Thursday, October 26, 2006

Thoughts on Veiling

I've been staying out of the whole veil/no-veil conversation, mostly because I'm ignorant about a lot of the issues involved. However, Jill at Feministe links to an article about the topic that I feel at least marginally qualified to comment on:

They argue that you do not have to look western to be modern. The veiled woman defies the sexual mores of the west, with its strange compulsion to “reveal all”. Where western men and women display their expensive clothes and flaunt their finely honed bodies as a mark of privilege, the uniformity of traditional Muslim dress stresses the egalitarian and communal ethos of Islam.

It seems self-evident to me that veiling is about more than a desire for modesty. You can dress modestly and downplay your body without going so far as to cover your face; the Ms. Armstrong never went to that extreme. Conflating a nun's habit with a full-face veil ignores this distinction. Part of the problem with analyzing this issue is that veiling has been adopted as a protest tactic, which muddies the water significantly when discussing veiling's significance. Let's look at the practice from a protest and non-protest standpoint and see where that gets us. Before we get into the meat of things I'd like to highlight that I believe people should be able to wear what they want; I'm in no way calling for any sort of prohibition against wearing headcoverings. Moving on... Consider the case where the veil is not worn as a concious sign of protest. As Ms. Armstrong points out, wearing a veil is not mandated in the Qur'an but rather is a social artifact, so its difficult to argue for the veil solely on religious grounds. Ditto the whole modesty angle; covering your face for modesty's sake only makes sense if the face is sexualized to the exclusion of all its other functions. Irshad Manji raises this particular critique in The Trouble With Islam Today; she considers it something of an issue that casual contact between the sexes has become so sexually charged in certain segments of Muslim society. In some cases women may very well be wearing the veil out of a sense of modesty, but its a sense of modesty which is derived from potentially pathological attitude about sex. So why wear the veil if not for modesty, nor religion, nor protest? Think for a minute about what a veil does; it obscures the face. I needn't remined the reader about the myraid associations between face and identity; obscuring one is effectively obscuring the other. Why would someone want to do this of their own free will? What is there to be gained by hiding your identity? I can think of a parallel to this situation in my own life which I believes helps to clarify the issue. One particular martial arts system that I've studied suggests that its instructors wear a particular type of belt when they are teaching. This "instructors' belt" lies outside of the formal ranking system; instructors wear this belt as a reminder that the formal ranking of instructor and student has little bearing on the instruction process. We have here a case where part of the instructor's identity is masked because it gets in the way of the goal which the instructor is trying to achieve. This suggests that there could be positive benefit to a woman choosing to conceal her identity. At the same time I believe its important to draw attention to the differences between the instructors' belt and veiling. One is a specific concealment of limited duration with a well-articulated purpose, the other is a much more encompasing concealment of arbitrarily long duration without a well-articulated purpose. What does the individual gain by concealing her identity in such a fashion? Absent some substantial, concrete benefits its reasonable to question the motivation behind veiling. For its very easy to make the case against veiling. Again, this goes back to the association of face and identity. When women wear the veil they conceal their respective identities. A group of veiled women are physically interchangeable; its but a short hop from there to treating women as generally interchangeable. Simultaneously, the wearing of the veil has the potential to diminish a woman's perception of her own individuality. If I were going to establish and maintain a patriarchal society I can hardly think of a better tool than requiring women to wear veils. As noted previously, all of the above presumes that the veil is not being worn as a symbol of protest; I also have some pragmatic criticisms of the veil as a protest device. I question the efficacy of a device which isolates you from the very audience that you are trying to reach; they may note your protest, but you're unlikely to win any supporters. Jack Straw, though his remark was ill-timed and impolitic, was correct in stating that the veil hinders communication. Again, adopting the veil as a protest device doesn't make much sense if you're unwilling to take it off when it gets in the way of the goals which you are trying to achieve (like talking to The Man).

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