Gene Expression

Black moving objects – part n

i-f951b67c62413f18fb15c3e305c53bc6-veil.jpgThe New York Times has an article up about the trend of young Muslim women donning the niqab in the United Kingdom, the practice of wearing a veil and covering the body with a shapeless shift. The simple narrative is this: Muslim women are reasserting a particular part of their religious tradition which Westerners feel is illiberal and medieval. Normally I get tired of the anecdotal modus operandi which dominates newspaper reports, though I do understand that it makes for engaging prose. Nevertheless, in the articles about extreme veiling the assertions by Western born women who choose to cover themselves up are often quite indicative of the deeper issues at work and the cross-linked tensions.

Defiance:

… Sometimes, she said, she gets a kick out of the mocking.

” ‘All right gorgeous,’ ” she said she had heard men say as she walked along the street. “I feel empowered,” she said. “They’d like to see, and they can’t.”

I had a friend in college who was raised in a moderately conservative Catholic family. Her paternal grandparents were very conservative, and to a large extent they were funding her college education. To make a long story short she went from being a Catholic “seeker” in a steady long term relationship with her high school sweet heart her freshmen year to an atheist lesbian radical feminist by her senior year. At one point when her grandparents came to visit she introduced them to a female friend who was heavily pierced, sported a shaved head and regularly wore tank tops to show off her armpit hair. I think on the psychological level a large component of the flight to the niqab is driven by these sorts of considerations. There are conservative and traditional women who don’t venture out much, but the women profiled in the story are not retired from the society at large, nor do they wish to be. They hold jobs, drive to the supermarket, take public transport; all without a man in sight. In the social context where full body veiling was normative this sort of behavior wasn’t and isn’t typical. I think it is pretty clear that donning the niqab is a challenge to society, just as extensive body piercing is. The practice and attitudes of these modern adherents of the niqab is fundamentally satisfying a different impulse than the women who wear these garments to shield themselves from the eyes of society. We’ve all met people who challengingly respond, “What are you looking at?” One knows very well that the whole point is to be looked at, noted and counted.

Segregation:

The niqab, to her, is about identity. “If I dressed in a Western way I could be a Hindu, I could be anything,” she said. “This way I feel comfortable in my identity as a Muslim woman.”

I too could be Hindu. Or I could be Muslim. In the American society the fact that I’m brown-skinned and not Latin generally suggests to people that I am either Hindu or Muslim. I am neither (though my family background is Muslim). You are judged by how you look, more or less, and that’s just reality. I know of Christian South Asians who are assumed to be Hindu or Muslim as well. It is just part of life. That being said, I don’t find it that offensive that people would think I was Hindu or Muslim based on what I look like. Those are just the conditional probabilities. Without knowing someone in detail you take a few superficial cues and generate a construct of who and what they are so that you can interact with them appropriately. Should they invite me to go get some burgers & a beer? Obviously whether I was Hindu or Muslim would matter in that case! If I dressed like a traditional Sikh there wouldn’t be any such issue as those who dress like Sikhs are usually Sikhs (mostly brown, but some not).

Wearing the niqab is a pretty clear signal that one is a Muslim, there would be no confusion whether they were Hindu. I don’t need to exposit in detail the long history and tendency within our species of groups donning a distinctive garb so as to set themselves off as a people apart. In regards to being confused as a Hindu, most Muslims find Hinduism to be a repugnant and abominable religion, so it stands to reason that some would find the confusion distasteful. Of course the niqab is a mark of separation, it is a mark of distinctiveness. It tells the rest of society who you are, and reminds the individual of who they are. Just as a young woman with a shaved head and pierced nipples is a non-conformist above the restraints of the common herd, so a young Muslim woman is one of God’s very chosen people, special and above the kuffar she sees around her. It emphasizes the chasm between the clean and the unclean:

“For me it is not just a piece of clothing, it’s an act of faith, it’s solidarity,” said a 24-year-old program scheduler at a broadcasting company in London, who would allow only her last name, al-Shaikh, to be printed, saying she wanted to protect her privacy. she said. “9/11 was a wake-up call for young Muslims,” she said.

Muslim men engage in an act of terror which results in the death of 3,000, but it seems that the primary focus of this young woman was the backlash and prejudice against Muslims. Obviously bigotry is nothing to sniff at, but young Muslims sometimes seem to speak of the period after 2001 living in the West as a reign of terror for their religion. It is as if there is no relevance to the fact that an international network of Islamic radicals has been attempting to incite a clash of civilizations (granted, a substantial minority, at least, of Muslims believe in conspiracy theories which absolve Islam of any role in Islamic terror). The fundamental concern is the state of the chosen people, not the kuffar amongst whom they reside.

Choice:

When she is on the street, she often answers back. “A few weeks ago, a lady said, ‘I think you look crazy.’ I said, ‘How dare you go around telling people how to dress,’ and walked off. Sometimes I feel I have to reply. Islam does teach you that you must defend your religion.”

I can not but help find this a bit rich. Muslims who believe their religion entails a donning of the niqab for women tend to have very strong opinions about how people should dress. On the one hand these independent women use the rhetoric of empowerment, but interviews and discussions I have read or heard with many of them suggest that many (though not all!) do not believe that there is any choice in how Muslim women should dress. That is, any woman who is truly Muslim must necessarily dress as they do, because it is enjoined by God. Though they object to and scoff at the pressure and suasion society directs toward them, they are often themselves proponents of their fashion. Just as many “non-conformist” social groups, such as Goths or the S & M set, tend to be characterized by a within group uniformity of manner and style, so women who take up the niqab are not always individualists when it comes to their own perceived in group.

Function:
Throughout this post I have made analogies between young people who pierce and engage in other body modifications & adornments and women in niqabs. Both of them deviate from the bourgeois Western norm and simultaneously demand acceptance as well as reveling in negative attention. Though both groups couch their individual decision as a way to express who they truly are to the rest of the world, their poses strongly suggest that they wish to reinforce their own self-perception of their superiority in relation to the common herd. But, there is a difference between the two groups which is critical: the niqab covers the face. This is an essential functional point, the face transmits critical information, context and allows one to form an image of the person as an individual in one’s mind. For women who did not venture out into the wider world on a regular basis this was irrelevant since their circle of encounters with strangers would be minimal, but many of the women in Britain who cover their faces seem to want to engage the public sphere and interact with other human beings. As a child some of my parents’ Muslim acquaintances would joke that “they can see you, but you can’t see them!” There was a tacit understanding that there was advantage, power, when one individual can read the face of another but the return exchange of information is blocked. As a minority strategy donning of the niqab causes minimal social tension, because the normal transmission of information is not asymmetrical in most encounters. But in a society where everyone starts wearing masks so as not to be disadvantaged one can imagine that such a culture would be on the road to Solaria.

Comments

  1. #1 cuchulkhan
    June 23, 2007

    Western Europe in the 21st century offers such boundless possibilities, half the things are free, flights cost nothing, even with little you can do an astonishing amount. Wtf is the point in returning to this bull?

    That said my views on this issue are somewhat nuanced by experience. On the tube a year ago a niqabed woman was sitting across from me when a gang of ‘yuffs’, 5 chavs of varying ethnicity, hopped on and started harassing & taunting her (Osama’s b**ch and all that) I wanted to do something but there were 5 of them, so eventually I joined two 6’3 city boys down the car, along with an train officer, and ushered them away. But it stuck with me. Sure, they’re just dicks and would probably have done the same with some goth chick, or anyone showing a modicum of indiviudality, but it niggled at me… whatever…

    “The fundamental concern is the state of the chosen people, not the kuffar amongst whom they reside.”

    Same goes for all groups. IRA attacks various parts of the UK, all the Irish people care about is how it affects ‘them’, endless stories of being ‘victimized’ etc. And don’t the IRA have ‘legitimate grievances’ anyway?

  2. #2 Ktesibios
    June 23, 2007

    Something I’ve been wondering about- is veiling, in its assorted varieties, actually prescribed by the Koran or other scripture, or is it the survival of a previous cultural tradition, elevated to the status of holy writ by religious leaders for reasons of their own?

    Seems to me that I remember reading that the veiling of women extends back to ancient Sumeria. I also can’t help but notice that more than one barbaric inherited practice has been sanctioned by religious authorities for the sake of their own interests, e.g. the biblical justifications for chattel slavery cobbled up by Southern Christians in the antebellum USA, or the way in which female genital mutilation in parts of Africa is given an Islamic gloss by local religious leaders.

    Know anything about this?

  3. #3 razib
    June 23, 2007

    Something I’ve been wondering about- is veiling, in its assorted varieties, actually prescribed by the Koran or other scripture, or is it the survival of a previous cultural tradition, elevated to the status of holy writ by religious leaders for reasons of their own?

    i think the koran enjoys modesty. nothing as specific as veiling. from what i know full body veiling and female segregation is a elite civilized practice the arab muslims picked up from the byzantines & persians. high status women in the eastern roman empire traditionally practiced veiling, this was one major point of distinction between eastern and western elite.

  4. #4 Gork
    June 23, 2007

    It will be interesting when shoplifters begin wearing the full rig.

    At first, shopkeepers and clerks will be wary of violating taboos, but when the police start putting out descriptions that fit, then anyone fitting the description can be rightfully searched — and if they resist they will be arrested and jailed.

    Armed robbers will realize the rig will provide complete anonimity and will allow them to carry heavy weapons undetected. Some concealed innocents might get killed by police, but that will be the price they are willing to pay to hide themselves from public scrutiny in public.

    In western society, generally no one is allowed to conceal the face. It works for us. And it will not change because it runs against the tastes of some people.

  5. #5 Abhi
    June 23, 2007

    In regards to being confused as a Hindu, most Muslims find Hinduism to be a repugnant and abominable religion, so it stands to reason that some would find the confusion distasteful.

    Nearly one billion people practice Hinduism. India is home to the second largest Muslim population in the world and Hindus and Muslims co-exist here for centuries. Perhaps the words repugnant and abominable indicate the author’s mindset not of Muslims. And the words hurt…If you cannot respect Hinduism its ok… but please don’t hurt Hindu sentiments.

  6. #6 Ruchira
    June 24, 2007

    It will be interesting when shoplifters begin wearing the full rig.

    It’s happened already … or at least the suspicion of it.

  7. #7 Bang Gully
    June 24, 2007

    Abhi-A lot of South Asian Muslims find Hinduism if not abominable at least laughable. People laugh when they see the TV version of the Mahabharata or Ramayana or many Hindu “rituals”and lifestyles (the temple where they have thousands of rats running around, Shiva lingam worship, monkey gods , etc). Many get angry if you mention that there ancestors were Hindus or that they “look Hindu” (usually if youre darker and have less Irano-Semitic looks)and even the dumbest Muslim will think himself smarter than a Hindu putting cow dung on a car to bless it (My cousins in Nepal told me this actually happened). In Bangladesh there is also general stereotypes of Hindus as a cultural group. They’re generally seen as cheap misers who are very “chalak” (clever)and will lie and cheat to get their ends. Hindus are seen as ass kissers of reigning powers whether it be Turks or British or Americans,pretty much as sell outs. This is something not confined to Muslims however, Afro-Cariibeans, black Africans, even Black Americans and Latinos say similar things about “Indians” (this includes Pakis and Bengalis as well ).

    Razib-Bro I don’t know why you always mention this as if it’s some definitive point but most Muslims that I know did not see anything wrong in principle for the justification for 9/11. It was only after some time after that when the particulars of innocent people dying from 9/11 did it make an impact on Muslims that “yeah maybe that wasn’t so good .” Of course to a good chunk of Muslims that I knew, the killing of Americans was more than justified since Americans in large part don’t care when their army is killing Muslims. Or they don’t even know. Bin Laden said American citizens are responsible for their government’s actions since they have a democracy, something that is supposed to keep their government in check. Therefore they endorse the government’s actions by their silence. Even non-Muslims I knew agreed with this sentiment. You can’t imagine how many Eastern Europeans, Latinos, Blacks, Asians, and hell even party animal Brazilians that were telling me things like “We got our bets on the Muslims now to take these muhfuckas down”

    So I really don’t understand why you always make this point that Muslims dont care about their religion causing terrorism or what not. To Muslims it is of course not religion causing terrorism but politics and economics and the abuse and misuse of power by the worst amongst us and the worst amongst the West. The framework that you have of “There is no such thing as ‘Islam is good, Islam is bad’ Islam is everything and all things therefore terrorism is Islam as well” is much too superficial and is avoiding the political questions that when put to light would make your conservative ramblings seem much more absurd than they already are. With you background of knowing immigrant Muslims, you seem to defend well the flimsy Muslim attacks on Western culture because you know what the average white Westerner thinks but it fails for detecting what the Muslims thinks because I’m sure over the years your socialization with any kind of Muslims has probably been very few.This increased distance makes it easier for you to make the generalizations that you do about Muslims. It also makes your hatred more intense probably because they seem like invading hordes that are taking away your smug elite scientific world.

    Also, you’ve told me personally before that Muslims need to come under Western subjugation with the implication that whatever violence is perpetrated in this would be justified. That is pretty much immoral to most Muslims and to most people I would imagine so I find it amusing that Muslims are supposed to be in awe of your charges of hypocrisy. You can’t be serious.

  8. #8 razib
    June 24, 2007

    bang gully, you need you get a grip, seriously. your sentences are really hard to understand. you would get a little more response (if that’s what you want) if you were a little more coherent and focused. stringing together a stream of consciousness isn’t doing it. also, please keep in mind i can delete any of your comments before you waste your life typing out words no one will see (possibly). you really don’t understand much about religion, so of course you have a hard time parsing what i’m trying to say :-) repeating that i’m conservative over and over again really isn’t moving the discourse anywhere. as it is, you’re just reinforcing the stereotype that muslims are primitive brutes when it comes to discussing their religion (though i know plenty who aren’t, at least those who read my weblogs).

    (also, you assert plenty of things. that’s fine, but the only god on this weblog is me. you need to cite to have any credibility, otherwise i’ll think you’re just another angry muslim)

    And the words hurt…If you cannot respect Hinduism its ok… but please don’t hurt Hindu sentiments.

    i don’t care about your sensitivities. but i’m not going to persecute you or attempt convert you, so don’t worry. muslims think you’re primitive idolaters. jesus, how many times have i heard brown muslims joke about hindus eating cow shit? (though to be fair on occasion some others rebuked the mockers as being childish) there’s no point in putting your head in the sand about that, there’s plenty of stupid muslim practices you can make fun of in return if you want to fight fire with fire. i mean, if i was a hindu i would wonder who the hell the idolater was when muslims run around a black rock.

  9. #9 razib
    June 24, 2007

    . Hindus are seen as ass kissers of reigning powers whether it be Turks or British or Americans,pretty much as sell outs.

    how ironic, as 95% of the ancestors of indian muslims are hindus who sold out! (the mughals were of course the ones who introduced the conventional north indian color terms to distinguish themselves from the black muslims who were descendents of converts)

  10. #10 Tex
    June 24, 2007

    … the niqab covers the face. This is an essential functional point, the face transmits critical information, context and allows one to form an image of the person as an individual in one’s mind.

    I had to fly out of Houston about one month after the 9/11 attacks. I knew security efforts would be off the charts, and I arrived much earlier than normal. After clearing the checkpoint with relative ease, I had a lot time to kill at the gate area, so I bought a magazine, sat down and started reading.

    A few minutes before boarding time, two men in business suits with dark complexions sat down next to me. They were accompanied by four women (I hoped they were women) in niqab – covered head to toe in total blackness, except for the eye slits. The women never sat down, even though there were plenty of seats. They stood hovering silently above their companions and me.

    These black, shadowy, hovering forms reminded me of ninja or the Nazgul; I felt a chill come over me as if I were in the presence of pure evil. My heart stopped for a while, probably from an overdose of adrenalin. I really, really don’t need this shit right now, I thought. Especially since the magazine I was reading was “Wine Spectator.” I look like an infidel, even under the best of circumstances, but this pretty much cinched the deal. Eventually, it dawned on me that anyone up to no good would probably choose a somewhat lower profile under the circumstances, so I calmed down a bit.

    Finally, the PA system announced that, ‘Because of heightened security procedures, some passengers will be chosen at random for a more thorough examination.’ OK. Here’s my chance! I got in line to board the plane right behind my new friends, and sure enough, they were ‘randomly chosen for a more thorough examination.’ I sailed on to the plane while security was trying to figure out how to deal with the Nazgul. We left the gate over an hour late.

    Since my initial scare, I have become a big fan of the niqab. Not only should muslims have the right to wear this distinctive garb, it should be mandatory. Not only for muslims, and not only for women, but for anyone with bat-shit religious beliefs so us more rational folks would know when we are dealing with lunatics.

  11. #11 razib
    June 24, 2007

    but for anyone with bat-shit religious beliefs so us more rational folks would know when we are dealing with lunatics.

    that is an interesting perspective….

  12. #12 Al_Chutiya_for_debauchery
    June 24, 2007

    “Muslim men engage in an act of terror which results in the death of 3,000, but it seems that the primary focus of this young woman was the backlash and prejudice against Muslims. Obviously bigotry is nothing to sniff at, but young Muslims sometimes seem to speak of the period after 2001 living in the West as a reign of terror for their religion. It is as if there is no relevance to the fact that an international network of Islamic radicals has been attempting to incite a clash of civilizations (granted, a substantial minority, at least, of Muslims believe in conspiracy theories which absolve Islam of any role in Islamic terror). The fundamental concern is the state of the chosen people, not the kuffar amongst whom they reside”

    Thats a little harsh. I am not sure if Muslims are acting solely out of disdain/apathy for the lives of Non-Muslims in the West. Its more plausible that Muslims in the West are acting on a simple selfish self preservation and utilitarian self benefit calculus. If you are a Pakistani/Arab grocery store owner in Decatur, IL, being killed by Salafist jihadis is not much of a threat while on the other hand being harassed in your business and by your neighbors and seeing your religion dissected and generally publicly crapped upon is probaby a cause of bigger concern.

  13. #13 razib
    June 24, 2007

    Its more plausible that Muslims in the West are acting on a simple selfish self preservation and utilitarian self benefit calculus.

    sure. just as the average american is far more likely to be killed in a car accident than by muslim terrorists. but the tendency to deemphasize or treat the 9/11 attacks as simply vague background incidents is rhetorically suggestive.

  14. #14 Bang Gully
    June 24, 2007

    Razib- I might not write as concise as you do, but what I said is pretty straightforward even if lengthy. The main thing I basically said was:

    Bin Laden’s justification for the 9/11 attacks, although couched and validated by Quranic verses, is based on actual political events. Palestine, American military presence in Saudi, Chechnya, Kashmir, the fighting in Lebanon, etc were all things that he’s mentioned as his reason for violence. The cultural stuff like Western promiscuity, secularism is important but is not the primary reason as to why 9/11 happened. The reason I bring up your conservative angle is that conservatives tend to have convenient amnesia when these facts are presented to them and fail to see why Muslims aren’t condemning “jihadis” and all this. Therefore saying stuff like “Some religions like Islam tell people to blow up buildings” is, other than trying to provoke anger, dumb.

    Also, if anybody needs to get a grip, it is you my friend.If I recall correctly, last time I posted something on your blogs, somebody thought I was interesting and you started wildin out on dude because he was feelin me. I have never in my life said I hate any group, even athiests.(My father is one and I love him to death) I can’t say the same about you. Hate usually is a passionate state and it tends to stretch the waist bands of truth to make the person who is hateful seem justified. Hate tends to obscure objectivity. I don’t think I’ve called you any names, yet so far you have implied that I am stupid, angry, and so on and so forth. So you need to reconsider who is acting primitive here.

  15. #15 razib
    June 24, 2007

    although couched and validated by Quranic verses, is based on actual political events. Palestine, American military presence in Saudi, Chechnya, Kashmir, the fighting in Lebanon, etc were all things that he’s mentioned as his reason for violence. The cultural stuff like Western promiscuity, secularism is important but is not the primary reason as to why 9/11 happened.

    you know why you piss me off? you don’t know shit about my views. do you think anyone who has read robert pape’s dying to win (and has mentioned in on the blog positively, oh yeah, i’m sure you didn’t read that) believes anything as fucking moronic as that “they hate us for our freedoms?” and secondly, what the fuck does chechnya & kashmir have to do with the united states? and last i checked, the neocons were shitting on the russians for what they did to the chechens.

    yes, i called you stupid, but that’s because you have a superficial grasp of the facts. otherwise, you would have left chechnya out of it just focused on saudi arabia and palestine. but in any case, my main focus isn’t on foreign affairs. i really don’t care much about israel, or kashmir, nor do i believe that the international islamic threat is existential. i just want muslims to be generally kept out of the west until they reconstruct their religion to be less medieval. it’s a quality of life issue, not a civilizational one. i don’t want to annoying snake handling pentecostals to get too numerous either.

    Therefore saying stuff like “Some religions like Islam tell people to blow up buildings” is, other than trying to provoke anger, dumb.

    no, muslims tend to blow things up and justify it in the name of their religion. there’s a difference. of course i dislike muslims, i admit it. but you really need to get it out your head that everyone needs to dislike muslims for the same reasons.

    p.s. i’m not a big fan of fundamentalist christians either.

  16. #16 Marek Möhling
    June 27, 2007

    Razib, you don’t suppose them (Islamist terrorists, and–may I assume?–most devout Muslims) to “hate our freedoms,” yet you feel their religion is too medieval. I assume further most interpretations of Islam to define personal freedom in a way that–conflating things laxly– could be compared to stances upheld by medieval European church and state. Provided you agree – aren’t your views somewhat inconsistent?

  17. #17 razib
    June 27, 2007

    i said they don’t hate us for our freedoms. that’s a critical qualifier. of course they hate our freedoms, they think they enable debauchery. but most primitive cultures hate our freedoms, they don’t go bombing buses. in any case, reach marc sagemen’s work and robert pape’s. they offer detailed and nuanced pictures of terror networks both their outer rhetoric as well as the pattern of their behavior which belies their rhetoric. if you haven’t read the books, well, we don’t have much to talk about because i’m really not gifted with enough time to restate all their theses and data.

  18. #18 Marek Möhling
    June 28, 2007

    I forgot the qualifier – possibly a Freudian slip, as Muslim–or any–reactionaries bother me more rejecting Western conceptions of freedom than terrorists hating us for whatever reason. The first is sufficient cause for undesirable social change, once their numbers increase, while I don’t feel that terrorism can destroy societies satisfying the needs of its members, whatever the motives. I fear the Niqab more than bombs. Our German stats office tells that of the 2005 newborn 9.2 came from a Muslim family. Luckily, about 30% are Alevis, who dislike Sharia and reject gender segregation, and sociologists estimate about 20% as non-religious. However, the hardcore faction of the rest already got the government to accept the Muslim Brotherhood as partner for official conferences, so I’m not as serene as you on primitive cultures’ ideas on freedom, even provided they don’t blow up buses.

  19. #19 razib
    June 28, 2007

    so I’m not as serene as you on primitive cultures’ ideas on freedom, even provided they don’t blow up buses.

    do you think someone who has advocating banning muslim immigration and favors monetary inducements for resettlement is ‘serene’?