Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Headscarves, Muslim and Otherwise

A conservative friend in the US recently shared a story on Facebook about a young chess player choosing to forego a chance to compete in this year's Women’s World Chess Championship in Iran. NazĂ­ Paikidze-Barnes, a recent immigrant to the US, made this difficult decision mainly because of the requirement that she cover her head while in the country.

The point of my friend’s post was the notion that American feminists are not rallying to Paikidze-Barnes’ side because political correctness prevents them from criticizing Muslim customs.

A couple of days before that, a leftist friend in the US had shared a story on Facebook about Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s right-wing populist National Front party, refusing to wear a headscarf for a planned meeting with a leading Muslim cleric in Lebanon.

Similarly, the point of this friend’s post was the hypocrisy of liberal feminists’ for not applauding the feminist stance taken by Le Pen because, in this particular case, the stance was being taken by someone on the wrong end of the political spectrum.

Now, I can’t vouch for whether either of these points are valid. I don’t know what kind of response, if any, either of these events elicited from “feminists”. Perhaps my friends are correct in that these acts of female defiance were met by silence from advocates for women’s rights. In the case of Le Pen, I am aware of some skepticism on the left that her decision was a political stunt, though on the surface she was making what could be considered a feminist statement.

The whole question of whether foreign women should comply with local religious customs such as donning a headscarf seems to me to be a tricky one, though some folks are always ready with a knee-jerk reaction when the issues comes up.

It’s a delicate matter when outsiders comment on the practices of a religion. Or, let’s say, such comments are not always appreciated by the practitioners of the religion. Calling snake handlers "crazy" for handling snakes probably doesn’t make them want to embrace you. In many ways, it’s none of your concern what they do.

An exception in my mind, of course, is when actual violations of human rights are involved. Female genital mutilation, would be one example. And there are surely other, more subtle, cases of systematic human-rights transgressions against women made in the name of religion.

However, I’m not certain that being forced to wear a cloth over your head qualifies as one of these.

Like I say, it’s tricky. I might draw the line at a burka covering a woman’s entire face, since here in the West one requirement of an open and egalitarian society is the ability to look each person in the face on an equal basis. So, to my Western sensibilities, that seems different.

And as to whether Muslim women have a real choice in deciding to cover their hair or not, that is also tricky. I’ve heard many on TV profess that they freely choose to do so. Though you must wonder, within the confines of a religious community, how much free will there really is in such matters. Peer and family pressure isn’t easily ignored. Even so, maybe many Muslim women do genuinely take some kind of comfort in wearing the hijab. 

Still, as a completely secular person, I can completely understand how some women born outside that culture might, on principle, not agree to conform to a fundamentalist tradition.

A high-level manager in a company I used to work for was well-known (within the company, anyway) for refusing to make any business trips to Saudi Arabia if she had to wear a headscarf. Can’t blame her.

On the other hand, I can also see foreigners making small signs of respect and etiquette expected by their guests, though they may think these actions are completely silly.

I have removed my shoes when entering Hindu or Buddhist temples. On holiday, I have always taken off my hat when entering a Christian church, and made sure my sons did the same. This despite the fact that I am not a believer myself.

Last summer in St. Petersburg, my wife and I noticed that all the women approaching the grand Kazan Cathedral (a Christian church) had brought light scarves to cover their heads as they entered. You don’t see that in Finland. My wife didn’t have anything similar with her, so she fashioned a covering from a light sweater she happened to have along. It looked a bit funny, but it did the trick. Inside the crowded church, I believe I saw only one woman, rather elegant, without a scarf.

Likewise, in Venice a few years ago we weren’t allowed into the Basilica di San Marco until my wife and daughter, who were wearing shorts, covered their legs with light wrap-around skirts conveniently provided at the entrance.

There are similar strictures at the New Valamo Russian Orthodox monastery in Heinävesi, a popular destination for tourists. Well, for tourists in Eastern Finland, that is. Visitors are required to keep their knees and shoulders covered at all time. This applies to men as well.

Back in the 80s, when I tried to drive onto the campus of extremely conservative Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina, we were allowed in only on the condition that my future wife, who again was wearing shorts, remained in the car. No exposed female knee flesh there! I wonder if it’s still the same.

Obviously, modesty in the name of piety is not associated only with Islam. Are these customs ridiculous? Yes, in a way. Do they do any harm to our personal dignity, beyond perhaps, in the case of women, to our fashion sense? Well, I guess that’s for each person to decide for him or herself. 

Albert Edelfelt's "Women Outside the Church at Ruokolahti" (1887).
Note all the headscarves. Lutheran headscarves. 

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