Wednesday, May 18, 2011


Lately my feminist side is a bit at war with a burgeoning civil libertarian side about the use of the veil amongst Muslim women.

In principle, I don't agree that women should be veiled or hidden behind chadors and burqas in any way unless it is an adult woman's choice (which I admit completely flummoxes me - I can't quite understand why a woman would make that choice). And I don't mean the "choice" made by an eleven or twelve year old - I mean a decision made by an adult without coercion from other adults.

According to a recent NPR article, "There are about 1 million Muslim women in America; 43 percent of them wear headscarves all the time, according to the Pew Research Center. About 48 percent — or half a million women — don't cover their hair, the survey found."

My bias will be obvious ... I think the insistence on the veiling of women by men reveals a fundamental fear of women and the power of female sexuality. The demand that a woman cover one’s hair, one’s form, one’s beauty … what greater indication is there of male anxiety and insecurity?

A small, very personal illustration of how difficult these choices maybe albeit in a different instance ...

When my father died I had just turned sixteen a few months before. It is an old Sicilian tradition (which had been carried over to Canada by some) that the female relations of the deceased wear black for a certain amount of time. My mother, widowed since the age of forty, wore black for number of years. My paternal grandmother, widowed at thirty four, wore black until she died - she lived to be 96.

As the elder daughter (my sister was only seven then), I was expected to wear black for a year. Imagine that … expecting a sixteen year old to wear black in all instances except when I wore my school uniform or wore jeans to work in our family business. I was resentful towards this dictate but didn't dare voice my opposition. This is ironic now in light of the fact that my entire wardrobe is almost exclusively black.

I never had the sense that I had the option to say no.

My sentence was commuted to six months into the bereavement process and I can't remember why this was so. I only know that I did not protest the change.

I remember other rules: if a guest should arrive to offer condolences one must snap off the T.V. as if watching one indicated that one was not sufficiently absorbed by one’s grief. You were not allowed to go out for a period of time … you certainly couldn’t entertain the idea of dating or interacting with boys … you did not display happy behavior in public lest someone think that you were happy that your father died. You did not entertain the idea of leaving home at any age because now your mother was a widow – the only escape was marriage or death.

I did not resist, I complied with these bizarre requests except for the proviso that I remain with my mother until she (or I) died. That much I could not do.

I had no one in my life to tell me that I did not need to comply to these barbaric rules but a whole host of others who might tell me how disrespectful and rude I was if I did not comply.

So, to me, the idea that a very young Muslim girl has the emotional and intellectual wherewithal to resist the idea of veiling herself in a hijab or chador or burqa leaves me very skeptical and suspicious of who is making the decisions.

However, despite my strong feelings on this issue, I find this new legislation regarding veiling in France extremely disturbing. France's actions have become increasingly hostile to Islam and Islamic traditions: from denying citizenship to a Muslim woman from Morocco ruling that "her practice of 'radical' Islam is not compatible with French values" (2008); to setting up a commission "to study the extent of burqa-wearing" in France (2009); to French President Nicolas Sarkozy saying that the full burka is "not welcome" in France and, now, finally, to a French parliamentary committee recommending "a partial ban on women wearing Islamic face veils" (2010) to a full out banning of the burqa (2011).

These actions are distressing and counter-productive. Please do not attempt to argue that the wearing of these garments are oppressive to women when you then strip them of the right to decide how they should dress and observe their own religion.

I do not attach morality (or allegiance to one’s country) to clothing and neither should the state.

As much as I abhor the wearing of these garments, I don't think it is the right of the state to decide what to wear: be it a bikini or burqa.


Christine said...

I wore black suit with a grey blouse to the first night of my sister's visitation and got no end of grief from the older ladies in my extended family. They should have been busy mourning but they instead felt berating me would be time better spent. Note, it was grey -- not pink or mauve. It was, nonetheless, a grievous error. So there I was out at The Bay the next morning trying to find a tasteful black blouse in the middle of the summer. I didn't think my outfit showed any lack of respect but they did so I bowed under the pressure -- and I was in my 30s. Most of these ladies barely knew my sister and I knew she would not have minded my choice of outfits. So I agree that pressure is real. I resented it but I did indeed feel it.

When my Mother died I was ready with the all-black outfits. Not a stitch of grey in sight. But the ladies still found things to complain about but thankfully it was not my choice of funeral wear. Now, I don't give a hoot about pleasing them but I will still wear black to such events since I'd rather not deal with the disdainful looks...and because -- despite my grey blouse -- I feel dark colours are most respectful.

But if didn't think so -- that would be my choice. But I won't tell the ladies that. They're judgemental things.

Michelle said...

Yup, I find these expected rituals ridiculous and hypocritical. Let me grieve in my own way. I think of my dad almost every day and it's been decades since he's been gone. I don't think I have to prove anything to anyone.