Sunday, October 15, 2006

Islam's Preveiling Problem

............................................................ The veil: clothing or control?

The Muslim veil is literally the most visible problem in Islam today. There are a large number of Muslims who still accept the Koranic decree that women should cover themselves – a decree that exists in Christianity and Judaism but is today only adhered to amongst the most fundamental followers. The problem with the veil in Islam is that most of the people who agree with it or actually do it are not fundamentalists or extremists, they are found in the moderate followers of the religion. In short, the veil – more spefically, hejab, is not considered a sign of extremism in Islam, though it should be because it is.

It is extremist to be ashamed of one’s body and face. It is extremist to accept that women’s bodies and faces are sinful or vessels for igniting sin. It is extremist to literally shut off 50% of the population from not only being in touch with the elements, but being in touch with themselves. It is extremist to divide and separate people amongst gender lines. It is extremist to believe that covering women is an appeasement to God. It is extremist to believe that by covering women, sin is avoided and chastity is preserved. It is extremist to be this stupid.

A public debate is simmering to a boil in the United Kingdom, as it has done in Germany, France, and other European nations – as it does in private in countries like Iran where the veil in its general sense as hejab, is mandatory. British government officials and lower-profile officials down the ranks are speaking up about the veil and they are easing into it as the British cleverly do with everything: today’s target is that despicable apparatus, the niqab. For those of you who have never been subjected to this horrific presentation, the niqab is a piece of fabric that covers everything on the face but the eyes, and in some cases also covers the eyes – as tortuous and bizarre as that sounds. The niqab is an extremely discomforting sight to see: a woman dressed all in black with nothing to show of herself but two sandwiched eyes, almost spookily peeking out from between two black pieces of cloth.

What’s interesting is that, at least in the English-speaking world, the niqab is being referred to as the “veil” such that criticisms against any kind of veil at all can be veiled (excused the pun) as criticisms against the niqab. Clever, I know. But it’s understandable: it is an uncomfortable sight to see a veiled woman – even if her veil is nothing more or less than a scarf around her head. Why? Because we wonder if she chose to do that herself. Because we know that had she grown up in another society, she would not have seen her hair and neck and face as a sign of sin or shame or as something that should be hidden. Because it doesn’t make sense that a woman’s hair, face and body are sinful, but a man’s is not. Because of all of these reasons, and more.

But even if men wore the veil, it still wouldn’t make sense: it is ludicrous and illogical to suggest that the human body is sinful. Civility presumes that a sane member of society will wear clothing – we are, after all, not animals. But clothing whose primary reason for existence is to exclude, denigrate or belittle its wearer is not clothing but control.

If Muslims want to be respected as a religion of progress, the first thing they need to do is overcome their acceptance of veiling of any kind. On the other hand, if they wish to be ridiculed and subject to easy dismissals of their value in today’s society, then they should continue to accept the veil -- along with the infinite criticisms of Islam which accompany it.

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