I had persuaded myself that I had said my last word on the burqa in last week’s column when an Australian imam of Egyptian extraction, Taj Din al-Hilali, delivered a sermon in Sydney in which he suggested that the Lebanese Australians who had committed a series of gang rapes in that city weren’t wholly to blame for the crime. The imam compared unveiled women to exposed meat: just as it was natural and instinctive for a cat to pounce on exposed meat, immodestly dressed women who wore make-up and “swayed” seductively were, he implied, inviting assault. If the raped women had stayed home in their hijabs, nothing would have happened. Hilali went on to argue that immodest women were mainly responsible for adultery, that they were soldiers of Satan bent on seducing men.
The good imam has now asked for leave from his post as Australia’s leading Muslim cleric because he has had a “mild” heart attack, but the new gargoyle he has added to the West’s Chamber of Muslim Horrors is doing brisk business.
The world’s major religions are both patriarchal and intermittently misogynist. Muslim jurisprudence on issues such as the triple talaq, inheritance, the relative value of male and female witness in a court of law has lumbered Islam with a particularly unflattering reputation for denying women equality, for characterizing women as naturally less responsible than men and for endorsing the authority of men over women. The progressive prescriptions of a 7th-century faith, have become, because of orthodox literalism and the passage of time, Exhibits A, B and C in Modernity’s case against Islam.
But the imam’s grotesque analogy between unveiled women and exposed meat (which could be read as a justification for sexual assault) and Jack Straw’s civil, almost diffident, account of his encounters with veiled women have something in common. They’re both based on an invocation of ‘common sense’.
When Jack Straw and Tony Blair and liberal columnists and feminists criticize the burqa as a statement of separateness, as a source of unease and as a threatening symbol of difference they are appealing to the common sense of modern people. How can you talk meaningfully to someone who has her face covered up' An Indian blogger, Ruchira Paul, neatly summed up this appeal to the common sense of the contemporary reader: “Despite my exposure to the veil and the burqa from early childhood, I must confess that I still feel vaguely uncomfortable in their presence. Not the head scarf, not turbans, not long dresses covering the body from neck to ankle — but a face hidden behind a veil, which lets you see just a pair of eyes (even those are sometimes hidden behind twin windows of netted fabric) has a disconcerting effect on me. There is a palpable feeling of being at a disadvantage when the other person can scrutinize your face but you can’t see hers.”
Even though my personal reaction to burqa-wearing women wasn’t the same as Ruchira’s, I found myself nodding in agreement at the reasonableness of her reaction and, by extension, Jack Straw’s. But head-nodding common sense needs to be resisted for two reasons. One, because it stifles our ability to empathize with unfamiliar points of view and two, because common sense is nearly always grounded in a coercive consensus.
After citing Jesuits and their cassocks as an example of the kind of difference Indians took for granted growing up, I was delighted to find a defence of the burqa made by an English Catholic who had once been a nun. Karen Armstrong wrote in The Guardian that when her order was founded in the mid-19th century in England soon after Catholic emancipation, its nuns were often stoned when they ventured into public wearing full, enveloping habits. Then, in a marvellous passage, she draws the parallel between this treatment of nuns and the contemporary hostility towards burqa’d women (occasionally expressed in physical attacks on them and abuse): “Catholicism was still feared as unassimilable, irredeemably alien to the British ethos, fanatically opposed to democracy and freedom, and a fifth column allied to dangerous enemies abroad.
Today, the veiled Muslim woman appears to symbolise the perceived Islamic threat, as nuns once epitomised the evils of popery. She seems a barbaric affront to hard-won values that are essential to our cultural identity: gender equality, freedom, transparency and openness.”
Karen Armstrong’s essay reminds us that Jack Straw’s comments weren’t made in a vacuum. They were made in the context of wide-spread suspicion of Muslims for their association with violent terrorism, just as the attacks on 19th-century nuns occurred in a country where Catholics had been demonized and discriminated against for three hundred years.
She also reminds us that the veil might have its compensations: “I found my habit liberating: for seven years I never had to give a thought to my clothes, makeup and hair — all the rubbish that clutters the minds of the most liberated women. In the same way, Muslim women feel that the veil frees them from the constraints of some uncongenial aspects of Western modernity.”
I can almost see the liberal reader flinch from this because the modesty of women has so often been praised the better to subordinate them. But surely it’s better to allow that the veil might have its virtues for a minority of independent women than to reflexively condemn it in the name of a hectoring common sense.
This is particularly relevant in the context of al-Hilali’s remarks because, whether we like it or not, his remarks are grounded in a ‘common sense’ that touches all of us. Nearly everyone I know would defend the right of women to wear the clothes they want to. And yet, when I lived in New York with my family for a couple of years, I worried about the way in which pre-teen fashions sexualized young girls. Some part of this worry stemmed from my unspoken fear that the more skin young girls showed, the more likely they were to attract unwanted attention. My daughter is twelve now and we live in Delhi. Every other day, I have to stop myself from telling her to change into something more obscuring because as an anxious father I share some part of Hilali’s horrible common sense. I don’t think that women are soldiers of Satan or that girls in skirts are asking for it, but a deeply ingrained male common sense counsels prudence. It isn’t the answer, of course, because sexual aggressors aren’t famous for sparing women in sarees or salwar kameez suits but it takes an effort of will to resist the urging of ‘common sense realism’.
In the same way, we should stop ourselves from mobilizing common sense to marginalize veiled women. If we begin to think it commonsensical to see the veil as strange, alien and separatist, then, whether we mean to or not, we begin to ‘understand’ the impulse that makes the average white person feel uneasy and hostile. In the wake of Jack Straw’s gently argued column, veiled women were attacked in England and a mosque fire-bombed. This wasn’t Straw’s fault, but it isn’t unlikely that after the chorus of disapproval Straw had set off, the attackers felt emboldened by a legitimizing common sense.