[Marxism] The sanctification of the burka

John johnedmundson at paradise.net.nz
Sat Oct 27 20:51:14 MDT 2007

On Sat, 2007-10-27 at 19:19 +1000, Ernie Halfdram wrote:
> Thanks for the interesting post on the history of the veil, Lou.
> According to the women I have discussed it with, their motivation for
> ‘dressing modestly’ is to avoid arousing male lust.

That's right. It's what a lot of Muslims say in defence of the hijab. It
doesn't mean it works in absolute terms, but it does afford some
protection in relative terms. Of course, cultural norms shape people's
expectations of behaviour, so an Iranian woman wearing a miniskirt would
attract "male lust" because she would be so far beyond what is expected
of women. A naked woman walking through a Western supermarket could
expect the same reaction.

I was married to a Muslim for 18 years. She was quite torn about wearing
a veil. As a girl, she had dreamed that her husband would be a "modern
Muslim", not requiring her to wear a veil. But she herself would never
go to the Mosque, or to certain people's places without her head
covered, at least to a token degree and when she prayed, she would wear
a more complete covering over her whole head and body, although she
never covered her face.

The overlap between the 'rational': dressing modestly to avoid unwelcome
attention, now sometimes presented as a form of feminist statement, the
sense of religious duty: I heard an Egyptian woman once say it might be
hot in the hijab but it's a lot hotter in Hell, and social conformity:
not wanting to be seen dressed immodestly in the company of respected
members of the community, means it's hard for Muslim women to navigate
through a position outside the one traditional in their community,
whatever level of dress code that might entail. 

> That said, I heard that Iranian men look forward to a windy day.

And this is no different to the West, it's only as matter of degree.

> Now Westerners are quick to criticise Muslims for placing so much emphasis
> on modesty.  But in reality, they do not have a monopoly on rigid beliefs
> about what is appropriate to wear in which social situations.  We also
> observe very strict dress codes.  For example, if you were to appear on a
> non nudist beach nude, you would be arrested.  If you appeared in a suit and
> tie, you would be ostracised.  There is a particular style that we require
> to be worn on the beach.  By the same token, when was the last time you saw
> a judge at the bench wearing stubbies and thongs or a construction worker in
> a tuxedo?  Most people in allegedly permissive Western society would be
> shocked to learn that their son’s year 8 teacher was nude, or even topless,
> or even wearing revealing togs.  It’s not just strict, it’s complicated.
> But the principle is the same, societies impose requirements on how we dress
> and inflict punishments on those who violate them.

I think the qualitative leap here is far too great to be credible. A
judge can appear in "stubbies and thongs" on a beach and a construction
worker "can" wear a tux to the opera, unlikely though the later may be.
But it's unlikely for quite different reasons to those that stop a
Muslim woman in Saudi Arabia walking down the street in a pair of jeans
and a t-shirt.

> There may or may not in fact be a correlation between the amount of skin a
> society considers it acceptable for women to expose and some measure of
> women’s rights or equality.  But even if such a correlation exists, it is
> not evidence of a cause and effect relation, much less which is the cause
> and which the effect.

In terms of the Middle east, and the post Louis contributed referring to
the pre-Islamic traditions of veiling, there is evidence of the veil as
a powerful symbol of women's status going back far earlier than the
early Islamic period. It would be interesting to know how much
continuity there was with earlier cultural traditions in Mesopotamia. In
ancient Assyria, respectable women were not expected to go outside the
house without a veil. Prostitutes on the other hand, were forbidden from
wearing a veil. If there is a continuity over more than 1000 years,
(which is entirely possible as cultural change was quite slow back then)
then the idea that a veil (or more complete hijab) would genuinely
afford a degree of protection is not so bizarre. It isn't the lack of
visible flesh in itself but the message it sends that is significant.

> It is a big mistake to think that a miniskirt is
> either a sign of liberation or a strategy to achieve it.

For women in Egypt deciding to remove their veils, that was quite
clearly a sign. Miniskirts are more a fashion statement.

> Those of us who are struggling for human liberation do not endorse
> restrictions on what people must or must not wear, smoke, eat, or whatever.
> The requirement to wear a burqa is no more abominable than a prohibition on
> wearing one.  In each so called monotheistic tradition, you find currents
> that are more and less tolerant regarding dress codes, sexual practices,
> intoxicants, and what have you.  Most of them manage to find some scriptural
> justification for whatever level of tolerance they espouse.  It’s religion,
> not science.  It’s based on irrational faith.  And that’s why there’s no
> point in arguing with it.  

I can't argue with that.

> Ultimately, the real point for those who would prefer a world where reason
> trumps faith and superstition is that suppressing practices that people
> believe are important to their religious belief or cultural identity is not
> an effective way to discourage them.  It just drives them underground and
> decreases interaction with the secular society.  For example, when France
> banned the hijab in state schools a year or two ago, the only possible
> outcome is that those girls who thought it was important to wear one would
> go to religious schools.  Turkey banned the hijab in 1923, and look where
> it’s got them – an Islamist government.

The post Louis sent states:

> The rigid observance of these [mamluk Egyptian] edicts has never been challenged since. 
> Many parts of the Islamic world abound with women who, were they to 
> appear in public without the full veil, would surely suffer dire 
> consequences under the law, apart from experiencing social ostracism.

This is of course nonsense. The history of Islam, not least in the 20th
Century is full of instances of these edicts being challenged or indeed
ignored. The vast majority of Muslim women in most Islamic countries and
communities don't actually wear a full face veil at all.

> The subject of much heated debate, as seen in the recent Elections 
> Canada decision that allowed burka-clad women to vote without removing 
> their face veils, the burka has come to be sanctified, both by 
> conservative forces within Islam and the Western left that endorses it 
> in the name of multiculturalism.

True enough. There was a controversy a couple of years ago here in New
Zealand about Afghan women not wanting to remove their veils when they
were giving evidence in court. The judge ruled that they must, but that
they would be screened off from the public.

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