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Islamic Like Me: Why The Veil Is A Threat

Everywhere I went in a burka, most people went out of their way to be polite -- when they weren't utterly indifferent to how I looked.
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My series about my adventures in a Saudi burka generated a lot of fascinating comments by Huffposters. Yesterday I replied to those who insisted that our Western culture was more sexually oppressive than the burka. Today I'll deal with the frequently-made-observation by readers: If a woman wants to wear a burka in a democratic society, what's it to us? (Readers who are catching up can click here to see a video of my experience, which appears in Canada's National Post. Click here to read all four parts of my series and the subsequent debates.)

Just because veiling is culturally different from our customs, why should we feel threatened by it?

A good question. Tolerance of other cultures and religions is one of the founding pillars of a democratic society. Certainly I found the tolerance with which I was greeted all week in my burka to some degree heartening: Whatever thoughts, opinions, surprise, fear or anger my appearance provoked in others was, with rare exception, suppressed; everywhere I went most people went out of their way to be polite -- when they weren't utterly indifferent to how I looked (see Part Three for more on this point).

Yet tolerance in a free society should not extend to accepting (or ignoring) practices that violate our laws and our norms. Honor killings; female genital mutilation; female illiteracy; women forced to hide their faces in public; women forbidden to leave the house without the company of a man: these are phenomenon which we, in the West, imagine happen in other places, to women far away in the Middle East or living among distant Muslim tribes.

But we are out of touch with what is happening in democratic societies -- until it is shockingly brought to our attention. The murder of a 16-year-old Muslim girl by her father this week in Toronto -- allegedly for the girl's refusal to wear hijab -- is now being decried as Canada's first honor killing. It may better be described as the first one we officially know about. For how many of us here know that female genital mutilation takes place in the United States? How many of us realize that women in allegedly free societies such as Holland and England are being imprisoned in their homes, by their own husbands and parents? How many are aware that women in places as familiar as northern Italy or upstate New York have been victims of the "honor killings?"

In Western democracies, religious freedom is not only tolerated but encouraged. Womens' rights are not only respected, but legally enforced. Most of the time, these two principles are thoroughly compatible. Yet in recent years, women's rights have been systemically undermined by Islamic religious authorities operating in full and knowledgeable defiance of the law.

Shockingly few in the West are willing to speak up on behalf of these victimized women, not least because those who do are subject to threats of physical harm and even death. Brave women such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who lives in hiding under armed protection, activist Wafa Sultan, and Canada's Irshad Manji, literally put their lives at risk every time they speak out against Islamic tyranny. But ignoring this tyranny comes at our own peril. If we excuse assaults against our citizens and our laws on "ethnic" grounds -- believing, as too many on the left do, that these assaults are culturally relative -- we will one day wake up to find ourselves living in societies we no longer recognize. The most fanatical brands of Islam will be setting the rules we live by.

Consider what is happening already (and forgive me readers if I go on longer than the usual posting to set out examples):

Erosions to our freedom of speech and religion

* According to the Sunday Times of London, Michael Nazir-Ali, the Bishop of Rochester, England, says that the persecution of Christian converts from Islam is so widespread that it may be only a matter of time before there is an "honour killing" of a convert by family or relatives. He spoke out as the Barnabas Fund, a charity that looks after persecuted Christians around the world, estimated that there are more than a thousand attacks each year against former Muslims across Britain.

* The BBC reported that a Muslim dentist in Bury, England made a woman wear Islamic dress as the price of accepting her as a patient in the National Health Service. The dentist is said to have told the patient that unless she wore a headscarf she would have to find another practice.

* Here in the U.S., a popular syndicated comic strip that poked fun at the Rev. Jerry Falwell without incident was deemed too controversial to run because this time it took a humorous swipe at Muslim fundamentalists, according to Fox News: The Washington Post and several other newspapers around the country did not run a Sunday installment of Berkeley Breathed's "Opus," in which the spiritual fad-seeking character Lola Granola appears in a headscarf and explains to her boyfriend, Steve, why she wants to become a radical Islamist.

* The National Iranian American Council claimed a "mutual victory" after convincing writer-director Wayne Kramer and one of his stars to remove a family "honor killing" from a film starring Harrison Ford and Sean Penn. In the original plot, an Iranian-American woman is killed by her brother after having an affair with a Latino man; The act is sanctioned by their father. After the NIAC learned of the story, its director contacted Kramer and one of the stars; under pressure, Kramer agreed to reshoots and script changes in order to take out the phrase "honor killing" as possibly offensive to Muslim-Americans.

Women citizens are being denied education, forcibly married, beaten, and imprisoned against their will.

* In the course of teaching Dutch to immigrants, a woman in Amsterdam met Samira, a 40-year-old Muslim wife and mother of three, who had being imprisoned in her home by her husband: "Samira can't read, can't write, can't count, and doesn't speak a word of Dutch... I take the brochures of the supermarket to point to images: "bread," "tomatoes." ... [but] she's only allowed to go shopping on Friday with 'mister' to haul the groceries. Other than that, she's not allowed to go outside. When I propose that we're going to do something [about this,] she turns red out of fright." [translated from an article in the Dutch newspaper, Het Parool, Sept. 5, 2007]

* In Derby, England, an 18-year-old woman named Lina finally escaped to a women's shelter after being imprisoned by her parents in their home. Until then, Lina had never worn Western clothing. Her parents, immigrants from Pakistan, insisted she wear the jilbab, a head-to-toe covering favored by conservative Muslims. When she turned 16, her parents informed her that she was "engaged" to her first cousin, a 21-year-old man she detested. When she balked, her parents withdrew her from school and locked her in her room, where they told her she would remain until she consented. They padlocked her door, locked the windows, installed spikes along the top of the backyard fence so she couldn't climb over. For two years, she was allowed out of her room only to do housework , and beaten frequently. [from The Chicago Tribune, Jan.2, 2006:"`I knew I was only one of many'; Jasvinder Sanghera escaped an arranged marriage and started a shelter to keep other women in Britain from being forced to marry"]

* In March 2007, a German judge used the Koran in her ruling to deny a German Muslim woman's request for a fast-track divorce. The case concerned a 26-year-old German woman of Moroccan origin and her violent Moroccan husband, a man who had beaten and threatened to kill her, despite having been ordered to stay away by the authorities. When the woman's attorney filed a petition for an expedited divorce, the judge, Christa Datz-Winter, stated that there was no evidence of "an unreasonable hardship," and therefore no need to dissolve the marriage immediately. Instead, the judge argued, the woman should have "expected" that her husband, who had grown up in a country influenced by Islamic tradition, would exercise the "right to use corporal punishment" his religion grants him. The judge even went so far as to quote the Koran in the grounds for her decision. In Sura 4, verse 34, she wrote, the Koran contains "both the husband's right to use corporal punishment against a disobedient wife and the establishment of the husband's superiority over the wife."

Children are being abducted and Western parents are being denied custodial rights.

* The daughter of an English mother and Pakistani father,Molly Campbell, vanished from Scotland in August 2006, re-appearing days later in Lahore, saying she had begged her father to escape from her mother's home. Molly's mother claimed her husband had abducted the girl. Molly's father stated that no Muslim girl should live with an "apostate mother" in a sexually permissive culture. Just months after her departure from the UK, the girl was wearing a burkha and had enrolled at the Jamia Hafsa madrassa in Islamabad. The school is known for its pro-Taliban views and suspected links to al-Qaeda.

*In the United States, the all-too-common case is of a Saudi father taking his children back to Saudi Arabia, no matter what custody arrangement has been ordered by a judge. Typical is this instance from the St. Louis-Post Dispatch on March 28, 1993:

"It's been a year since Debra Smith last saw her daughter, Amirah, at the traumatic end of an international custody fight between two determined parents and two clashing cultures. Smith vividly recalls how her ex-husband, Adel Mohammed Zaghbi, a Saudi Arabian airline pilot, took "a solemn and binding oath" before a judge and then before an Islamic leader. Zaghbi swore on the Koran, the Islamic holy book, that he would allow his daughter at least three visits a year to the United States to see her mother. He also agreed to allow mother and daughter to communicate by letter and telephone. That hasn't happened.

"Smith, 31, of St. Louis, hasn't heard a word from Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, about her daughter's well-being. In fact, her letters have gone unanswered. And 7-year-old Amirah has not been sent to the United States for visits with her mother, as ordered by a divorce decree that settled the custody case."

The tribal practice of female circumcision/genital mutiliation is being forced upon girls in the United States and other Western countries.

* From the Boston Globe: Based on the census data of 2000, the African Women's Health Center at Brigham & Women's Hospital, which tracks the practice, estimates that 228,000 girls and women in the United States have either undergone female genital mutilation or are at risk. "Some experts who work in the communities, say they have not seen evidence of a flourishing underground practice....[but] they do believe...that some immigrants might send their daughters back to their native countries for the procedure...."

*From the same source above: In Seattle in 1996, Somali mothers giving birth at the Harborview Medical Center requested that their daughters be circumcised [mutiliated] as well as their sons. The hospital devised a compromise: the girls would be "nicked" on the clitoral hood, in a symbolic gesture meant to deter the families from performing the traditional practice. The plan, which the immigrants supported, was to perform the procedure under local anesthetic when the girls were old enough to give informed consent. When news of the proposal broke, public outrage forced the hospital to back down from its compromise.

Women are being murdered on Western soil, victims of "honor killings."

* In 2004, a Turkish immigrant was charged with killing his wife and critically injuring his two daughters in their Scottsville, NY townhouse. In his court defense, he argued that he had acted as a matter of honor: He had attacked his wife and daughters after learning that his brother had molested them. He also said his four year-old daughter had been "sullied" by a gynecological exam. [From the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, Apr. 24, 2004]

*From London's Observer: In 2006, in Italy, a 21-year-old Pakistani woman called Hina Salee was murdered for daring to have an Italian boyfriend. Hina's father, aided by three male relatives, cut his own daughter's throat, after a family council condemned her to death for her liaison with Beppe Tampini, a local carpenter. The Saleem family had arrived in Brescia from Pakistan five years earlier.

*From London's Guardian: In 2006, in Britain, Samaira Nazir was murdered because she wanted to marry her Afghan boyfriend, rather than someone from the family circle. She argued with her family -- neighbors heard her shout at her mother "You are not my mother any more" -- and tried to escape. But she was dragged back into her house by the hair. Her family held her down, tied a silk scarf round her neck, and slashed her neck three times.

* The Dutch estimate that "several tens of people are killed per year because of honor vengeance." In the Hague alone, police say that between October 2004 and March 2005, 119 young people were victims of violence by their own families, though most non-lethal. Usha Sood, a British human rights lawyer, has told BBC Radio [that] "honour crimes of some sort," whether or not they resulted in death, are becoming more common in Britain as well. Diana Nammi, of the Iranian and Kurdish Women's Rights Organization, told the BBC she believed there, in addition, "lots of cases where woman have been forced to commit suicide." Police estimate there are 30 honor killings a year in Britain, although lawyers and social workers believe the number is much higher.

AND THESE ARE only a handful of examples that have taken place worldwide in democratic countries. So to go back to my original question: What does all this have to do with tolerating a woman on the subway with a burka?

I would argue: Everything. The more pervasive and familiar a sight it becomes in our society, the more indifferent we will become to its meaning -- and to those who are forced to wear it. For the burka, as I noted in Part One, is not itself a religious garment: "North American and European Muslim leaders insist that the Koran does not require full cover-up, that little more is required than modest clothes and a headscarf." Indeed, there is much debate within Muslim circles as to what the few vague verses in the Koran that refer to female dress actually mean (just Google "hijab" and you'll pull up dozens of sites engaged in this very question). What it is is a cultural and even political garment, imposed upon women in societies where they are regarded as property, not human beings. Even if a woman takes it up willingly -- as some do -- that doesn't detract from the burka's symbolism. As some Huffposters have noted, many of these women veil themselves in order to protest Western culture and show their defiance towards it.

That's honest of them--and we should be honest in return, by not accepting their defiance -- nor their forced compliance -- in our free societies. In Part Four I compared the wearing of a burka with the wearing of a Klan robe:

"If I had chosen to walk about Washington in a white hood and sheets rather than black ones, I doubt I would have encountered such universal politeness. And yet, what the Klan outfit represents to someone of African-American descent is exactly what the burka should represent to every free woman. Those who impose it upon women believe that a whole category of human beings can be treated as property; that this category may be beaten, sold into marriage, divorced at whim, denied education and work, raped with impunity, and stoned to death for offenses that would be pardoned in a man. For the wearer of the white hood, the subjugated category is defined by race. For the wearer of the black hood, it's defined by sex. Otherwise the two garments carry the same meaning--with the slight variation that one is worn by the would-be oppressor, the other by the oppressed."

For this reason, and as the price of joining secular society, the French and Turkish governments have taken steps to ban all forms of hijab. Americans needn't -- and obviously shouldn't -- have to go that far. Minimally, we should not cave to pressure tactics nor tolerate customs that are hostile to a democratic understanding of human rights.

Many societies have recognized that under certain circumstances, concealment is something more than a personal choice. As long ago as 1875, the U.S. Congress attempted to prohibit the wearing of Ku Klux Klan robes. In the last days before the fascist takeover, the Italian parliament banned the face masks worn by fascist bands. Kemal Ataturk's Turkish reformers banned hijab -- not only the veil, but even just the head covering -- in all public places.

I'm hanging up my burka for now. It's lovely to breathe in fresh air again-both literally, without a mask, and figuratively, in the debate my series has inspired among you. That's what we do in a free society -- debate, women equally alongside men.