Props for anyone who gets the movie reference in the title of this post.
Non-Muslim women have pontificated on the niqab (face-veil) and its relation to Western culture before. *cough* Admittedly, a lot of our comments, my comments included, can be rather presumptuous and patronizing, even if we don’t mean them to be. I’ve been doing a lot of soul-searching on this issue lately, and it seems to me that sagely opining about these things with an air of authority can be just as unhelpful as, say, going off on a self-congratulatory spiel about breast implants and the supposedly poor, pathetic women who get them.
Should we reserve aesthetic judgment? As a writer, I say no. It’s damn near impossible to do that anyway.
But aesthetic judgment is not the same thing as ascribing motivation, as dissecting the ideology, as practically eliminating the humanity of other people. It’s one thing to say – “I personally wouldn’t wear niqab, and here’s why…” or even “That niqab is cute but not this one” – and quite another to launch on an investigation of those Other women and why they do the things they do. I’ve tried to refrain from doing that in my earlier writings on niqab, but, you know what? I’ve tripped up before. And I’ve tripped up in my logic as well:
I argued that the face veil is especially problematic in countries such as the U.S. But thinking about it now, if veiling one’s face should always be about choice, then the U.S. is a fairly good place for that. Choice is much more restricted and more nebulous in more conservative religious environments (not saying the U.S. is some sort of progressive utopia – we’re not – but we’re “tryin’ real hard to be a shepherd,” dang it).
Being in the UAE has certainly helped shape, or, as the fact may be, enhance, my opinion on the matter, particularly in a “Western” context. Which is why reading Danielle Crittenden’s smug series on the face-veil has been so tedious.
Muslimah Media Watch does a great job of addressing Crittenden’s language. I still can’t believe that this woman compared the renovations going on in her kitchen to, and I quote, a “blown-up house in Baghdad.” An innocent joke it was not, considering the context. Perhaps next she’ll compare a domestic dispute to Haditha. Because mass murder is hilarious!
It’s hard to get past Crittenden’s tone and word-choice in addressing her actual arguments in regards to the face-veil. Consider her generalizations about the Middle East: “If I were an Islamist woman living in the Middle East, I’d need a male escort like [the camerman, Brent Foster] whenever I emerged from the house (strictly speaking, he would have to be related to me).” Riiight. I’m not even going to go into her usage of the word “Islamist.” Look, the whole of the Middle East is not like Saudi Arabia. And even in Saudi Arabia, you can see women out and about on their own (women such as my friend’s fully niqab-ed wife, for example – honestly, I’m not defending Saudi’s laws here, but educating oneself on the matter really does help you retain a shred of credibility). Crittenden strikes me as someone who has never been to the Middle East. Her blithe generalizations on the matter are meant to have us giggling along, “oh those weird sand people,” except that we’d instantly be outraged if we, say, read a reactionary screed about “those amoral Westerners,” or whatever, right?
Now, I see no problem in adopting a different look in order to know what it may feel like. The very act of Crittenden putting on a face-veil and abaya for a week is largely neutral to me. But it is important to understand this as a subjective experience. Because the people who wear the face-veil are individuals. And wearing some extra cloth around your face for a week does not grant you the keys to their souls. Furthermore, using this little experiment as a launch-pad for a critique of the whole of Muslim culture – and conflating the face-veil with such phenomena as FGM, domestic abuse, honour killing, and forced marriage – is disingenuous at best.
I was in line for a taxi the other day, and there was a couple behind me: she in typical Saudi-looking abaya and niqab (no idea if she was actually from Saudi – could not pick up on the accent), he in jeans and t-shirt. I was in that line for forty-five minutes, and for that entire time, that woman was berating her man. He had done something that seriously pissed her off and she was threatening to “do something about it… and [he] wouldn’t like it” (there was an Arabic speaker with me to translate, and some words I picked up on myself – go me!). He looked seriously ashamed of himself, hanging his head, and saying “khalas, khalas, can we drop it now, please?” A shrinking violet that woman was not. I also somehow doubt that her husband took her home and beat her for being “disobedient” or whatever. These were just normal people, leading a normal life. The fact that this woman was wearing niqab did not automatically make her a victim of violence and abuse.
The only useful part of Crittenden’s “adventures” (her word, not mine) involved a discussion of whether or not security staff at airports know exactly what to do with a niqabi passenger (the answer, of course, is simple: get a female staffer to a private area where she can quickly look at the passenger’s face – although some niqabis, of course, do not even object to lifting their veils in public if need be, for example).
Otherwise, far from exposing the incense-scented, clandestine (we’re being Orientalist now, right?) world of the veiled Muslim woman, the “adventures” mostly exposed Crittenden’s prejudices. I was shocked by the fact that she was shocked by the fact that most people in Washington DC treated her like a normal human being while she wore her niqab. In a later installment of her blog, I was shocked by the fact that she assumed that ordinary residents of DC should get a cookie and a pat on the back for being so nice and tolerant. Uh, Danielle? Most people don’t need a medal for acting like decent human beings around other decent human beings. It’s called common courtesy. There’s nothing wrong with pointing out that people are nice, and complimenting them on it, but if you’re doing so in a manner that suggests that they shouldn’t have to be nice, that it’s all a big imposition, that, and I quote “tolerating a woman on the subway with a burka” (what the hell are you going to do, chuck her out? Go up to her and deliver a lecture on how oppressed and/or evil she is?), is actually quite wrong… You’ve lost me.
Many people say things like – “but, but, my cut-off shorts won’t be acceptable outside of a compound in Saudi Arabia!!!” This is true. It’s not, however, an excuse to create a similar environment in the United States. Of course, it goes without saying that there are limits on what is and isn’t appropriate in the United States as well (honestly, do people need to be reminded of this? For real?).
Crittenden argues that Americans who encounter the face-veil on a regular basis will somehow become anaesthetised to the afore-mentioned problems of FGM, of violence against women, etc. Um, why is that, exactly? I’m not saying that the symbolism of the face-veil cannot be problematic, it can, there’s no shortage of clerics saying that a woman’s face is basically an evil aberration, for example… But that’s like saying that Crittenden should not be allowed to wear high heels because some pervert will decide that she’s sexualizing herself and making herself the object of his lust and unwelcome attention. Why should we let the sexists and the perverts set the standard? Where do we draw the line?
The truth is, Crittenden’s arguments are no more enlightened than the arguments of the woman who once told me that non-veiled women are “ho’s.” Really, Crittenden and that woman should get together and tea and biscuits – they have a lot more in common than you’d think.
Muslim Hedonist has more on the subject. Please read.