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, fine...so 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.