Friday, June 18, 2004

Just a Piece of Cloth

From "The Guardian" this week:

A 15-year-old Muslim girl yesterday lost her high court battle for the right to wear strict Islamic dress to school.

Shabina Begum has not attended Denbigh high school in Luton since September 2002 when she was sent home for turning up in a jilbab -- the full-length gown worn by many Muslim women that covers all of the body except the face and hands.

Shabina's claim that she had been "constructively excluded" from her school was dismissed by Mr Justice Bennett. He said the school's refusal to let her wear the jilbab did not breach her right to education and freedom of religion as laid down in the European convention on human rights.

The school, a 1,000-pupil comprehensive where almost 80% of pupils are Muslim, said it had a flexible uniform policy to ensure that the religious and cultural sensitivities of its students were respected. Girls have the option of wearing trousers, skirts, or a shalwar kameez (trousers and a tunic).

The newspaper doesn't report, however, that Begum's lawyer, Yvonne Spencer, said the real reason the girl objects to wearing the shalwar khameez (and the reason the school approved it as uniform) is that Sikhs and Hindus also wear it.

The battle is, on that level, part of the bid by the radical Islamist minority in Europe to militantly resist anything that smacks of assimilation, and to remain an aggressive "pure" community within the secular West, with a goal of ultimately controling the nations to which they immigrate. This is arguably a breach of the compact under which people immigrate into other nations.

The notorious Britain-based Islamist group Al-Muhajiroun makes this clear on its Web site:

Our role is not to integrate or become part of the kufr (non-Islamic) culture or man made system! How could, for example, a practicing Muslim don an English football team shirt which clearly displays a Christian Cross stained in red, a symbol which if worn by a Muslim knowingly, could take him out of the fold of Islam? Similarly how can a Muslim, in the same breath, support and give allegiance to the Queen when in Islam we know that the first action we do when we become Muslim is to reject allegiance to anyone other than the Creator of Man, Life and Universe i.e. Allah (swt) solely and without any partners? It is therefore impossible for a Muslim to emulate the disbelievers in their actions, behavior and even in their dress code. Rather it is incumbent upon the Muslims to invite the society to leave the falsehoods that they carry and call them to Islam as the only acceptable way of Life (to God).

On the other hand, the European crackdown on Muslim girls' headscarves (similar cases have come up in France and Germany) seems like picking on an easy target, when the same nations allow hate-spewing Islamist preachers, like those associated with Al-Muhajiroun, to work and flourish among them, often without even the veneer of a legal immigration. I don't think a piece of cloth on a 13-year-old girl is going to be what drags down Europe in the next generation.

In fact, I suspect the fixation in parts of the West with "liberating" Muslim women everywhere from their traditional headscarves is rather blind and patronizing. Not every aspect of a culture is or ought to be exportable. In intruding into the Islamic world, we ought to be sensitive in distinguishing what is universal in Western culture (democracy and freedom, human rights) from what is relative (ways of dressing). We should stop telling Muslims how to dress, for crying out loud.

My experience, from researching 18th century Pennsylvania Quakers to seeing Catholic school girls on my street, is that clothing designed to be deliberately modest and undifferentiated will soon be fully sexualized and expressive. It's a cooperative work of the wearer and the gazer, but soon enough the nuances of how a black woollen fabric is stitched, how a pleat is folded, can convey or arouse as much desire as pink Lycra hotpants and FMPs. In fact, as in the case of the Japanese schoolgirls, the uniform itself can become a raging sexual fetish.

From what I read, this is true even in the Wahhabist paradise. Though flowers themselves are condemned (see below), human beauty finds a way to bloom. A British expat in Saudi observes, "The dress code has its uses, hiding a bad hair day in the heat or concealing a full-blown pregnancy. And never let it be said that there is no hierarchy of fashion: catch any well-to-do Saudi woman with a good figure to show off and you will notice that her abaya has a cut that is a touch more body-skimming than is usual, the cloth will be silk and embroidered and, yes, her heels will be vertiginous and her bag genuine Gucci."

Change comes gradually, and on a societal level. A few American woman reformers in the mid-19th century took to wearing loose pants -- the original "Bloomers" -- in rebellion against heavy layers of skirts. Their appearance was scandalous, and several were arrested. Eventually they gave it up because when they got up to speak about women's rights or slavery or cruelty to animals or temperance, all everyone did in the audience was stare at their legs. Conservative resistance, then as always, appealed to religion and God-ordained decency.

Some sensible modern-day American women want to know why they can't bare their breasts on public beaches or in parks. It's a good question, considering the women who wish to do this, in most of the cases I have noticed, have chests less visually startling (and less tumescent) than many legally topless men on my block. But U.S. society isn't ready for that, especially when you consider the effect on the unprepared male libido. A radical view might just say, "to hell with the men, they'll just have to get used to it." But it's not that simple. People have to live with one another in peace or we're not a community.

A constant, unspoken negotiation between genders goes on over generations in any given society. Women in the United States did eventually wear pants (millions of women entering the work-force in World War II had something to do with it) so that now pants on a girl elicit no comment. The gradual acceptance of bare navels can be measured in TV censorship from 1964 (Barbara Eden, concealed) to 1972 (Cher, revealed). Breast-baring will not come all at once, but the barrier is shifting slowly, in simpler, more easily agreed upon fronts (::rimshot::) like feeding one's infant in a car on the highway or in one's workplace.

In most things I'm for letting the Islamic world and its many cultures make its own growth and change, at its own pace. To force it to do otherwise, it seems to me, is to be little better than Al-Muhajiroun in its effort to "invite the society to leave the falsehoods that they carry" and turn them to "the only acceptable way of Life."

Fundamentalists of any religion, including the secular religion, always will be there to carry on that futile work. I'll leave them to it, up to the point where they turn to coercion.