Just read Katha Pollitt's column, "Veil of Fears," in the June 14th issue of The Nation. About the ongoing controversy in Europe, in particular France and now Belgium, surrounding the proposed banning of face-veiling. In which she both writes against the ban and also admits:
I don't like face-veiling either. It negates the individual; it reduces women to sex objects who must be shrouded to avoid tempting men; it sends the message that men's "honor" resides in the bodies of "their" women. In a conflict between women and fundamentalists, including the fundamentalists in their own families, I would want to side with women, on dress as in other issues of personal freedom. Yet while the French Parliamentary Report on the Wearing of the Full Veil nodded frequently to "French values" and gender equality, it isn't obvious how criminalizing Muslim women's clothing makes them more equal - unless you believe that they are being forced to cover by male relatives or increasingly fundamentalist communities.
This takes seriously the idea that veiling allows conservative Muslim women both to follow the custom of (gendered) seclusion and enable them to work, learn, and even play in public. It unpacks what structures the apparent need for veiling. Which by the way is practiced in Judaism and Christianity.
It also points to the fact that at least some women are choosing to wear the veil. The Nation and The Economist, which also published a report in its May 15th issue, both note the relatively small numbers of women who cover their faces (much less wear the full-body burqa) in France and in Belgium. The Economist notes they include converts to Islam and in France, women from North Africa "where there is no face-covering tradition." They also are young.
So, what is going on? The motivations of Nicolas Sarkozy and other political leader seem clear, but what is less clear is why face-veiling, though in still relatively small numbers, is being adopted as, basically, a new tradition. I think that this is a significant point to bear in mind because there is a way in which face-veiling is depicted in American (and European) media as an ethnic and primeval custom of Islam, conflated with equally essentialist notions about jihad and terrorism and the Clash of Civilizations and so on.
When instead we might look a lot closer to home to find the conditions that make face-veiling seem appealing, attractive, even necessary to choose. Pollitt closes her column with a reference to a study at Stanford and the Sorbonne that suggests not "ethnic" (e.g., anti-Arab), but religious (e.g., anti-Muslim) discrimination in France: Identical resumes were created for three fictional women, whose names suggested an ethnic French, a Senegalese Christian, and a Senegalese Muslim woman. "Aurelie did only a little better than Marie, but she got three times the callbacks of Khadija."
I think most of my college students might suggest that Khadija should change her name to Aurelie or Marie. The imperative to assimilate is strong in the United States. Yet, I suggest that there are reasons also not to assimilate. For example, why bother? I might be an Aurelie on paper, but in person, I look like a Khadija.
More importantly, is face veiling a "religious" question alone? Esp. when religion is clearly also political and social and economic. It seems worth asking why these women (and men, for that matter, b/c they are implicated in the move toward veiling, whether they force their wives and daughters and sisters or not), and why now?
In the context of post 9/11 fear of and discrimination against an American / European construction of "Islam," face veiling might seem not to make a lot of sense, for example, to my college students. As a matter of fact, I have to think that Muslim women who choose to veil are not motivated by what our so-called terrorism experts today term jihadist sentiment.
Rather, I think it is worth the attempt to understand what are the concerns in the communities where face veiling is emerging? Keeping in mind that discrimination, whether ethnic or religious, had been experienced long before 9/11. It might be that for young Muslim women, veiling represents opportunities, not the curtailment of them. Including the status, financial security, emotional stability, protection that frankly, traditionalist (or so-called traditional) marriage could allow.
What is face veiling in France or Belgium (or the United States) really about?
I wish more people with a public forum would ask this question instead of feeding of false answers. At least we have Katha Pollitt.