The Paradox of the Veil


Karen Armstrong makes a powerful case in defense of the nun's full habit and the Muslim chador. In a free country, I absolutely defend the right of any woman to freely choose to wear the chador, wherever she wants. But no-one is proposing banning it. And in public schools, where people have to teach students, I can see a reason to restrict it, because it is an impediment to doing your job. Facial expression matters in teaching. So does a clear voice. But freedom means the full chador must be defended as a public act of religious expression, if chosen voluntarily, as well. Armstrong writes of a fascinating historical parallel in this respect:

In Victorian Britain, nuns believed that until they could appear in public fully veiled, Catholics would never be accepted in this country. But Britain got over its visceral dread of popery. In the late 1960s, shortly before I left my order, we decided to give up the full habit. This decision expressed, among other things, our new confidence, but had it been forced upon us, our deeply ingrained fears of persecution would have revived.

But Muslims today do not feel similarly empowered. The unfolding tragedy of the Middle East has convinced some that the west is bent on the destruction of Islam. The demand that they abandon the veil will exacerbate these fears, and make some women cling more fiercely to the garment that now symbolises their resistance to oppression.

I grew up as a religious minority in an overwhelmingly Protestant country, where the head of state was also the head of a church. And my belief in religious freedom - and in the absolute separation of church and state - is as embedded in that as it is in my love of America, my new home.