Saturday, October 30, 2010

Madcap Unveiled

I'm writing this because I'm starting to feel quite uncomfortable about saying anything regarding this issue and that's not good. I'm definitely not trying to offend by stating this point of view, and I would truly welcome other ideas that would broaden my scope.

Patch and I went to see a play in the city yesterday, around the issue of wearing hijab. It was a play designed for junior/senior high students, and overly simplistic (I thought.) The hijab-wearing character was portrayed as expressing her religion and culture, against of a neutral familial background. Her mother didn't wear hijab. Both parents actually discouraged her from wearing it, wanted her to wait until she went to university. The teen character had gone to Lebanon for a visit, fell in love with her dying grandmother, and decided to wear hijab to accentuate that closeness of faith and family.

I was raised with a Mennonite extended family. Several of the older women wore long, dark dresses and prayer caps. It was unusual, it was different, and it just was what it was. They were raised with it and due to their particular constellations of circumstances, they decided to stay with it. My grandmother didn't. She was still fairly conservative, but she wore slacks and I never saw her with a head-covering that I remember. Still, it wasn't utterly exotic in my experience. It was a part of our family and cultural "thing", like rulkuken and watermelon at fasba.

However - I've never run into someone of Mennonite background who wasn't raised wearing a prayer-cap, who suddenly decided to don one because that was her cultural background. Never. She could be out there, but I'd be particularly astonished if that decision was made in her teens. I've been around for a few years now, and I've never seen a teen wearing a head-covering who wasn't raised in a head-covering family. I suspect the same is true in Muslim circles.

What I'm saying is that I think the play's premise was disingenuous, not based on a standard experience of Muslims in Canada. I think it was used as a way to swish trickier issues under the carpet.

In the foyer outside there were several newspaper-clipping collages, of articles discussing France's decision to ban the hijab, reviews of hijab-fashion blogs... and a couple articles about women who wear niqab in Canada, who have experienced discrimination in the workplace because of that.

And this is where I think we're dealing with another issue entirely.

The niquab covers the whole face. There are situations where this might be appropriate, such as at -40C, or in the middle of sand-storm. In day-to-day life I think it's totally inappropriate, for several reasons.

First of all, humans are programmed to respond to, and bond to, and take cues from other human faces. We all do. Babies form attachments and gain confidence in interaction based on the love they see in the "mirrors" of their parents' faces. Our elastic, expressive faces are one of the peculiar qualities of our human-ness. A covered face inhibits our ability to bond with the person we're dealing with. I believe this level of interpersonal bonding and basic recognition of mutual humanity is indispensable to civil interaction. We already treat each other badly enough without further eliminating the commonality of the face that reminds us that we're dealing with another human being.

Expressions tell us more than words do. What someone says can be completely altered by how they look when they're saying it. So to cover the face removes both clarity of expression and clarity of response in an interchange between a veiled person and her partner in conversation and transaction. I would argue that it also undermines trust. I have a very difficult time assessing and trusting a relationship that I only have online, because I haven't met that person face-to-face. If I can never see your facial expressions when you talk to me? It's definitely not going to happen between us.

The face is identity, both of self and of other. Body language is important, but when we want to definitely identify someone, we look to the face. When we think of ourselves, we make reference to our faces. Our faces are important to who we are to ourselves and the people we come into contact with. We may not like our faces, but they're uniquely OURS. To be covered is to lose self within a societal context.

And perhaps this point is too bloomin' obvious, but I'll just make it anyway. The niquab is an element of cultures that treat women in ways that Canadians consider abusive, even if women say they "choose" it.

My latest acquaintance with this variety of "choice" was while reading The Secret Lives of the Saints, an expose of the polygamous Bountiful community in British Columbia. Some of the women involved insisted that it was a freely made choice. Some of those same women later left the community and then denied those statements. Yeah, they could "choose" it - or experience reprisals. That's not much of a choice.

Anti-polygamy activists, whose numbers include former polygamous wives and children, insist that polygamy is inherently a system of entrapment and degradation for women. I would argue that because of the importance of the human face to positive human interaction and identity as I outlined earlier, full face veiling accomplishes the same thing.

In Canada we've outlawed polygamy and FGM, even though they are cultural norms in other parts of the world. We've banned them because we've come to the conclusion that they're a detriment to the well-being of women, and that women have human rights equal to those of men. I think it's reasonable to argue that banning full-face veils in public is a comparable move.

Okay, so there are all my cards on the table. I don't have a problem with Muslims or Mennonites, or the home-church lady who lives down the road who thinks that God wants her to pin a doily to her hair to show her spirituality and submission. I have a problem with women's faces being covered and their vulvas scraped off. So with that in mind, please feel free to point out any holes in what I'm saying. I really am interested in hearing what you've got to add to what I'm thinking about!

And as usual, courtesy in disagreement is very much appreciated...


Shadowmoss said...

No real disagreement or agreement. I haven't dealt with this issue yet. I do know that when I was talking with a younger co-worker who had served in Iraq, she agreed that if I went over there I would have much less of an issue going off-post in long skirts because I just didn't care enough to fight it. For me, if I go someplace else I try to do as they do within reason. I also tend to wear long skirts if I wear a skirt even in the US. She, on the other hand, had not gone off post the entire time she was there because she refused to wear the required clothes. It's a cultural/age thing even over here. Face covering would be more than I would do to be a tourist. I do agree that things that require identification, such as driver's licenses and other official ID, require the face to be uncovered for a reason. It's a tricky situation, going someplace between 'when in Rome, do as the Romans do' and religious/cultural 'rights'. Such a lot of words for me to just say 'I don't know...'

Kate said...

I have to say the niqab does concern me. Not so much because the face is covered (although as pointed out there are security issues) but I find that the women who cover themselves completely are not inclined to participate in things outside their homes - even going shopping, they're always accompanied by a watchful male, which bothers me.

We don't see many niqabs or even burqas here, most Muslim women are Indonesian and they wear modern, if modest, clothing and a simple, often colourful headscarf. The Indonesian women lead modern independent lives, as well.

My opinion is that the burqa and niqab are symbols of oppression, are not required wear for Muslim women, and therefore should be discouraged. I wouldn't want to see them banned because a basic freedom is to wear what you like. However basic freedoms in a modern society in a western style democracy, include freedom from oppression as well.

Madcap said...

I'm really torn between my complete revulsion for the notion of covering a woman's face, and my desire to live where people are free to do as they choose. And I wonder, if I could stand outside myself, how many of my choices are "free"?

I'm still thrashing on this one.

Mercutio said...

I think I understand where you're coming from, but I think you're a little bit off.
And it's perfectly understandable from that misunderstanding why you would be so upset.

First of all, you and I share many common experiences. The two biggest differences are that I am male and you are female (which probably had a lot to do with the other one), and I left my home where you stayed.
And I remember those stories about how my grandfather cut his hair and moved to Texas, and told everyone there that he was a Mexican in order to find work. I always considered him a sell-out, and I vowed to never cave in like that. In an odd sort of way, in my heart, I secretly reviled him. I felt that betrayal run deep.
But I, too, did the same. I left my little corner of the desert to other parts, and I cut my hair for employment.
I have a lot more room to be understanding about the matter these days.

But you didn't have to go through that.

Now, some of my family are Amish. I have no contact with them, and they probably prefer it like that. But that's part of where I come from.
I was raised in the Church of Christ; what is known as 'a very conservative Church of Christ.' No musical instruments in the church.
So, when I took up playing guitar for a black gospel outfit, it was the first time I'd ever been around musical instruments in a church. And I'm sitting there with my Strat wondering if God is really going to strike me down.

Where I am now, there is a robust Persian community. Basically, the Persians are an underclass of the Arabic world.
And I can tell you that all the hot chicks in Tehran these days are wearing scarves over their heads. It's a colored, see-through scarf folded into a triangle, and tied in a knot below the chin. Tres chic.
That's the way they do it in the Old Country.

Now, more toward specifics.

1). It isn't uncommon at all these days for a woman to take a wild hair and decide to take up the hijab. There usually is some big life event attached to that.

2). You seem to think that muslims are all one, but they're not. They too have a robust sectarianism that is rigidly differentiated. There are at least as many different muslim denominations as there are Christian denominations.

3). I think you're getting a bit too caught up in trying to prove the value of peering at the face of another. The way I see it (the crudest way possible, of course), is that if you need to do something like that to feel close to God, go feel close to God, and get back with me later. Simple as that.
Same thing:
I would never disturb you while you were praying. I simply move silently away.

4). You're throwing the lead back into the gold. Sure, there are some whacked-out weirdos going around with X and Y, which happen to be associated with Z. But they're not the same.
I can tell you that most of these women that wear hijab consider it to be much the same as having a man open a door for you.
That's all it is.

There's more flowers in that garden than stink-weed.

Mercutio said...

Come to think of it, I usually tip my hat for a lady, and I open doors for them all the time.
Changed out a headlight the other day.
I'm beginning to think that I'm a lot more oppressed than I realize.
These women are getting to be worse than the Mexicans.

Madcap said...

Nice to have you visit, M, and I appreciate the time you took in your comments. However...

Not a hijab problem - a NIQUAB problem. Not a religious problem - a cultural problem.

Yes, biggest difference is that I'm a woman and you're a man. And I'm looking at this very much from the angle of a horrified woman.

I've been thinking very much of the Mennonites and Hutterites in the past few days. The Mennonites tend to be less cloistered than the Hutterites, so I'm going to take the Hutterite example right now.

Hutterite girls and boys, both, are raised very much within the community. When they reach their teens, Hutterite boys are often given the opportunity to work for neighbouring "english" farmers, which gives them social, linguistic, and religious exposure. The girls stay in the kitchen and garden.

It isn't uncommon for young Hutterite men to leave the colony, either temporarily or permanently, and make a life outside. They use the contacts they've made in the surrounding community.

It's very uncommon for young Hutterite women to leave the colony. They have no established contacts. For them to leave means that they leave everything and have nothing to go to. They have no outside contacts. I've met a grand total of ONE woman who left, and I live in an area with many Hutterite colonies.

And these are women who can at least make eye contact and establish facial recognition with the english who shop at the roadside vegetable stalls.

I think the niquab accomplishes the same thing, only much more so. I think it's a way to isolate women from the greater community, to further discourage them from becoming independent.

Ultimately, I think all these questions about religious practice are actually cultural questions. I'm no longer a religious person at all - I "left home". I'm a cultural Mennonite. That's my background, and there are many things I appreciate about that culture, but there are many I loathe.

I despise the aspects of any culture that cut women off from full participation. You can fully participate in larger society in a hijab, though it might be challenging here in the west. I think the same possibility isn't available from behind a niquab, and I think that's the whole intention of it. I think it has nothing to do with religious expression (thought it might be framed that way within the culture that promotes it), and everything to do with keeping women in an extremely circumscribed place where they exist FOR men, and not for themselves.

In any case, it's a small number of women in North America who are affected by this issue (thank goodness), and I think my best hope is that both they and their male kindred will be exposed enough through societal contact, that the niquab will come to be seen for what it is, and discarded. I can't convince myself that a legal ban is of benefit to the people directly involved.

Anyway, this woman is off for another full day of work and full-face socialization. Nice to rassle with you! ;-)

Madcap said...

Thought of another big difference between us - I'm Canadian and you're American. There isn't nearly the same vitriol in Canada about hijab and Muslims that we hear coming from the States. Quebec is the most anti-Muslim province; they follow France.

Not that we have no racism etc., but it doesn't seem to be as socially rampant or accepted.

Mercutio said...

True enough; you are Canadian and I am American. The rednecks from the one place to the other look much different.
But more importantly, we are both Westerners. I noticed this first while watching a rodeo on tv. It looked like an American rodeo to me, but it was actually set in Calgary. And so, I thought that there must be a lot of Americans there; but no, these were mostly Canadians. The cut of the shirts look the same though.
And so, my understanding of Alberta has been shaped by this vision that it is a place much the same as Colorado & Kansas would be if they were joined together in one state; perhaps more like Wyoming & Nebraska.
Not so far off topographically; but the Western character is evident in those few Canadians that I have come across from the Great Lakes to the Rockies.

Now, I've seen a few American rodeos here lately, and all of these fellows seem to be bundled up like football players. These days, I like the Canadian rodeos much better. They hold more appeal to that Westerner in me.
Although, I do hope that neither one of us are active on the rodeo circuit these days.

I know practically nothing about the niquab, other than it opens new possibilities for those interested in cross-dressing. From what I understand, that really isn't so much of a problem in the muslim community.
I don't see this as an act of humility before God, but of Pharisee-like pridefulness: "Look how Muslim I am!"
Even more though, isolating people has an extensive history as a means of control. But I believe this is more than the mere physical level of it. It begins with ideas.
But an idea can only be limited by another idea. The corporal aspect is just the tip of the iceberg. The true problem lies below the water line.
I really have no solutions for this, and I'm not so sure that such a thing could be legislated, because I don't believe it could be effectively measured or monitored.
But I do definitely agree that this sort of thing is improper.
It just leaves more questions than answers.


I with you.

CONSTANTINE said... in your pov, M.

Madcap said...

Hi C! Nice to see you out again.

I'll be back to this topic, just on another jag with physiology right at the moment...

I should do a physiology post sometime. Talk about fascinating. Er. Some bits, anyway.

gfid said...

niquab ... we see a lot of that round about December, January and February, but only out of doors. Here, it's a religious practice that appears to be somehow connected to darkness, and square footage of domestic residence. it's not been observed among women who reside in premises which are over 4000 square feet. the connection between domicile size and amount of time spend out of doors in these months has not been clearly established, but there is speculation that there is one, as with the question of darkness. this religious practice has not been observed in northern alberta locations during months when there is little or no darkness. i am applying for funding to study the relationship of the northern canadian niquab and nyctophobia. i should be able to complete my research with about $10,000,000.

Madcap said...

Mercutio, so funny that you would mention rodeo - I live Right Across the Road from THE RODEO. I've gone a few times, but I can't take it seriously when the boys from Lamont Country (who grew up speaking Ukrainian before English) take the mic and sound off like they're from Wyoming or somesuch. Too silly. And the other unbearable bit is watching them abuse their bodies like that and limp out of the ring. Or get carried off, as the case dictates. The whole American Cowboy look is very much how it's done. Don't know what else to say about that.

You should come up and stay awhile in province sometime. I think you'd find it very different at heart, but that's just my opinion. Most Canadians are a little touchy about being perceived as just like Americans. Damned T.V...

Anyway, I don't think I have anything else much to add of my own on the niqab issue. My lawyer friend is of the opinion that A) it could be more restrictive for the women involved to ban the niqab in public, because their husbands might forbid them from going out altogether and B) no one should be forced to reveal themselves in a way they consider immodest.

Hi G - are you wearing niqab yet? It's not that cold down here ... yet.

gfid said...

niquab firmly in place. no flesh exposed.