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« Assassinated in Moscow (Joe) | Main | A "Swift" Retaliation »

October 09, 2006


Ruchira, you're risking a purchased fatwa for this blog entry ;)

Could it be that Mr.Straw has some security concerns that he doesn't want to publicize and hence all this gobbledygook?

As a lighter aside, how in the world could Bollywood have had such musical 'masterpieces' such as 'Mere Mehboob' and "Chaudhavin ka Chand' without the confusion engendered by the niqab?

So many issues in one post of moderate length! Cultural relativism, tolerance for religious practices, political manipulation, biological determinants of psychology... Yikes. I'm with you, Ruchira, when it comes to accepting the validity of outsider criticism of tightly sealed insider conduct. The "honesty" of Straw's remarks is not the most relevant factor here, as it does little to help us to measure the extent to which they reflect a more generally experienced discomfort. But I am skeptical about the explanatory value of Razib's remarks. Are blind people less capable of "interacting" than those of us with vision? I don't doubt that facial expressions can signal meaning, but so can other sorts of gestures. Meanwhile, all sorts of equally fundamental asymmetries obtain in our interactions--think of the absurd convention that a man in a suit and tie has greater authority than somebody in some other mode of dress.

Sujatha: Your point about security concerns may be a real one. After all, miscreants hiding behind burqas is not unheard of .

Dean: In the matter of the blind, I really cannot speak with any authority. But my gut feeling is that the blind are indeed somewhat handicapped in so far as they cannot "read" facial expressions. However, we have also heard that those who have lived without sight for a long period, learn to hear vocal inflections better than the sighted and compensate with their ears what they cannot see with their eyes.

If I were Jack Straw, I would offer to speak to veiled constituents from behind a screen or with my back to them. A bit Wizard of Ozish and rude but it will be a level playing field.

Sarcasm aside, I firmly believe that the imperialistic hubris of the Bush administration and the mischief by the Saudi Wahabis have added to the paranoia within the Muslim community. The fact that Bush has conducted his policies with a messianic fervor and overt religiosity, impedes any attempt at a rational discussion on such matters.


Great post.

I don't find Razib's argument particularly compelling. To me, the issue is very simple: if hiding behind a veil is so hot (no pun intended) - why don't the men also don a veil???

It is all about access and control and it is pathetic when women take up the defense of a practice that so severely limits their lives. What is even worse is the hypocrisy inherent in a) first choosing to live in a liberal society and then b) criticizing that liberal society when its liberal ways hit too close to home. If Islamic law and Islamic ways and Islamic culture are so hot, and the liberal society is so intolerant/intolerable, why not celebrate them in the home country?

Ultimately, there are two great tragedies in these occasional storms in a teacup:

1. Otherwise open and accepting (going beyond tolerance) people like me no longer feel sympathetic to the "plight"/cause of these chest-thumpers. Pan-Islamic bah! I shut down the moment I hear even a mention of these dreams of grandeur. I am hardly a practising Hindu - but far be it from me to roll over and concede even an inch to those who are in pursuit of a pan-Islamic anything.

2. These chest-thumpers are becoming caricatures of themselves. They make it so easy to get them all riled up! Surely, if theirs is such a better way, they can come up with more compelling and persuasive arguments than the ones that Ms. Nawaz advanced?!


Great post! And no, Nawaz most likely does not see the irony behind her philosophy.

I spent a good part of my life in a country where seeing veiled women was commonplace, and I agree, there is something uncomfortable about not being able to see a person's face when you're talking to them. It was particularly disconcerting in the very hot summers when you'd see these thick layers, and you'd wonder if a benevolent ooparwala really wanted these women to melt in the heat of these veils and long coats.

Some of these Muslims who take to the streets really do themselves no favors by getting all riled up about the cartoons, the Pope, or Straw's remarks on the veil. It is as PIAW says, they are becoming caricatures.

PIAW, there is an ethnic group in North Africa where the men veil themselves, rather than the women. The name escapes me right now. Perhaps you've heard of them.

Yes, the heat -- the merciless heat of Asian summers. PIAW and Ana both refer to that.

The veil loving women in England who are so outraged by the attack on their modesty, forget that thousands of other Muslim women have no access to air conditioners or even ceiling fans in many cases. They ought to find out what it is like to live on the Indian subcontinent, in Afghanistan or in the poorer neighborhoods of the middle east, bundled within this all encompassing "tent."

After the Taliban were temporarily unseated, thousands of Afghan women breathed freely (literally) because they were once again able to step out of their homes without the punishing burqa. They described their years beneath the torturous veil that the Taliban coerced them to endure. They spoke of heat exhaustion, headaches and the general feeling of suffocating confinement, both physcial and mental, that they experienced. Sadly enough for them, the Talibs are back and so is the burqa. Those self-righteous women in England are doing them no favor.

PIAW, there is an ethnic group in North Africa where the men veil themselves, rather than the women. The name escapes me right now. Perhaps you've heard of them.


Interesting commentary by an anthropologist of Egyptian extraction

Salman Rusdie weighs in on veils.

thanks, Razib. :)

Mukul Kesavan has an interesting take on the veil at

An excerpt

"Obstacles to face-to-face conversations depend on what you’re used to and therefore comfortable with. Straw is probably undistracted by tiny skirts and plunging necklines but it might be harder for an Asian MP, accustomed to more covered-up women, to concentrate on a constituent’s problems if her every move revealed (in his prudish mind) inches of intimate skin. If he asked her to cover up (knowing Asian men, that’s a stretch, but this is a thought experiment) for the sake of more focused communication, I expect he’d be denounced for infringing her right to wear what she pleased."

Kesavan's article is very interesting - I actually agree with him more than I disagree. An unusual choice of clothing, even when it sets us apart from the majority should not necessarily invite derision or pigeon holing by the "beholder" as Kesavan points out.

I made a few similar observations myself about my own exposure to a whole range of attire that I grew up seeing in India. But in case of the burqa, the discussion for me, really goes beyond Kesavan's university classroom or Jack Straw's urbane office setting.

Burqa is a piece of clothing which has been and is still being used to exercise undue control over women's autonomy in large parts of the world. The Taliban's use of the burqa as a weapon to submit women to their wishes is a glaring example. Many Afghan women DO NOT want to wear it and prior to the Taliban's rise to power, did not. Remember the incident a few years ago, in Saudi Arabia, during a school fire, little girls were pushed back into the burning building by the morality police because the girls, in their panic had forgotten to put their veils on while attempting to escape! Those dead girls were between 10 and 13 years old.

When a piece of clothing becomes such a visible instrument of oppression and control over a whole group of human beings, it becomes an odious symbol - beyond tradition and personal comfort.

The women in England for whom it is merely a choice of asserting their identity, ought to appreciate that fact in solidarity with those for whom it is a symbol of degradation.

One more point. With the traditional burqas worn in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, you CAN'T see the eyes of the wearer. I am surprised that Kesavan didn't notice that. Why else does he claim to be more disconcerted by dark glasses than by the veil?

It's against the Islamic teaching to wear veil or hijab. For further info. see Women Dress Code in Islam.

Some people are twisting the facts in their favor. I've seen White converts wearing hijabs or veils for attention. I am a big believer of freedom but please someone tell them not in the name of religion. We should raise an awareness where Mosques caretaker should be made mandatory to learn about Islam before starting it to teach to their followers.

This was an excellent post. Like you, I have no problem with the hijab or turbans or any other form of Muslim dress. However, I have to say I think the burqa is not only isolationist, but is a custom that has been instituted into some Muslim practice through the desire to control women. When women choose themselves to live in a such a state of isolation, I can only think that they are severely misguided and at some level convinced of their inherent difference in equality not just to men, but to non-Muslims. I grew up in the Middle East and was surrounded by many Muslims, most of whom didn't choose to veil themselves completely from view. I tend towards the extremely liberal side in most of my arguments, to the extent now that I sometimes question whether or not I espouse views that are irrationally politically correct. On this issue however, I am prepared to stand up and say that I think the burqa is an antiquated form of sexist oppression and that women who freely choose to wear it are truly living under some kind of false consciousness. I would venture to argue as well that a great deal more Muslim women living in the West are 'freely' choosing to don this complete veil as opposed to those such as the Afghani women living under the Taliban who were forced into their veils and who continue to be now due to the religious fervour of their fathers, brothers and husbands. It is the most insulting kind of religious declaration to laud the values of a dress code in a free country when so many of your less fortunate kindred have had it thrust upon them.

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