Monday, January 24, 2011

Taking the veil

This is Crikey's Video of the Day today.

As one of the many feminists around the world bedevilled by the question of Islamic dress codes for women, I was hoping, really hoping, that this woman was going to explain the rationale of wearing the whole enchilada in a way that I could understand and sympathise with. Because I've read a number of pieces by Moslem women on this subject and frankly none of them have made a lot of sense to me.

Most of this woman's arguments about why the French ban is wrong do carry some weight. But all she says by way of actual explanation of the wearing of the garment is that she wears the niqab 'because of my spirituality towards God'. Which means nothing to me. 'Spirituality' yes, no argument from me. Even 'God', yes, I at least get the idea. But it's the word 'because' that defeats me. How is one's spirituality towards God expressed by hiding one's body, hair and face, which one presumes she believes God to have made? Does anyone know?

A little faffing around online reveals among other things that the face veil is a pre-Islamic garment worn in the desert to keep the flying sand out of one's eyes (on a literal if presumably not a metaphorical level). Which is the kind of explanation that does make sense. But you have to wonder how often there's call to keep the flying sand out of one's eyes in France -- again, on a literal if not a metaphorical level; France has quite a lot of metaphorical flying sand when it comes to putting pressure on women about their looks or pestering them sexually in public, and two reasons often given for wearing any level of hijab are to prevent unwanted attentions from men and to be able to stop fretting about how you'll be judged for the new wrinkle in your forehead or the fact that you've put on a few kilos.

Goddess knows both of those things make perfect sense to me.  What I want to know is why it should be held the woman's responsibility to prevent them. And why you can't express your spirituality, whether towards God or not, just as easily by singing a madrigal or growing a tomato or cooking a meal for people you love.


Anonymous said...

Every year we see new Parisian fashion accessories that have little practical sense. This doesn't mean we consider banning them.

Also, statements about one's relationship with God should generally be taken on trust.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

It's not that I don't believe it. It's that I don't understand it, and was hoping to have it explained to me.

I'm not in favour of the ban, BTW.

Liam said...

Back when I was tutoring at uni I had a student who, in the course of a massive conversational derailment, explained her own reasons for wearing the headscarf to the rest of the class in terms of broader modesty in Islam—the idea being that the outward signs of covering one's ears-and-hair-and-neck went with a broader sense of personal and social modesty ie. trying to live without being vain or prideful or self-important.
I think we'd been talking about the TV series Brides of Christ, so it made a great deal of sense.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for clarifying, Kerryn. I found a couple of testimonies from teenagers who wear the veil. They're much more secular (and much less ambiguous) than the God-speak in the Crikey video.

"It keeps me protected from the fashion industry. The hijab liberates you from the media, brainwashing you into, Buy this, buy that, you're supposed to look like this....It allows me to be who I am. I don't have to worry about being popular through buying things that are 'cool'."

"You feel modest...and you feel like you're covered up. You have more self-respect. You have more confidence in yourself that you don't need to care about (how) you look."

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Liam, I would feel the force of that argument a lot more if there had been young men of the faith in the room also, also covered up, for the same reasons.

Generally I can only repeat the point I tried to make in the post: that the secular reasons for covering up (being delivered from unwanted sexual attention, being liberated from the prison of fretting about and being attacked about one's looks) are to do with the behaviour of men. The consumerist stuff --'the fashion industry', 'the media' -- is, again, basically (though not entirely) about constructing one's appearance for male approval, looking hawt, etc etc. The idea that women should have to take the trouble to take action, including action so extreme as covering themselves, because men can't or won't behave like adults is just, like, repulsive. I diskard it hem-hem, as I'm sure Molesworth would say, given what the Brits were up to in the Middle East at the time. (Or before, or since.)

Liam said...

I'm not saying there's not a stinking great double standard, just that the link between perceived "modesty" in clothing and piety in religious practice isn't just a Muslim thing. It's pretty common and universal.

[being] liberated from the prison of fretting about and being attacked about one's looks) are to do with the behaviour of men

I don't buy that liberation from fretting about one's looks are just about the disapproval of men. If it were solely about that, I agree, it'd be repulsive.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Well I did say (though not entirely) in some brackets somewhere, and I agree it's not the only thing, just a dirty great fraction of it.

But the secular stuff is entirely understandable, anyway, as I've said. What I was really hoping for was some enlightenment on the logic of covering one's face being somehow to do with one's relationship with God. On reflection I don't actually buy theil's assertion that such statements should be taken on trust. I prefer to leave them on trust, unless they make some sense to me.

What I'm really saying is that I am suspicious of all double standards that refer the observer back to God. I am currently writing a book on Adelaide and one of the things I've recently learned in my researches for it is that South Australia was the first place in the world to make rape within marriage a crime, some time in the 1970s (!) as part of Dunstan's raft of reforms in matters of sexuality, gender and equality. Know where most of the opposition to this particular criminalisation came from? The church. Their 'logic'? That if you called it 'rape' then you were putting married persons on a par with de facto persons, and that that devalued the sanctity of marriage. That noise you can hear now is me doing the thing that Paul Keating did in Parliament once with his index finger and his bottom lip. And with this niqab business, I think I can hear the discourse of religion again being used as a boffle for some whopping great piece of sexist pork.

Anonymous said...

Kerryn, can I say that I love you for your ability to express clearly your (and my) outrage at things that leave me gibbering in a corner.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Thank you for those kind words, anon. Since my objection to this whole burka business is not getting an answer to the question why, at least not one that I understand and/or can see is free from double standards gender-wise, then I need to be able to say why it gets my goat.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Liam, I should have added that I don't regard this stuff as religion-specific and would hate to be seen as an Islamophobe just because one Frenchwoman has annoyed me. From what I've seen, I think the strictures on nuns to be modest (translation: cover up the bits that might make some man lose control of himself) are a sexist crock as well.

Liam said...

I am suspicious of all double standards that refer the observer back to God...
I prefer to leave them on trust, unless they make some sense to me

But isn't that why they're a religious practice in the first place---that they don't necessarily make sense to the non-faithful?

I've never really ever understood the Muslim prohibition on alcohol, either—I'm not religious, but the Miracle at Cana is my favourite of Christ's acts. I'm not sure that a loving God would want us to do without wine and beer and spirits, which are, when you get around to it, delicious.

I can quite understand though that for a practicing Muslim to swear off alcohol in a Western country as drink-soaked as Australia (or indeed anywhere in Europe) is a transgressive and powerful act.

No wine or pork? In France? That, to me, is a crime against God.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Well indeed. Although there's a wonderful scene in the work of my very favourite author Dorothy Dunnett, vol 4 of the Lymond Chronicles from memory, in which the alcohol thing is played on when people start bringing around bowls of raki (they're in Tangier or somewhere) and someone says it's only 'wine the red insane one' that is banned and nobody said anything about spirits. I have no idea whether this is true or not, and I'm sure there are as many variants of religious practice within Islam as within Christianity. If not more. Still, no red wine in France seems a crime against humanity as you say.

Zarquon said...

Terry Pratchett explained it: "Of ourse it's daft, it's traditional"

(wv: nomsony: to eat one's TV)

ThirdCat said...

I have spent a lot of time over the last little while thinking about such things, and have listened to a lot of people and read a lot of their words. I have decided that for now, I am going to stop trying to understand and make sense of it, and to simply accept. This is not, I agree, a good long term solution and is not a path I normally take. Nor is it entirely possible, given that I am physically reminded of it every single day. Nonetheless, it is the path that I am taking, because my quest to understand veiling was getting in the way of my ability to think about other things.

I find the whole banning thing utterly depressing. Let's just not.
wv: galka

Link said...

if there had been young men of the faith in the room also, also covered up, for the same reasons.

To understand why many Muslim women feel safer, protected and more able to be who they are wearing a headscarf, you really need to imagine having been doing so for a very long time. Wrapping up one's head every day for the sake of cultural norms and more importantly piety and modesty before God, is a obviously a long standing cultural tradition that becomes part and parcel with one's daily regimen. So making not wearing a headscarf a requirement for some women could be a bit of an emotional ordeal.

I lived with a Turkish family in Istanbul and one day mindlessly opened the front door to a man, (albeit some cousin) whilst Belkis stood aghast in the hallway covering her naked head with her hands. I felt terrible, it was as if I had opened the door and she had been standing in the hall sans blouse.

OTOH, when she grabbed for a chux off the coffee table when the evening call to prayer went off on the corner and I had spontaneously laughed at her, she looked initially hurt and then could see the ridiculousness of what she had done. God doesn't care whether she covers her head or not, that's the truth, but sometimes in certain company she very much does. I can't imagine wrapping my head every day of my adult life for long standing cultural and religious reasons and then being vilified for it by a bunch of . . . it's pretty bigoted.

I don't think wearing a headscarf is to stave off the advances of uncontrollable men, as if that's gonna work? Pious, educated, Muslim women are amongst the best female assets we have in this world. Really.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

3C, given where you are, I should think a moratorium on thinking about it at all would be essential.

Link, those are really interesting stories, but I can't quite follow you. You seem to think (forgive me if I'm wrong here) that I am advocating the ban, which I've specifically said I'm not.

Also, the full naqib, which is what the woman in the video is wearing and what she's talking about, is a somewhat different thing from a headscarf, which there is no talk of banning.

skepticlawyer said...

Does it make sense to say I support the ban in France, because it is consistent with French history? If someone wanted to introduce the same ban in an Anglophone country, I would be horrified.

When I see English people saying 'we should copy France when it comes to Islam', I always want to laugh - because those who want to copy France are almost always the same people who hate the EU and are the types who'll stand in the middle of Trafalgar Square and yell 'Up Yours Delors!' or some such inanity.

Visible religiosity is not part of French culture and history, and hasn't been for a long time. Muslims who live there have no right to expect different treatment from French Jews or French Catholics. Anglophone cultures, by contrast, reserve only the right to laugh at your visible religiosity. They won't stop you from exhibiting it.

Terribly inconsistent of me, but there you go.

Ann O'Dyne said...

1. I second what anon said above about Our Kerryn.

2. I am all in favour of modest attire for ALL people, mostly for all the Twigley-lookalike brides with their damn tits hanging out at their lavish weddings. what on earth does the vicar think when faced with a cleavage like the grand canyon?

3. but I am deeply suspicious of the burkas/niquab, hajib gang.
It has only taken hold in the wider muslim community since the 1970's and the rise of the T@liban.

4. if it works to suppress gorgeous people from getting overly impressed with their own loveliness then get a bag over bloody AnJolie and Elle McThing ASAP

5. ANY cult which requires silliness (like no women in the mosque, or no meat on Fridays, or no ham sandwiches, or 'silent birthing') on the part of adherents ... oh wait, that's all cults ...
6. starting a new one: all work must cease for cocktails at 5pm every day, formal dress to be worn st all times, cats are to be worshipped, and all adherents homes are their places of worship and thereby exempt of all state land taxes and council rates.

Lucytartan said...

I wrote a comment today which seems not to have posted - or did i dream it? Curiouser and curiouser.

Elsewhere007 said...

At heart, I think it's all about men projecting responsibility for their sexuality onto women. But I respect the right of women to choose what makes them comfortable in whatever cultural circumstance.

(I have heard the thing about young men wearing baggy trousers for modesty. I have also seen young women on Sydney rd in v skimpy clothing plus a head scarf.)

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

SL, re French history, exactly -- it's a complicated situation. As it is in Turkey.

Ms O'Dyne, I really like #6 in every respect, particularly the part about the rates and taxes. We should agitate for it.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Ms Tartan, have seen no comment from you thus far, apart from that one. Hope you will re-write.

Elsewhere: 'I think it's all about men projecting responsibility for their sexuality onto women.'

Yes. Exactly. Thank you.

Loving the skimpy clothing plus headscarf!

Link said...

Kerryn, I didn't think you were advocating a ban on the burqa, hijab, niqab. Telling of my experience in Istanbul was to try and relate to you the physical importance of this sort of clothing to a woman who is accustomed to wearing it every day. Up until I saw the horrified expression on Belkis' face at being seen 'exposed' without headcovering, I didn't really understand the importance of it to her either.

I agree the onus on women to dress modestly in Islam does stem from the attitudes of the patriarchy-- attitudes they largely borrowed from the Ancient Greeks.

There is evidence that this type of dress was worn by some Arab and Persian women long before Islam. For example, the Roman African Christian Tertullian, writing in Chapter 17 of The Veiling of Virgins around 200 AD, praises the modesty of those "pagan women of Arabia"culture,

I think its fairly evident (alright already) that all women the world over have been getting a pretty raw deal for a very, very long time. Understanding why some women want to wear a headscarf is a bit like trying to understand why some women still want to get married. I.e, it stems from a longstanding cultural tradition masquerading as piety before God.

There can be no doubt people are peverse!

Skepticlawyer. From what you say one won't find anyone in France wearing even a gold cross dangling from their neck? Something I find a bit hard to believe.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Thanks Link, I really do appreciate the story of Belkis and feel for her. Again, headscarves and individual feeling really aren't what I was talking about, nor was I taking sides. Very specifically, as I said, I want to understand the God thing. I want to know what the logic is.

Re 'alright already'. People have been saying that to me for a very long time, especially at the times when I was the only woman on some board or committee and the only time the existence of women was even remembered in some policy or practice was when I mentioned it.

If 'it' really were already all right, neither I nor anybody else would need to keep banging on about it.

As it is, there's a massive backlash on, in case you hadn't noticed. Read, for example, this and then tell me it's alright already.

Link said...

No you misunderstand me, by alright already I mean can not everyone please now acknowledge what a completely bum deal women continue to get in all cultures.

Link said...

And further . . . I happen to think the desperate change the world needs to see to reverse such things as high infant mortality, environmental degradation, political corruption, violence, war, etc, etc, will only be achieved when attitudes towards women actually change. So far we have the 'idea' in many minds that there is a bit of a problem in male to female attidudes but not terribly much other than window dressing has been done to address it. For men, there doesn't appear to be much to gain by giving women the credit and power they deserve and the world so deperately needs.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Oh right, okay. I agree that from what I've seen men don't think there's much to gain and also think there's quite a lot to lose, and even for many men of goodwill, women are simply invisible, except to, erm, look at.

fxh said...

"Liam, I would feel the force of that argument a lot more if there had been young men of the faith in the room also, also covered up, for the same reasons."

Islamic men should cover up between their navel and their knees.

Most interpretations mean that men cannot wear shorts above the knee.

This is mostly observed.

If the head scarf, or any other covering, is symbolic, then its removal at any particular time, doesn't lesson its symbolic meaning.

If it is practical then its practicality isn't effected if it is removed when impractical.

"I'm not religious, but the Miracle at Cana is my favourite of Christ's acts."

Liam - that was only inserted by some Irish catholic bloke years ago. Protestants never read that bit.

ThirdCat said...

I just watched that video...on a tangential note, what's with the music, and also what's with the significance of all that stuff with the phone in the beginning?

Mahfoud said...

Cunning and dishonest, in all your postings you leave space for yourself to backpeddle: "That's not what I said."
If you really do want to understand the "God thing" in Islam then try studying it sometime, instead of using your ignorance as an excuse to batter its pious women.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Actually, I studied it formally at school, and have done so informally and intermittently since.

When I say 'That's not what I said', it's because that's not what I said. Please don't comment here unless you've actually read and understood the post and thread. Did you even watch the video or listen to what the woman said?

Also, it's 'backpedal'.

Mahfoud said...

I watched the video, of course.
If you are familiar with Islam you will know its similiarities to Christianity, but unfortunately you seem prejudiced to all religion. And to spirituality as such. We are all born spiritual, if it suits you or not. Non-sprirituality is an un-natural state.

Belittling this woman's religious dress by describing it as 'The whole enchilada' betrays your prejudice.

You are not very fair at all, English is my second language; backpedal is a difficult word.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

As I've said in the post, I have a great deal of time for the notion of spirituality, but you are right to say that I don't like organised religion, which is not the same thing. As I've also said, this is nothing to do with being anti-Islam and everything to do with being anti-sexist and anti-patriarchy. Most organised religion, in my view, degrades women and uses the language and tenets of the religion to justify that. You are very welcome to disagree, but I don't want to argue the point as it's clear to me that we have no common ground. But when it comes to personal insults such as you have indulged in, from an anonymous stranger and on my own personal blog, I lose my temper enough to correct people's spelling.

So as far as the spelling is concerned, I beg your pardon. That really was a cheap shot. And many people whose first language is English get it wrong as well.

Mahfoud said...

We have no common ground on this, that is true.
Islam understands the need to protect women. Your western culture putting naked women on stages where men pay to look at them is a foreign product to us. Is it degrading? I think so. But that is nothing compared to pornography where women are 'things'.

Thank you. It's an emotional subject. I am sorry for the insults, and thank you.