Friday, April 23, 2010

Freedom, the Burqua, and Women

Yesterday, as I picked up an inexpensive vacuum for the church at the local K-Mart, I found myself waiting by my vehicle as a woman loaded her kids into her own minivan. Her cart and her kids were right next to my door, so I just said a gentle "excuse me," smiled, gave a little shrug, and stood there. I've done the "loading up the Conestoga" thing with kids many a time, and there's just no rushing it. She apologized, and smiled, and bustled about her business.

In keeping with the diverse and varied nature of my close-in suburb, the woman was Muslim, and was wearing a headscarf. Her two young daughters were also wearing headscarves. The scarves were bright and lively in color, and both she and her daughters were dressed in a way that was both demure and pleasant.

As I motored away, I was reminded of the current struggles that secular Europe is having as it attempts to adapt to some of the dynamics of Islam. In particular, it called to mind French president Sarkozy's recent efforts to completely ban full coverage veiling of women. France has had a tremendous amount of difficulty assimilating Islam into itself, particularly in its most rigid forms. "Full coverage" and "women" just...well, it ain't French. But it goes deeper than that.

Sarkozy's central beef is that the burqua and requiring a face to be covered dehumanizes women, and that this ce n'est pas acceptable in France. Though I suppose as a progressive I'm supposed to be generally tolerant of all things, I find that I have a very similar reaction whenever I've encountered burquas here in the DC area. While I find headscarves for Muslim women no more degrading than head coverings for Mennonites, I find the burqua painfully offputting.

It is quite simply not possible to argue that they do not dehumanize women, because that is precisely what a burqua does. That's the purpose. It strips a human being of any identifiable features. They cease to have any visible traits that permit you to recognize them as an individual. Behind a full coverage veil, women are easily viewed as wraiths, shadowy beings that must remain silent in the presence of real human beings, meaning, men.

Confronted in this way, conservative Muslims tend to have two responses. First, they assert that it is their right in a pluralistic society to do as they wish, and that if a society wants to claim it is modern and open, it must be tolerant of such things. There is more than a little truth in this. We Americans tend to err on the side of tolerance, because it's a vital and central part of our history. The net effect is that Muslims in America tend to be more moderate, more open to others, and are much more vested in this nation and it's principles. People who bloviate about Islamofascism and the inherent evils of Islam and imagine that they're defending American values are, in fact, doing the exact opposite. American freedom is a far more robust and viral thing than they seem to recognize.

The "tolerate our difference" argument is, therefore, long as folks making that argument recognize that this "difference" is not something that can ever be coerced. Do you have the right to wear a burqua? Sure. But in a free society you also have the right, the very moment you realize the burqua is not something you want to wear, to take the damn thing off. And I use that word advisedly.

If you want to participate in a pluralistic society, and to enjoy it's many benefits, your faith community needs to recognize that here every woman is free to choose 1) what she wears and 2) whether she wants to be a part of your faith community at all. In the places where the burqua is worn by all women, neither of those two things are true. That will never, ever be the case in America.

The second counterargument is one that shuts the mouth of a significant portion of American conservatism. That argument is simple. Most conservative Americans are Christian. Most conservative, Bible-believing Christians will argue that women are theologically subordinate to men. It's right there in Genesis, say they. It's right there in Timothy. Women are beneath men. They can't be leaders.

And so in a proportion of American churches that I find quite simply mindboggling, women can't be pastors. They can't be elders. They can't be deacons. They are spiritual inferiors, who can teach the kiddies, but are expected to...sssshhh...not teach or lead men. In the most successful nondenominational megachurch in the capital city of the great Republic of the United States of America, for example, this is how it works.

"You see?" a crafty Taliban might say. "You Christians also understand that women have their place. We simply have a different way of expressing it."

And he'd be right.


  1. Thank you for articulating some thoughts that have been bouncing around in my mind for a long time....regarding women's roles in society and the church. I've been thinking about the whole women in ministry issue for quite a while now as my husband and I are attending a church with a woman head pastor. I've found her teaching to be no less compelling or spirit-led than any other church I've been to with a male head pastor.

  2. Yes! The woman's decision to wear a burqua or headscarf should be her own decision and she should not be coerced into it. While I think required wearing of a burqua to be oppressive, particularly on super hot days or while swimming, I don't think banning them is a good idea. That not only takes away a woman's choice but also impinges on religious freedoms.

  3. I am right there with you all the way. Except for one sentence: "People who bloviate about Islamofascism and the inherent evils of Islam and imagine that they're defending American values are, in fact, doing the exact opposite."

    No. Tell that to Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

    I would say instead that people who bloviate that there is no such thing as Islamofascism, or that there is nothing inherently wrong with Islam, think they are defending the values of a pluralist open society when, in fact, they are doing just the opposite. Freedom from oppression is a greater value than "tolerance" for it's own sake. We are rightly intolerant of many things. If want a society that is free of oppression, then you have to be intolerant of oppression. Period. That's just basic common sense.

    There are those who value oppression (and paradoxically intolerance) would seek to turn our own ill-considered fetish for "tolerance" against us, and when we refuse to let them do so, we are not abandoning our greatest values. We are upholding them in a rational way.

  4. Ah, Browning, I love when you comment, because you then say stupid things and I can refute them.

    People who bloviate about how Islam is not inherently wrong are being intelligent. They are seeing that, much like Christianity, Buddhism, etc., Islam is a big thing that isn't nearly as monolithic as people think. Thus, while there may be monstrous sects of Islam- Taliban being the obvious example- there are also good sects that are not inherently wrong.

    Part of the problem with your writing is your assumption that everyone in a group is the same- a very silly sort of argument to make. You will undoubtedly- because I've read enough of your comments to have a justifiably low opinion of your intellect- remark that if there are bad sects, then clearly the religion as a whole promotes them. This argument is silly enough that I see no need to refute it; those who would make it are clearly incapable of reason.

  5. @Mr. Cales:

    Glad to be of service! And very nice to make your acquaintance as well.


    Mr. Cales?

    No, I'm over here.

    [waving arms]

    That person to whom you are addressing all your intelligent bloviations? No, that's not me. I have never seen that person before, but he appears to be a lumpy mannequin stuffed with straw. When you are all done pummeling it, take a minute to catch your breath, and we might possibly have a polite conversation.

    I would never argue that all Muslims (or all Christians) were the same. I agree, that would be very stupid.

    Islam is not inherently wrong because certain bad actors make guilty by association everyone who practices some version of the faith. Islam is inherently wrong because it fundamentally based on the teachings of a man who claimed, falsely, to be the single greatest prophet of the creator of the universe. Not only do I not believe him when he claims this, but I also find many of his teachings and behaviors to be clearly evil to anyone with any common sense. I simply believe that the Koran is filled with obvious falsehoods. (As must you, if you are a Christian.)

    There are many Muslims are perfectly lovely people. But they are able to be so only insofar as they have selectively rejected the teachings of their putative religion because of the ways that they fail to live up to a workable ethic. (E.g., you shouldn't have sex with children, as Mohammed apparently did.) That is, many Muslims are lovely people in spite of their religion. The are able to reform it by quietly denaturing all the bits that don't fit in with a modern, secular society with a more humane and rational morality. But, yes, the foundations of the religion are inherently flawed.

  6. @ Browning: Jacob is probably just responding to what seemed like your channeling of Franklin Graham. You and your new age ways....;)

  7. I was responding primarily, believe it or not, to the part about having a fetish for tolerance. As soon as you hear anything even remotely like that phrase, expect a shitstorm of epically stupid proportions.

  8. I have certainly encountered epic stupidity in the name of "tolerance." I've heard my share of liberal bourgeois intellectuals defending, say, genital mutilation in the name of cultural relativism. That's making a fetish of "tolerance," and it's epic stupidity in defense of evil.

    And if I'm channeling anyone, David, it ain't some bonehead evangelical. But I'm not channeling anyone. Rather I'd say that I'm inspired and informed by brave, principled refugees from Islam like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who is a personal hero of mine. Have you read Infidel?