As amusing as it may be to watch two non-Muslim women duke it out over the veil…

… I have to say that this argument between Naomi Wolf & Phyllis Chesler mostly depresses me.

When it comes to Wolf, I think she had her heart in the right place, but did make a few claims that rather romanticize the idea of hijab. For example, when she says:

It is not that Islam suppresses sexuality, but that it embodies a strongly developed sense of its appropriate channelling – toward marriage, the bonds that sustain family life, and the attachment that secures a home.

On one hand, I think Islam (at least classically speaking) is more more tolerant of the human body than, say, Christianity (being at least a nominal Christian myself, I do often think about this divide). Yet you can’t deny that not all aspects of veiling or purdah are all about celebrating family, some of them are there to celebrate prudishness, sexual anxiety, dehumanization of women, gender apartheid, and The Grand Tournament of Punishing Sluts. Who are sluts? Well, any women who don’t fit into whatever arbitrary standard of what is “appropriate” out on the street today. Something tells me that Wolf has never overheard, say, a clutch of women loudly discussing another for looking like a “slut” because her hijab does not cover her eyebrows. Maybe she will one day, and a dash of actual complexity will be introduced to her further writings on the subject.

Also, this:

…the Taliban were demonised for denying cosmetics and hair colour to women

No, just no. The problem with the Taliban is that they argue, via a barrel of a gun, that women are not human beings. I don’t believe it’s actually possible for an outsider to “demonize” the Taliban either, as they do a pretty good job of that themselves.

Of course, I agree with Wolf about the aspect of choice. I don’t care what Phyllis Chesler, or anyone else, feels about the veil, the burkini, the hot-pink catsuit I saw a woman wear on the bus today… You don’t get to tell anyone how to farking dress. I don’t care what you may think their reasons for dressing this or that way are.

Chesler’s attacks on Wolf framed the issue of “Burqa as ultimate feminist choice,” which was a smear tactic if I’ve ever seen one (could it be because I’ve experienced something very similar once upon a time?). Wolf may be a lot of things, but an idiot she is not.

Chesler does, however, have a point when she says that the Muslim world can be just as “debauched” as anything you’d ever see in the West; people just hide that sort of thing better, they don’t flaunt it, it’s all very surreptitious, but it happens. Closed societies deal with repression in all sorts of colourful ways. Considering the amount of so-called Muslim men that regularly tried to solicit sex from me while I was in Jordan, I just don’t buy Wolf’s insistence that society is somehow purer and human interaction is less explotative when most of the women are veiled. I found Wolf’s own wearing of shalwar kameez and headscarf in Morocco to be touching. Personally, I’ve worn the veil to escape sexual harassment, and no, it was not a “calming” or “serene” experience, it was an “oh crap, now I get to pretend to be someone else just for a scrap of respect around here” kind of experience.

I don’t like Chesler’s blanket, baiting statements about Islam, especially as Islam does often get confused with culture, but I’m not going to sit here and say that trying to pass as a Muslim for fear of something genuinely bad happening to me was a bit of wonderful cultural exchange I’d gush to my friends about. It would be as silly as expecting a woman who is, say, forced to take off her headscarf for fear of Islamophobic attacks to gush about it as well. I don’t mean to say that Wolf has no right to frame her experience as she sees fit – hey, I’m glad she enjoyed, I wish I could have felt the same, if only for a moment or two – but I do hope she at least realizes that when she says “choice is everything” she has to apply that to her own situation as well, and perhaps realize that choice can have a bit of a gray, fuzzy area around it.

Do you actively “choose” something when you are being bullied? Do you “choose” it when you are afraid, or even just annoyed?

I think it would be fair to say that we all make our compromises. I “chose” to step into a pair of high heels today to go shopping, I didn’t really want to wear them on this particular occasion, though. I had mean blisters on my feet, and knew they’d open up in those particular shoes. But I wanted to wear a short skirt and look taller, and I went for it anyway, and I paid for it too.

The little situation above might lack the drama and gravity of, say, veiling in order to not be beaten, but, regardless of what we wear or how we wear it, we make compromises and deal with consequences. And for women, both compromises and consequences tend to be just a little more severe than for men.

The publicity must be pretty good for both Wolf and Chesler right about now (and awww, look, isn’t it sweet? They both agree that porn is ba-yud), but if I was a Muslim woman watching all of this, I’d probably feel as though I was in a room full of people who were telling me to be quiet when the adults are talking.

Jim Fitzpatrick, gender segregation and multiculturalism as two-way street

I follow Jonathan Fryer on Twitter, which is how I found out about MP Jim Fitzpatrick’s wedding debacle at the London Muslim Center. Basically, Fitzpatrick and his wife were invited to a Muslim wedding, walked out when they realized that it would be segregated by gender, and Fitzpatrick later followed up the incident by saying that gender segregation is not appropriate in this day and age and that it is damaging to community cohesion.

Now George Galloway, ever cognizant of a good scandal, is calling for Fitzpatrick’s head.

Fitzpatrick represents half a borough in which there are tens of thousands of Muslims. Alienating your constituents, people who are already pretty damn alienated to begin with, is never an awesome move.

However, I also believe that what’s mere gender segregation to some people is pure gender apartheid to others. What’s being buried in this story is that not all Muslim weddings are segregated by gender, and not all Muslims believe in gender segregation as a rule, and merely saying that Fitzpatrick unequivocally “harmed local and national community cohesion” is too simple and pat.

Fitzpatrick and his wife had every right to walk out of that wedding. There was no way they should have sucked it up and pretended they were loving it for the sake of “multiculturalism.” Multiculturalism is a two-way street. If we agree, for example, that Muslim women in non-Muslim majority countries need to be left in peace when it comes to veiling, then Fitzpatrick’s wife ought to be left in peace if she and her husband decide that gender segregation is not their cup of tea.

It is Fitzpatrick’s remarks after the wedding that have needlessly politicized this entire issue and consequently turned it ugly. If he had framed it as a personal opinion, and not made a sweeping statement that implied that gender segregation should simply not be tolerated in British society in general, I would have supported him all the way. I do, however, agree with the groom that a celebration was being turned into a political clobbering tool either way you look at it. This must be a very bitter lesson for this family, and I don’t envy their position.

However, Fitzpatrick was not being “ignorant” either. There is nothing at all ignorant about stating that “separate but equal” is not something that you personally approve of. Gender segregation at mosques, for example, is already a big issue in the West. You can’t and you won’t make everyone agree on it. Cohesion? Hah. You might as well try to get a bunch of Duke & UNC fans in one room together, and ask them to remain “cohesive.”

The one time I went to a gender segregated wedding, I had a blast. It had nothing to do with gender barriers, however, and everything to do with the company, which was warm, welcoming and relaxed. When you’re surrounded by good people, you have a good time. It’s as simple as that, and politics don’t really matter in that moment.

At the same time, you realize that many of the women who are in the room with you wouldn’t necessarily attend your own, mixed wedding, because they would be uncomfortable. Their discomfort is valid – as is the Fitzpatricks’ discomfort. I personally refuse to privilege one feeling over the other here. You may say that Fitzpatrick is already pretty privileged – being a white male politician and all – and I would agree. But how one feels about an issue as contentious as gender segregation is still very much a deeply personal decision, and you can’t place value on it as easily as you can place value on someone’s social position.

Everyone has their own principles, and sometimes, you can’t avoid stepping on another person’s toes, no matter how hard you may try. The great illusion of multiculturalism is that it promotes a “love thy neighbour” mentality. Well, it doesn’t, not really.

The Mumbai Murderers

I’m not a fan of mosque-culture by a long shot (neither am I fan of church-culture, and I’m a Christian too, so go ahead and save your “OMIGOD INTOLERANCE” rants for another day, peoples), but I was somewhat encouraged by Friday prayers today.

We live fairly close to a mosque, and today in particular you could hear the local imam specifically talking about how what happened in India this week is a horrible atrocity.

It made me think about religion and how it simultaneously encourages the best and the absolute worst in most believers on this planet – how organic this mixture is to human nature.

Shorter Danielle Crittenden: Throw the Niqabi Off the Train!

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. Continue reading “Shorter Danielle Crittenden: Throw the Niqabi Off the Train!”