Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Veiled Comments

We seem to have a controversy in Canada, especially in Quebec, about modesty face coverings. This is in a country that a Time poll just rated as one of the most free in the world today. Elections Canada has ruled, if I have it correctly, that a woman can vote with her face covered if she has someone with her that vouches that under the face covering she is who she says she is. People are pretty annoyed with this. Funny. Up to a very short time ago, a Canadian could walk into the poll, say 'I am Mary Smith of 123 Street, and be handed a ballot. And the poll clerk would maybe not glance up from her book and ruler at all. Now we are going to be 'ID"ed.

I don't have much patience, myself, with women who cover their heads and faces, at least in North America. If they live someplace where they are going to get arrested or beaten, that's another matter. Women who cover their faces when it is not required have a problem. Either their menfolk are making them do it or they have bought into the mystique so much (the word 'brainwashed' springs to my mind) that they have lost their common sense. I have heard such a woman speak of the sense of privacy and security that a veil gives her. Maybe. The fact remains that a woman so cumbered cannot see colour properly, cannot cross a street safely, should certainly not be driving, and in most places would be hot. I wear a black fly veil in May here in the Ottawa Valley, and that is what happens to me when I do.

I want to make a clear distinction between the burka and niquab and the hijab or even the chador. I have nothing against 'modest dress', whether it is the woman's personal choice or a cultural identity or a religious requirement. A headscarf (hijab) is completely innocuous. Perhaps a few of the more extreme manifestations of religious dress can be pretty silly and even unsafe; for example, I am thinking about a nun I saw in a pre John Paul starched white wimple that framed her face like a horse's blinkers. The problem was that she was driving a car and had no peripheral vision. If a girl is playing soccer in a hijab, it should not do that. Otherwise, what is the problem! Usually, though, cover up clothing seems to me to be purely a matter of personal choice. Some of the 'required dress' conventions might be cumbersome, hot or impractical (wearing a wig over your own hair? A body suit under your dress? An ankle length coat in August?) but that's the wearer's problem, not mine. And when I see how some teenagers choose to dress, I really wish I had a few chadors to shove them into. But a face veil and deep scarfed hood are pretty extreme, and as for the burka, it's punitive.
The banning of hijab in schools in France and the ban and debate in Turkey has got to be a political statement. And making a ban makes the wearing of the hijab even more of a political statement than it would be otherwise. Think about it -- if you are a teenager, how better to get up your parents' noses than to put on hijab when your family doesn't. If you are a 'fundamentalist' male, how better to make a statement than to make your female relatives wear it, even if it prevents them from going to school. (And maybe that is also a wanted result?) The authorities are doing a silly thing, I think, because banning something makes it both high profile and more desirable. To make a martyr, provide an opportunity for martyrdom.

In yet another category are the religious leaders in places like Iran who are sending out the clothing police to arrest women who don't meet the code and the menfolk who ( I read) beat their wives and daughters for leaving the burka at home. I gather that the concept behind this 'cover up, woman!' imperative is that women are distracting and take men's thoughts away from important things. Not unlike the mediaeval Christian teaching that women are inherently sinful and sex traps, to boot, and that they are property to be kept subjugated because they love sex and sex should be only for procreation for the glory of God. Some women affirm great pride in the testament to their faith that a distinctive dress or dress code provides. A lot of the nuns who went into modern dress at the call of Pope John Paul were sad to lose their distinctive habits. A lot of genuinely devout girls see their hijabs as a statement of their faith and identity. But it's a cause for weeping that women and girls are forced into these customs and the thought patterns behind them.

It's those thought patterns that have been occupying my mind to-day. Some of the women who wear various versions of Islamic modest clothing seem to enjoy the sexual aspect of it. They aver that their femininity and sexuality is hidden but there and that in their own space they can flaunt it and enjoy it. I have seen comments that imply that Western women just don't get it and that to be a 'hidden woman' is better for sex. Maybe. How would someone like me ever know?

What I think these women are saying is that they buy into the concept that they are just so sexy and desirable that they have to hide themselves so that men will not be distracted. This goes with the idea that men think about sex all the time, or every six minutes anyway, and can't be expected to control themselves about it. And isn't that silly. I can pass by a coffee shop oozing delectable odours from every crevice, even though I love the stuff. Ditto the bakery. Most people do the equivalent, unless they are, literally, starving. No one is shutting down coffee shops, here or in the Islamic world either. Alcoholics recover, brave souls, and manage to live productive lives in a world full of chances to drink. Sex can't be much more compelling, can it? So you're distracted? Refocus. I feel sorry for women, veiled or not, who are out to be distractions. And for men who play that game.

If you want to get a man's attention, I have found, it's easy enough for a woman to do. My technique always involved making eye contact. Worked like a charm. And you can do that in anything other than a full burka with a peep hole. Even then, the flash of a painted nail, scent, the way you walk, all these could send a message. Veiled prostitutes in classical Greece wore sandals that printed 'Follow Me' in the dust of the street. If a man is primed to think that way, the sight of a black tent that has a woman under it is a signal. Ooh, hidden delights. It's probably just as much of a signal as a thong panty coming out of low rise trousers. If you have nothing else to occupy your mind.

I guess what I'm saying, if you've followed the train of thought around all these curves, is that the world is full of other things to do if you're following current events and trying to make the world a better place, or learning, or working to feed yourself or your family.
My value system says that public life should not be about sex. No flirting in the office. Public dress should not be an incitement to riot. (Including you, the guy over there in the jeans with the carefully constructed bulge in the front.) Advertisements should tell me something about the product. Beaches are for swimming. Life is for doing all kinds of things.
In Canada, you can wear your veil to vote. Unless all the guys hissing and spitting all over the place get the rules changed. You can wear it to school. You can be interviewed on the radio talking about how you love to wear it. Note that in Canada, this woman is voting, going to school and taking part in public life. And I really hope that both those things continue to be true.


  1. good point about driving and peripheral vision--never thought of that.

    and i think france is just being ridiculous banning hijab.

  2. Oh awesome post...you really tackled this and have me thinking.

    I am re-evaluating my stance of "respect her right to choose how she dresses and be respectful of the customs."

    I have stated an opposition to the culture of the burka, but that's not at all the same thing.

    You're right about the punitive point and danger points.


    Using My Words

  3. This was a very thought-provoking post. It's such a difficult line to walk when we want to be culturally sensitive, but at the same time want to further progress for women. I know that the veil is an issue I've felt conflicted about myself. I appreciated reading your position on these issues.

  4. this was a very interesting post, and just about every point I thought to expand on, you already did!

  5. This post really resonates for me with the recent fracas over Bill Maher's comments on public breastfeeding. If we accept that women's attire and behaviour ought to be determined by what may make some men aroused and/or uncomfortable - well, it's not really all that far from there to the burka.