Yesterday's post about my adventures in a Saudi burka was the last in my four-part series, "Islamic Like Me." (Click here to see a video of my experience, which appears in Canada's National Post. Click here to read Parts One through Four.) The series has spurred great debate among HuffPosters about the veil and what it means to wear it in a free society like ours. That was the main point of my series: to spur such a debate. I'm glad so many of you took the time to post comments. There were definitely some general themes among them: If a woman chooses to veil herself, shouldn't we respect that as her individual choice? Isn't the West just as oppressive towards women with its constant marketing of sex? Just because veiling is culturally different from our customs, why should we feel threatened by it?
Over the coming days, I'll reply to some of your comments, and also answer questions about my experience. If you have one, just post it below.
"Accepting veiling implies acceptance of a larger ideology of female subordination."
This statement of mine from Part One certainly got some of your veins popping. Often made was the point that large numbers of women choose to veil themselves for many reasons, therefore it can't be seen as "subordination."
From one reader: "I live in a Muslim country, I am a Muslim and I do not wear the veil... For the majority of Muslim women in the world (not just the Middle East), the veil represents a way in which you are not judged by the clothes you wear, the way you look or your hairstyle du jour. For them, it is about feeling liberated. Again, I am not saying that it is not forced on women in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and other countries. But there is more to this than just 'oppression'. "
And another: "I spent three years living and working in Saudi Arabia, having just returned last year. There's no question that Saudi women are oppressed in many ways. From limited job opportunities to the ban on driving. But the abaya is not one of them.
Muslim women find this a superficial issue. They bristle at the West's preoccupation with the abaya as a symbol of oppression. Unlike what you imply, wearing the niqab is a personal choice. As a rule women make their own choice whether to wear the niqab.
The Qur'an does not require the face to be covered. This is cultural and Saudi women would be the first to tell you this. Also to be considered is the fact that 99.9% of Saudi women who travel leave the abaya at home. They recognize and understand that they would look like freaks wearing the abaya and niqab outside their own country. Saudi women laugh when liberals talk of the abaya as oppressive."
My reply: They may well laugh but we won't be able to tell because we won't see their faces. The only way we'll detect their mirth will be through a trembling of the sheets, and maybe a muffled "hahaha." As I wrote in Part Three, wearing the abaya/burka day in, day out reduced me to feeling like a "social paraplegic," in which I couldn't convey to others even a simple smile of thanks. I can assure you this is not "liberating." Nor is being unable to feed yourself without spilling food down your front like a baby.
But I take the point that, nonetheless, many women--for their own psychological/cultural reasons--may prefer to cover themselves up. As Austin Powers would say, "If that's your bag, baby..." But let's not wish away or gloss over the symbolism of the burka.
As the above reader points out, "The Qur'an does not require the face to be covered. This is cultural." I would argue further that it is political. The only societies in which women are forced to wear a burka are those with heinous records of female oppression. And it is only worn voluntarily by women who subscribe to an extreme, and highly controversial, interpretation of Islam--one at war with a democratic understanding of human rights. There are many ways, as other readers point out, to observe hijab without turning yourself into a walking cocoon. And certainly there are many ways to compensate for a bad hair day. Those who disingenuously poo poo the burka's oppressiveness go on to defend it, unbelievably, for the very lack of choice it offers the women who wear it. You could make the same argument in favor of prison: it's "liberating" because you never have to figure out what to do with yourself or expose yourself to the temptations of the outside world.
"There's no question that Saudi women are oppressed in many ways. From limited job opportunities to the ban on driving. But the abaya is not one of them." Oh really? "Limited job opportunities?" How about "limited education," "limited legal rights" and an official status of "property" of their husbands? How about rape victims being imprisoned for the crime of their rapists? I could go on and on of course. I could also ask why, if the abaya is not a symbol of oppression--is indeed laughable (despite the fact, as the reader notes, that Saudi women are quick to shed it when they go abroad)--why then do so many Saudi women risk beatings and imprisonment to protest it?
As reader SisterJ eloquently put it: "I guess for them [veiled women] it is easier to let someone make the decisions for you than to put in the work required to meet that responsibility on your own. In my humble opinion this is a selfish cowardice that will hurt all of the women in this world. Being free is hard but it is the price of being fully human. Anything less is just a parody of life."
TOMORROW: Is the West just as exploitive of women?