2014-01-16

Cover Your Shame

Part One:
If you were to grow up in a community in which wearing a niqab was the prevailing norm, to what extent would you find a ban on wearing niqabs a convincing argument against wearing one? Put another way, if tomorrow afternoon your government commanded you to start walking around in public stark naked, how many nudists do you suppose would be able to write a compelling argument in favor of that policy?

To women who grow up "behind the veil," if you will, a government decree that you can no longer do so makes them highly uncomfortable. Leave aside the question of whether showing one's face and/or hair should make anyone feel uncomfortable. We live in a world in which it simply does. That fact doesn't magically disappear simply by government decree. We cannot all join hands and simply agree that a majority of us will now force a minority of us to display body parts they don't want displayed. Or, rather, we can do so, but we won't get anywhere with them.

The point here is that, whatever your opinion of the niqab might be, the matter cannot be settled by force. All force serves to accomplish is to make bad blood between people.

Part Two:
It is pretty interesting how societies determine what constitutes modest attire. I bare my head, my forearms, my neck, and my knees on most warm days, and many young women in my community are comfortable baring slightly more than that. Yet, even here, as little as a century ago such displays were considered, if not immodest, at least slovenly. To venture out in public wearing a t-shirt (or even a polo shirt) and cargo shorts, as most do here during the summer months, was once held to be of poor taste. It may not have been modesty that inspired the change here locally, but the change occurred nonetheless.

From my vantage point - despite the fact that a pretty girl in a tank top will always be a pretty girl in a tank top - I am not overcome by particularly sexual thoughts when I see a woman in summer attire or workout clothes. Even when I see a woman wearing the kind of daisy dukes that border on the obscene, I don't view the situation sexually, per se. In the end, it's really just clothing.

Am I desensitized to the female form? Certainly not. Have I grown so accustomed to lascivious carnal displays that I now require the pink shot to get aroused? Ha ha ho, no. Sheesh.

In the end, the matter comes down to simply this: My life is never so heavily sexualized that something as simple as a pair of short shorts or transparent yoga pants would send me into a lusty spiral of impure thoughts. People wear shorts. I don't really even think about it.

Part Three:
Rebecca Gebhardt Brizi directs me to an article in The Telegraph arguing in favor of a niqab-ban. What stood out to her about that article is the sentiment I've expressed above, in Part Two. She cites the following passage from the article:
The niqab is also deeply demeaning of men, in so far as it implies than no man is capable of controlling himself in the presence of a marginally uncovered female. Perhaps it was for this reason that Birmingham Central Library took its craven precautionary decision to put out tables for women only.
I was intrigued, so I followed the link and read the article. What stood out to me was not that sentiment, but rather the one I expressed above, in Part One. From the article (all emphases mine):
Religious freedom is not and cannot be absolute in a modern civilised society. The Aztecs believed themselves religiously required – genuinely and sincerely, as far as we know – to sacrifice immense numbers of humans to their god. No one would now justify or permit such a practice on the grounds that everyone must be allowed to practise his religion...
It is not necessary to be a militant feminist to understand that the niqab is deeply demeaning of women. No man covers himself up in this way; and not infrequently a young woman covered in this form of dress is to be seen accompanied by a young man in full international slum costume, which is not exactly a sign of a commitment to a puritanical way of life. Indeed, such young Muslim men are often to be seen fully participating in the Sodom and Gomorrah that is Saturday night in the centre of Birmingham, with not a Muslim woman in sight.
The niqab is also deeply demeaning of men...
Among other things, the niqab is symbolic of a strong desire not to integrate in Western society, and not only on the part of the woman wearing it. What is being demanded, as the original complaint of the student against the college’s ban illustrates, is the right not to integrate, to be able to demonstrate not only difference from the society in which one lives but implicit hostility towards it, such as the niqab undoubtedly symbolises, and to be absolved of any undesired consequences of that demonstration, such as not being allowed to attend college.
Part Four:
We are faced with what is ultimately a disappointing and extremely unappealing choice.

On the one hand, we have a group of religious dogmatists who are so obsessed with immodesty that they see it everywhere: in a woman's hair, in her facial features, her wrists, and indeed even her profile. It is a group of people whose thoughts are so heavily sexualized that even the kind of sportswear sold at Wal-Mart carries with it a heinous air of immodesty. They find the idea of pantsuits sexual. Think about it. Their obsession with sex leads them to see it everywhere (for if it were not about sex, then why would the question of modesty even enter the picture at all?).

On the other hand, we have a group of people so incapable of letting people alone to wear what they please that they would seriously consider denying them the ability to pursue a higher education in order to force everyone to adhere to a uniform standard of dress. They see hostility in a head scarf. They are so self-conscious of the inherent value of their own culture that anyone who wishes to exist outside of it is deemed some sort of hostile enemy. They would deny us the right not to integrate; yes, the right not to integrate; the right to live in a country and subscribe to one's own beliefs rather than the whims of the mob. This non-uniformity is what they see as an existential threat.

It is difficult to decide which of these groups is the more barbaric. That they cannot settle their differences without ultimatums is proof enough of their savagery.

And let me be perfectly clear: Savagery is what is left in a society that is unable to resolve its differences peacefully. Savagery is what we get when we appeal to force, compulsion, shame, hatred, and fear instead of reason and cooperation. Savagery is the difference between a civil society and an uncivil one. Whether one achieves savagery through hyper-sexualization and shame, or through legal compulsion and the brute force of armed law enforcement officers is not really important. Coercion, rather than cooperation, is the mark of the savage.

Part Five:
So, what's to be done? Do we turn a blind eye to misogynistic savagery? Do we deploy the machinations of tyranny to correct it?

There is only so much we can control. If you can't display your own head of hair without feeling a sense of immodesty, then I cannot really help you. If you fear that the profile of your own body in a t-shirt and a pair of short shorts is so sexually charged as to be disrespectful to your god, then your mind is wrestling with issues that go far beyond the purview of logic and reason. If the display of your neck is immodest simply because it is, then the truth is that you shut down any dialogue about modesty long ago. You don't want to talk about it, and you won't consider alternate perspectives even if you were forced to talk about it.

For those behind the veil, there is no conversation to be had, and no law will shake your convictions, either.

On the other hand, it is impossible to ignore the world around you. Birth control, rising female incomes, education and labor force participation, the sexual revolution(s), the availability of things, and indeed the sum total of social interaction with everyone else who shares your world will make its impact on your mind. Your life will eventually end, and among the final questions you will be left with are those through which you wonder how much better life could have been, had you not spent it behind a billowy black sheet.

How much healthier would your body have been, had you been able to exercise in clothing designed for that purpose; and thus, how many extra years might you have lived, to love your families and your gods? How many more friends might you have met and formed dear bonds with, had you simply worn clothing that would enable you to more easily interact with those around you? How many more of god's natural wonders would you have seen, had you had both the fitness level and ease of movement to explore all parts of the world? How high might you have risen in your career, had you chosen attire that set new acquaintances instantly at ease? How many people would you have been able to bring into the fold of your chosen religion had your clothing not have frightened them away?

You'll never know, because you chose the veil. So be it.

No, I am not letting the tyrannical anti-Muslim bigots off the hook, either. To you, I say: shame on you. That you cannot exist in a world in which a number of women - even a large number - wear different clothing on you is a mark of remarkable personal weakness. That you imagine hate and violence lurks behind a thin black sheet speaks volumes of the amount of fear and insecurity in your life. That you would suppose by default that a woman wears a head scarf to avoid "integrating" with you, while you simultaneously deny her access to your schools (!!) is an untenable display of irrational hatred and fear. That you would expect anyone within a particular geographic region to possess the same attributes as you yourself - or whatever you happen to deem normal - is, frankly, bizarre. And your final moments will also be riddled with doubts about the many people you avoided based on something as superficial as clothing.

Part Six:
As you can see, both of these positions is untenable. Every untenable idea eventually dies. The question is not if, but when. Those who choose to hide behind a veil are engaging in a practice whose days are numbers. And while it is possible for governments to institutionalize hatred and bigotry for decades and even centuries, the modern world has already let that cat out of the bag. Never again will the entire world be capable of turning a blind eye to this sort of persecution. Thus, those Muslims who find themselves unable to attend British schools will simply find their way to places that will offer them an education; and their knowledge will progress, with or without the endorsement of the British Crown.

The key to all of this is interpersonal interaction. You know, human discourse. It's easier to hate and fear from afar than from up-close. It's easier to live your life from behind magic, religious underwear in places where no one ever questions your decision than it is to do it in places where people are always wondering whether you might be happier in sportswear.

No government or religious leader can ever conquer and overturn the human desire to intermingle. The Europeans arrived in North America and very quickly found Native American brides and grooms, no matter what their mothers, mayors, and religious leaders had to say about it. An astounding number of us contain Neaderthal genes, and each and every one of us belongs to a family that, going far enough back in our history, was once of black African descent.

Yet, here we are: A colorful world of competing religions, political ideologies, economic and leisurely preferences, and all other manner of human thoughts and beliefs. We are a remarkably diverse world. No enclave of people has ever been fully content to simply leave it at that. We migrate, we explore, we trade, we interact, we intermingle, we inter-marry. Why? Because it is what comes naturally to human beings.

So I say that anyone - anyone - who designs clothing or legislation for the purpose of preventing this natural tendency toward human intercourse is destined to fail, at least in the long run. The solution to these issues is not to scream at each other or design new laws.

The solution is to simply get out of the way, and let people be people.