Monday, April 14, 2014

Burqa ban (the right path?)

Two Op Eds in CS Monitor consider the specific problem of a burqa ban (pro and con) in the USA and in the West. These laws will presumably be following in the foot-steps of the anti-sharia amendments that have been introduced in Oklahoma and elsewhere (ref. Wiki: More than two dozen U.S. states have considered measures intended to restrict judges from consulting sharia law). 

What was (mildly) interesting to us is that the pro-burqa (pro-choice) version is voiced by a (presumably) pale-face, liberal, male while the anti-burqa position is presented by a (presumably) cultural muslim female.
Pro-burqa: Last semester I went through an experience I'd never gone through before in my teaching career: I taught a student whose face I couldn't see – except for her eyes. The reason? She was from Saudi Arabia, and she was wearing a niqab, a veil that covered her face from the bridge of the nose down.

The class was an English as a Second Language speaking course, and Sara (not her real name) was there under the auspices of Saudi Arabia's generous scholarship program for international study. The program arose out of a 2005 meeting between Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah (now king) and President George W. Bush to find ways to build understanding between Saudi Arabia and the United States after 9/11.

The number of Saudi students in the US has grown every year since the scholarship program began, and today some 70,000 Saudis are studying here. While initially only men took advantage of the program, now more than 20 percent of Saudi students here are women. The several Saudi women who came before Sara and ended up in my classroom had adapted to their American surroundings by wearing a head scarf. Sara in her niqab was a trailblazer.

In France, the ban was instituted almost solely on the basis that such clothing was oppressive to women. Opponents argued that denying women a right to wear an article of clothing was itself oppressive.

The US can reject France's rationale for the law almost out of hand, simply because it must be acknowledged that at least some women wear these garments out of personal choice, not family pressure. And America is about nothing if not personal choice.

Generally lost in France's heated national debate was the issue of public security. I believe that is the only issue that the US can rationally concern itself with. And it seems to me that city, state, and federal government can adequately handle security without taking aim exclusively at Muslim dress like the niqab and burqa.

Eleven states and the District of Columbia already ban face coverings, either outright or under certain conditions. But these laws are a motley bunch, long on words but short on sense, and ill-equipped to provide actual security impartially in the modern world.

Three specifically exempt Mardi Gras revelers, one of them also including "minstrel troupes." One state tosses into its ban any "unnatural attire." Only two give exemptions for religious beliefs. Sara was technically breaking North Carolina law every time she walked out of her apartment.

These laws need to be revisited.

Anti-burqa: I first saw a veiled woman when I was six, possibly seven. Fascinated, and – never having seen anything like this – frightened, I looked up at my father, who explained she was from Arabia. Like us, he told me, she too was a Muslim.

Thirty-five years later, veiled women no longer catch the eye of pluralistic Muslim families like mine. Instead, in an extraordinary distortion of social mores, I find they now symbolize all of us, even assimilated, heterodox Muslim women like me.

Today, the veil is undeniably the international symbol of Islam. Such a symbol ironically obscures the faith’s complexity and pluralism into a single faceless monolith. Every day, Muslim women are veiled, unveiled, de-veiled, or re-veiled, and their positions in relation to fabric are often overtly political and frequently shifting. As the veil has become a political statement in the migrant Muslim Diaspora, it is frequently mistaken for a symbol of devotion, most often by ritualistic Muslims themselves.

Because of the niqab, Muslim women generate attention, rather than deflect it – the exact opposite of the principle of veiling. They obscure the long-forgotten ideal of Islamic veiling (a dedication to chaste modesty and dignified purity) that extends well beyond either clothing or gender, foolishly relegating a rich philosophy into mere cloth. Islam mandates modesty of the male Muslim as much as of the Muslim woman, through conduct, not necessarily specific garment – a principle smothered in today’s revival of rote ritualism.

These Islamist Muslims push the limits of societal tolerance beyond the pale, provoking latent intolerance. The Netherlands is perhaps the most inflamed example of this today. Their actions, and not the state’s, ultimately limit the progress and acceptance of all Muslims, whatever the extent of our external symbols of Islam.

Worse, through their own innate ignorance of Islam, these Islamists contribute to profound fragmentation of their adopted society, espousing insurrection that threatens the state from within. This destruction of the host society is anathema to the believing Muslim and deeply against Islamic ideals, which demand cohesion and collaboration at the broadest societal level, irrespective of the nature of that society’s leadership.

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