Embracing the Veil

burqa Island Spice_flickr.jpg

flickr/Island Spice

Andrew Sullivan's posts on the impending French burqa ban sound familiar. When I arrived at the American University in Cairo eight years ago, a contretemps was erupting over the right of students to veil themselves completely on campus, using the full-body black covering called niqab. The university compromised by letting them cover their whole bodies except the face, which they could conceal only with a sheet of white paper that they held in their hands, and that they would have to lower on demand at security checkpoints, or to prove identity when sitting for exams. In practice, the compromise meant that on most mornings you could see one or two dark figures striding about campus, looking very much like the Wraiths from Lord of the Rings, but with paper held to the face, as if to enjoy the scent from a scratch-and-sniff sticker.

Only a few students exercised their right to cover themselves, so I thought about the incident little until a few months ago, just before the burqa ban became an issue. I was in Ta'izz, Yemen, at a popular lunch joint that was, like most public spaces, totally male. Servers ran back and forth with salta, the wonderful green stew of lamb and fenugreek, and I marveled that they were able with bare hands to carry these red-hot ceramic crucibles of boiling liquid, straight to the tables from what looked like an industrial-strength Bunsen burner in the corner. When I tried to pay, the owner waved away my money and introduced me to a friendly Yemeni teacher of English and French who welcomed me to his table, bought me a soda, and asked if I would like to help him teach a class in a few minutes.

The students were fifteen females in full niqab. When I entered the classroom and saw fifteen students who looked identical in every way, I burst out laughing, and never totally regained composure. The utter neutrality of their aspect was disarming to say the least. After a few minutes, I started asking them questions in English about their lives and why they wanted to learn English. "I am a pharmacist!" chirped one of the bolder students, so I turned to look through her eyeslit and ask whether she thought Yemeni honey had medicinal properties. Instantly fourteen black-gloved hands shot out to point at one of the other women in the room: I was talking to the wrong student, six desks away. This drill happened about twenty more times in the next hour, and even though my sonar triangulation improved a little, even by the end I could narrow down blurted answers at best to a clump of five or so students. I ended up accidentally excusing women with no cars to check on their parking, and letting women with empty bladders go to the lavatory. In every case the errors lasted only seconds, but the experience was still totally bewildering.

So the garments did seem to have some serious pedagogical drawbacks. On the other hand, every wearer of burqa and niqab I have asked has viewed the garment as a blessing: a liberation not so much from the stares of men as from the stares of anyone at all. It freed them from caring about their appearance. They didn't have to do their hair. (Of course, since fashion abhors a vacuum, and when women's clothes are made forcibly subdued, they find ways to mark style by decorating the fringes of their abayas, say, or by paying heavy attention to eye make-up.) They could count money in public. They didn't get covered with filth, as I did, standing around waiting for the bus, and they could check me out and stare at me without risking the awkwardness of my staring back. No doubt there are women whose burqas are compulsory, but I have not met them.

Leading the charge to institute the ban, Jean-François Copé cites as reasons security (i.e., the risible notion that the ability to wear a mask in public is a significant public threat, and that we stand at the cusp of a crime-wave of burqa-clad bandits) and "refusal to exist as a person in the eyes of others," which is a stickier claim and one more borne out by my experience. Conservative Muslims agree with some Western feminists and argue the opposite, that a sexualized woman is deprived of her personhood when she goes out unveiled and has to deal with the male gaze. There is some truth to that as well.

But I must say, when I read about "refusal to exist as a person in the eyes of others," I feel not Copé's indignance nor some of Andrew's commenters' pity, but jealousy. There are times when I would love to cease existing as a person in the eyes of others, and to swim through crowds unnoticed, the way women do in their steel-blue burqas in Herat. Far from being an experience that no one should have, it seems one that everyone should have the choice to have. In a way, what Copé is suggesting is not just the ban of the niqab or burqa but the elimination of anonymity. The debate does not often phrase itself this way in public, but to the Muslim women who don't consider their clothes oppressive, perhaps it does in private.