Behind the Veil

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Women and their head coverings have been much in the news lately. There have been alternating praise and criticism for Melania and Ivanka Trump, for instance, for their sartorial choices on their recent Mideast trip with the president.

Some found hypocrisy in the fact that the women refused to wear a hijab when in Saudi Arabia but were practically covered head to toe in black to meet the pope. Others cheered their spunk and refusal to bow to a hated Islamist ideology. Similar decisions to cover or not cover their heads have been the subject of criticism for other First Ladies, such as Michelle Obama.

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To all of this I have to ask, what’s the big deal? I am far more disturbed by the fact that President Trump said nothing about the dreadful state of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia than whether the First Lady was making a pointed political statement by allowing her hair to be seen. On the other hand, such criticism might be seen as hypocritical coming from a man who does not seem to hold women in particularly high regard. Still, it’s all relative, and I hope that at least privately the president put pressure on Saudi Arabia to advance the rights of women as a condition for continuing to arm them to the teeth.

What I find most disturbing about the recent brouhaha over headwear for women is that society persists in judging every single thing about a woman’s choices, right down to her clothing and hair. It’s the 21st Century, and yet we’re still focused on women as ornaments, somehow not fully human. No one mused philosophically about what the color of Donald Trump’s tie or the cut of his suit might indicate about his beliefs or intentions.

Muslim women who choose to wear the veil do so for myriad reasons, most of them religious. Why that choice should be denigrated and looked upon as political is beyond me. The primary purpose in covering one’s head and chest seems to be modesty. What devout Christian would have a problem with women being modest? Yet because of terrorism and the need to demonize those who oppose us, Americans have taken a hostile stance against Muslim women in hijab.

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Years ago, there was a great TV series called¬†Jack and Bobby. It was about two young brothers, one of whom would one day become the president of the United States. The boys’ mother, played by Christine Lahti, is a college professor, and she has a hostile exchange with a female student who wears the hijab. In a memorable scene, Lahti’s character attacks the woman for allowing herself to be controlled by a male-dominated culture. The young woman throws back her belief that American women are the ones being controlled by men’s need to see them as perfect physical specimens whose looks are constantly on display.

That exchange gave me pause back in the Nineties, and it sticks with me to this day. Women of all cultures should be free to dress and speak and act in whatever way they choose. And it should be their character, intelligence, and personal inner qualities that are focused on, not their clothing, their hair, their modesty, or the lack thereof.

The real veil women are often required to hide behind is the metaphorical one imposed by a society that still does not see them as equal to men. Until we address that reality, what a woman does or does not wear on her head makes very little difference at all.

Burkini Beach

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The sight of armed police officers forcing a woman to remove her garments on a public beach in France made me shudder. The so-called “burkini ban,” which led to this public humiliation, is a misguided attempt on the part of France to maintain a culture ruled by law and not religion.

There are so many things wrong with the law that government officials in France made a swift retreat from it. First of all, there is a certain irony in a country that allows topless bathers to prance around its beaches to see women being chastised for modesty. While the motivation for the burkini is primarily religious, many women say they cover up on the beach for other reasons, such as a sensitivity to the sun or protection in cold water. Shortly after the incidents on the French beach, women took to the internet with photos of themselves in swimming garments virtually indistinguishable from the burkini. Their point was that the supposed health reasons for the ban are ridiculous.

It is quite obvious that the burkini ban, like the one against the hijab that set off so much controversy some years ago, is meant to control and discriminate against Muslims. The French government uses the excuse that France is a secular society and will not tolerate overt religious displays. Yet no such bans are in place for Christian women religious who wear habits and veils. Nor have I ever heard of an individual being forced to remove a cross from around his or her neck. Until the state of France recognizes the rights of its sizable Muslim population, it will be a state of unrest.

The implication that the burkini is a symbol of the Muslim repression of women is also ironic. What could be more repressive and controlling of women’s bodies than insisting they¬†uncover themselves in public? It is not for others to decide how a woman should dress, whether on the beach or the city street.

If France is serious about fighting Islamic extremism, the French will need to address the needs of the large Muslim underclass that is at an economic survival level. Heaping humiliation on top of poverty with bans on Muslim religious expression will hardly move France’s Muslims into the secular mainstream.

Wearing a burkini is not a provocation or an act of violence; it is simply a custom. Tolerating the customs of others, as long as they do not infringe upon the rights of anyone, is the hallmark of a democratic society. French officials need to get their heads out of their Speedos and respect a women’s right to wear one.