Recently, the leader of Britain’s House of Commons, Jack Straw, created a firestorm when he revealed that he wants Muslim women to remove their veils when they do business with his office. “Most I ask seem relieved I have done so,” he said. “Last Friday was a case in point. The veil came off almost as soon as I opened my mouth. I dealt with the problems the lady had brought to me. We then had a really interesting debate about veil wearing. This itself contained some surprises. It became absolutely clear to me that the husband had played no part in her decision. She explained she had read some books and thought about the issue. She felt more comfortable wearing the veil when out. People bothered her less.” Despite the woman’s assertions, Straw concluded that the veil is “such a visible statement of separation and of difference” that it hinders not just “face-to-face” encounters but the very possibility of “positive relations between the two communities.”
To my American ear, it seems boorish of Straw to use his public power to chat up the clients about perceived wardrobe mistakes. Yet since 9/11, even if most politicians would think twice before asking nuns to doff those wimples or Hasidic Jews to drop in at Brooks Brothers and get with the times, they do seem to have fewer inhibitions about projecting “terror” onto veils and turbans and hijabs and burqas.
Straw’s stance made me think of Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Corps. Patel, an American Muslim, tells the story of having been a guest speaker at Berea College, a Christian institution in Kentucky. A faculty member asked if he would like them to cover the cross when he spoke in the school chapel. Patel declined, demurring that it was precisely the Christian principle of inclusive fellowship symbolized by the cross that had inspired the invitation that had brought him there. On one level, the little interchange between Patel and Berea was unremarkable. It was a kind of mutual bow, a polite deflection from one religious tradition to another and back again. The essence of civility. From another perspective, however, it stood out as a rare moment of diplomacy in the freighted fan dance of hiding and exposing Muslim signifiers and Christian symbols.
Patel contrasts the offered covering of the cross with French laws against public expressions of religious identity–the insistence, for example, that no crosses or head scarves or stars of David may be worn in schools. France’s forcing of Muslim girls to remove all head coverings is analogous, he asserts, to his insisting that Berea’s cross be shrouded in his presence. Patel doesn’t believe it would advance the cause of coexistence or tolerance. (Of course, it is not at all clear that the goal of the French law is tolerance–secularism is more the driving value. But in an American context, I think it’s a point well taken. We are a society whose best moments are premised on a civic narrative providing haven for those who want to be left alone to worship, or not, as they see fit.)
Patel’s story also exhibits the orderliness of everyday courtesy. It is a good thing if a host inquires whether the guest has any dietary needs and the guest responds modestly, imposing as little as possible. It is a not-so-good thing if a host forgets that his Orthodox guests might require a kosher meal. And it is a bad thing if a guest arrives at the dinner party and only then proceeds to deliver a bombastic list of restrictions and allergic possibilities. Yet that basic spectrum of anticipation and respect is often forgotten in this era of global diaspora and hybridized culture. When Straw insists that Muslim women who come to his office remove their veils for his comfort, who is the host, who is the guest? Is his role properly the accommodating public servant or more the gatekeeper of Anglican mores? Is wearing the veil to Jack Straw’s office more like insisting that others go out of their way to accommodate your vegetarianism? Or is the veil basically none of Jack Straw’s business, no more relevant to the conduct of his official duties than if the request were made by telephone?
A few weeks ago the French newspaper Le Figaro published a polemic by Robert Redeker, a high school teacher from Toulouse. In it, he bitterly decried what he viewed as the subversion of French values in deference to premodern Muslim sensitivities. One of the concerns he cited was a Parisian ordinance barring sunbathing in near nudity on the banks of the Seine. It was an interesting example to me because when I was in Paris last summer, a taxi driver rolled his eyes and told me this very ordinance had been passed in deference to worries that topless sunbathing might affect the tourism choices of rich, prudish American families. I don’t know what the real genesis of the sunbathing ordinance is, but this contrasting set of explanations underscores the power of cultural convention. For a modest Mormon girl from Utah who may not share the bored French sense of the body’s banality, removing a bikini top might be just as problematic as removing the veil might be for a modest Muslim student in Redeker’s class.
There is a tendency in our media to conflate head coverings and the oppression of women. If a woman is forced either to cover herself from head to toe or to bare herself entirely because the men in her life don’t want her to be educated or will beat or kill her, then that is oppressive. But it is a stereotype to imagine that clothing, or lack of it, is the same as radical repression. There are many Muslim women, like Straw’s constituent, who say they are just more comfortable covering themselves. My hunch is that commentators too often dismiss those avowals as false consciousness; but the power of convention in clothing is also deeply connected to a sense of bodily integrity. If I were forced by law to disrobe before I could go to the beach, you might find me yearning for the fashion equivalent of a pup tent, too. And so, when our leaders, our pundits, our earnestly self-appointed harvesters of hearts and minds follow Jack Straw’s lead and barnstorm through the Muslim world urging women to cast off their layers as a way of getting on board the freedom train, I fear it will be heard as the tin-eared rhetoric of shallow evangelizing.