My English friends and Dutch cousins are smart, contemporary, educated and enlightened. But over the last few years, whenever we’ve discussed the differences between how Europe and the U.S. have handled Islamic women’s veiling, I’m always somewhat shocked at how, uniformly, my enlightened “Euros” are passionately biased against the veil, saying that they wish Muslim women in Europe would be prohibited from the practice.
To this I can only say: Is America a great country or what? Each and every discussion concludes with me blessing the Founding Fathers for constructing a Constitution in which freedom of religion is protected. This system isn’t perfect, as mainstream bias often influences what is protected and what is prohibited: all states allow Christians to serve alcohol to minors in Communion, but few states allow the Native American Church to ritually distribute diluted peyote to anyone.
In Europe, where national identity issues and the memory of colonization among immigrants is agitated by the presence of veiling women, bias is strong. Polls indicate that most Europeans believe Muslim women should cease the practice in order to assimilate. In other words, there is an overt cultural pressure to set aside normative religious practice for cultural assimilation. In France, protection of the culture and the need to neutralize post-colonial tensions contributed to the 2006 banning of the headscarf in French public schools.
America’s religious and cultural history contributes to our own tolerance levels toward religious garb. After all, in our past we’ve had Puritan, Shaker, Quaker and Amish Americans who’ve adopted voluminous black garb. We have Jesuits in black suits and pre-Vatican II nuns in black robes. They signal a counter-cultural modesty and religious devotion through dress, and it is behavior we can understand with relative comfort.
My twelve-year-old daughter plays soccer against a team with a player who wears the hijab. At first, everyone was fascinated by her, and stared. Now that she has sharply defeated them in soccer, there is no more staring, just admiration at her focus, skills and expertise. The change in perception came through engagement and familiarity.
I have to admit: some years ago when I saw the first completely veiled woman in my grocery store, I stared. While there are a variety of global veiling styles, her chador was blacker than black, an opaque blackness flowing from the top of her head to her toes; only her eyes could be seen. In the West, because what is hidden is suspected, we stare to confirm the lack of threat. To us, the fabric color “black” unconsciously cues “evil” or “darkness”shy;—that’s why Darth Vader wasn’t dressed in beige. But now, having traveled to Islamic countries where veiling is the norm—and where what I wear is not normative—I have become desensitized to, and thus more familiar with, veiling styles and practice, and can understand their value.
In my “Politics of Gender in World Religions” class, small groups present on gender issues in religion. The “women and the veil in Islam” groups often conclude after their research that approaches in the West to veiling depend on the amount of “agency” veiled women were perceived to have—that is, their ability to be the subjects of their own lives and not the objects of the gaze or lives of others. When women choose the veil, “choice” being a Western value of course, Americans perceive it more neutrally; when women have the veil imposed, Americans perceive it as political and patriarchal.
Should the U.S. begin to outlaw the veil, I would agitate for religious freedom for veiled women. Even as an ardent feminist, I understand the respect, modesty and devotion the veil purveys. For all our criticisms of the U.S., this is one area where we get it exactly right.