.  Another recent incident involved a woman who was pulled over by a police officer.  She accused him of racism and, when it went to court, tried to claim mistaken identity because he couldn't see her face.  Thankfully, his dashboard video camera recorded the entire incident in question and he was exonerated, but it's another example of veiled women trying to take advantage of their cultural tradition to usurp local law.  Meanwhile, there have even been incidents of male suicide bombers disguising themselves in burkas.  The burka and the niqab is a serious and legitimate security concern, as is any other form of hiding one's identity.  The difference is that people like my daughter and her friend couldn't make religious claims when the security guard told them to uncover their faces, as those who wear the burka or the niqab do.  As far as I am concerned, religion cannot be allowed to trump safety and security.

Which brings me to another defense of veiling that is sometimes used.  People claim it is a symbol of a religion, no different than a Catholic wearing a crucifix, or a Sikh wearing a turban.  These religious symbols, required or not, do not hide anyone's identity (and we've already established that veils are do not actually symbolize Islam, nor do they represent the concept of modesty, but vanity).  Rather, the Sikh's turban or Catholic's crucifix pendant openly show for all the world to see that this identifiable person holds certain beliefs.  The veil, on the other hand, hides the believer away.  The irony of such a defense is that, in some Islamic nations, other religions are illegal, as are their symbols and trappings.   A quick look at the persecution of Christians in various countries will find many examples.  In Western nations that object to veils, it's the veils themselves that are the objection, not necessarily the religion of the person wearing it.  Unlike countries like Iran, it's not illegal to hold certain religious beliefs, nor is anyone trying to force someone to turn their backs on their faith, while nations that require all women to cover their faces require this of all women, not just Muslim women, even though doing so is against Islam.  To carry over the metaphor, Islamic nations that force all women to wear the burka or niqab would be like us forcing a Muslim woman (or anyone else not a Catholic, for that matter) to wear a crucifix. 

Okay, so we've covered face veiling from a couple of perspectives.  Veiling fails from a religious perspective, as it is not actually a religious requirement.  It fails from a modesty perspective, since veiling is rooted in vanity, and as a symbol of Islam, as it it neither required by Islam, nor is it limited to Islam.  It fails from a security perspective for obvious reasons.

There is, however, another objection I have against veils.  This one is actually hinted at in the other reasons, and it is purely psychological.

Let's go back to the modesty angle.  Wealthy women in the Middle East began wearing veils to protect their delicate skin from a harsh environment.  This clearly separated them from other women.  It was an exclusive, rather than inclusive, act.  Wearing the veil was a way of saying "I'm better than other women; I don't have to slave away in the hot sun.  I live a life so luxurious, I can wear this completely impractical garment.  I don't have to worry about getting it caught on things or getting in the way, because I don't have to work for a living."  In this vein, the veil is a sign of privilege as well as vanity.  It was a flagrant way of saying that one's wealth and status (or those of their family) made them superior to everyone else.  There's more to say in that direction, but I'll cover that in a moment.

Let's now go back to the veil from a religious perspective, as so many claim it is either a requirement or a symbol of Muslim faith.  Religious symbols are typically ways to identify people.  Turbans, for example, not only represent Sikhism, but their colours can symbolize different things.  If someone wears an empty cross, you can assume a Christian faith, but if they're wearing a crucifix, you can usually assume Catholicism.  If you see someone wearing a pentagram, it usually identifies them as pagan.  Granted, many of these symbols are now worn by people as pure ornamentation.  Sikh men are required to wear a turban, but Christians have no such requirement to wear any symbols.  These days, you're not likely to see people wearing turbans just because they like the look (though they were in fashion for a while), but you do see people wearing a cross pendant that isn't Christian, or a Star of David that isn't Jewish.

The point being that these symbols serve a dual purpose: on the one hand, the person wearing the symbol is identifying themselves as being part of a select group.  On the other, they are making a blatant statement about their beliefs.  Early Christians began tattooing crosses on the inside of their wrists, despite biblical admonitions against body modification.  Why?  At the time, Christians were considered a dangerous element of society and frequently executed in rather horrible ways.  Identifying oneself as Christian was very risky. Indelibly marking one's body with a Christian symbol was a bold statement, and in doing so, these early Christians knew they were putting their lives on the line for their belief.  A tattoo on the inner wrist could be easily hidden by a sleeve.  It could be used to identify themselves to other Christians, since no one else would risk such a thing.  Having such a tattoo discovered by the authorities, on the other hand, was pretty much a death sentence.

The key point, however, is identity. These symbols boldly state to the world, "this is what I believe.  This is who I am."  What does a veil do?  It hides identity.  "This is what I believe, but you can't know who I am."  The veil hides the believer from the rest of the world, even from other believers, since Muslim women are expected to hide their faces from all men not their father's, brothers or husbands.  Some Muslim women have even gone so far as to never show their faces to their own husbands.  The veil becomes, not a symbol, but a barrier.  A wall of separation quite different from open symbols of faith.  With the veil, Islam becomes a hidden, secret thing, separating the wearer from everyone else, even within their own faith.

Which leads me to the final objection I have.  The veil is not just a physical barrier, but a psychological one.  It dehumanizes the wearer and isolates her.  There's two statements made here.  For the forced wearing of the veil, the woman behind the veil becomes nothing.  She is no one.  She is less than chattel; she is not worth even her own identity.  She is no longer allowed to be human.

For those who choose to wear the veil, the psychological barrier is different, but no less disturbing.  Here, the statement is reversed.  It's not that the woman behind the veil is not worth an identity; but that those on the other side of the veil are not worth knowing her identity.  In an open faced society, this psychological barrier is perhaps more damaging than forced veiling.  At least with forced veiling, those who disapprove of veiling can feel empathy for the woman behind the veil.  She is still a person to them; if her own culture does not value her as an individual, ours does.  For the woman who deliberately walls herself off from everyone else behind a veil, she is dehumanizing those who do not believe as she does.  We are the ones who are unworthy; unworthy to see her face; unworthy to be part of her world; unworthy of knowing who she is.

In the end, my objections to the burka and the niqab comes from two sources.  The legal objection is one of security, based on hidden identity and it not limited to just the veil.  I believe that, barring the need to protect one's face from the elements or similar reasonable exceptions, facial coverings in public should be illegal.  My other objection is psychological.  Whether the veil is worn by choice or by force, it is a damaging psychological barrier that seperates and isolates the wearer from everyone else, including those who follow the same faith.

Update:  A hearty welcome to my visitors from Blazing Cat Fur.  I hope you enjoy your stay. :-)


  1. perspectives2:00 AM

    Excellent article - well written and argued.

  2. Anonymous12:44 AM

    Agree completely. thanks for putting my thoughts down so articulately.

  3. " She is less than chattel; she is not worth even her own identity "

    It also serves another purpose,along the same lines.

    In my job,I have made the acquaintance of more than a few islamic women. I know them and identify them by their home,children,etc.
    Once they leave those confines and travel out into society,if they are covered,they become no one,or one of many.

    I've often passed a garbed woman while away from the job,and have wondered,"Do I know her,Did she smile?". I don't know. The coverings render her indistinguishable from other covered woman. This aids the insecure male from losing his 'property' to someone else,through recognition or a chance encounter.

    The woman and children of islam are the victims,the men are their keepers. It's a pity.


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