Throughout the Middle East, many Muslim women wear burqas. It is meant to conceal the woman’s identity, and in the West tends to be seen as a cruel manifestation of a chauvinistic patriarchy, where women are repressed sexually.

Note: I didn’t say that. The West did.

Enter Ms. Bees’ anecdote. To fulfill a broad prompt for an English class, one of Ms. Bees’ students volunteered to wear a burqa for a period of time, and then to write a report about her experiences.

What makes this not your run-of-the-mill-Midwest-girl-wears-a-burqa story is because the teacher reflects on the effect the burqa has on the onlooker.

That’s when I realized that something else was going on in my brain. Maybe it was the religious feeling of the garment, or just the girl’s courage, but I was treating Lisa with an entirely new level of respect and deference.

The sociological impact of a burkha is not, apparently, limited to its native lands. It’s a hardwired response – the cause and effect are not where I thought they were. I couldn’t resist my reaction to Lisa if I’d tried.

Of course, the post laps at the resident burqs-are-a-symbol-of-a-latent-patriarchy Kool-Aid, but this excerpt brings a point of contemplation: However much burqas keep women from expressing themselves — which, perhaps, they don’t — they do, in a sense, confer an “entirely new level of respect and deference.”

Is it time for the West to stop using the burqa as a symbol of repression, or are her albeit pulled-out-of-context comments also out of line?


  1. Whoo hoo, I am famous!

    Should point out that one of the quotes you culled from my post is more out-of-context than the other. When I refer to the sociological impact of the burqa on those looking at it, I’m reflecting on several different aspects of my experience (not all of which back up your point, I’m afraid). The burqa’s ability to render a front-row student practically invisible was more powerful than the vague sense of deference it lent her.

    Still, interesting food for thought. I’ll be quite intrigued to see what your readers have to say! Hello, OTT’s readers!

  2. Kathryn

    I have a similar reaction to any “ancient” clothing–academic gowns, judicial robes, religious vestments.

    Choosing to wear a burka is different from being forced to wear one. No one is wacking this student with a stick if her foot shows under the hem. She isn’t getting hit by cars because she has no peripheral vision (I assume she takes the thing off when necessary.) No one will consider her a legitimate target for victimization if she doesn’t wear it. In fact, in our society, she may be inviting trouble by wearing it; the courage of conviction may also incite respect.

    Women choose modest clothing, including hijab, to convey any number of respectable characteristics, including faith and feminism. Hijab, in itself, is not a symbol of repression. I haven’t met any Muslim woman who would choose a burka over other types of hijab when given the choice. Maybe some would. Many feel they can be modest without hijab. The problem comes when the woman is unsafe unless she makes herself invisible, and ladies in burkas are still pretty unsafe. Pft to burkas.

  3. Ms. Bees: Oh, naturally. You made many points, and I chose to run with the one I found interesting. Food for thought, even if I am a picky eater.

    Ms. Kathryn: My larger point, I suppose, was that burqa and other hijab are all grouped by the West as being oppressive, without regard to the sociological context.

    The burqa, though I do agree should not be forced on women, can still be a legitimate personal expression of any number of positive qualities, and could, even in the eyes of prejudiced Westerners predisposed against the burqa, inspire that higher level of respect.

  4. TeacherMom

    In the Middle East, many women see veiling (as distinct from the burqa) as a political statement. Examples abound but Algeria and Turkey come to mind. However, I think there is a huge distinction between a veil and wearing a shapeless tent that is meant to negate individuality and is meant to oppress. While there are cultures in the Middle East where men veil, there are none that I am aware of where men wear a burqa. It is hard for me to see it as anything but oppressive. I feel the same about other orthodox religious practices that require women to shave their heads, wear dresses that reach the ground, etc. A veil, on the other hand, is different and should not necessarily be viewed by Westerners as oppressive.

  5. In our arrogance, not many Westerners make the distinction between veils and burqas, between the oppressive and the legitimate.

    I’m glad to have your input, indeedy.

    On a side note: One of my major pet peeves is bashing Westerners for arrogant bias, just so you know. It’s my perspective that arrogant bias — and prejudice — is more of a human trait than a cultural one. The bias at hand just happens to be one that Westerners bear.

  6. Kathryn

    Wouldn’t it be nice if men quit trying to make social/political statements with women’s bodies? The French and the Turks don’t want any girls to wear scarves. The Saudis and the Iranians want all of the girls to wear scarves. A modest proposal: leave the girls alone.

  7. It would also be nice if we could change around humanity’s hard-wiring, and then just hit the spectral reset button. Probably not going to happen.

    America’s best course of action is, probably, to lead by example. Within 50 years, sociological factors from within other countries will effect the proper change, and do so much more lastingly than America ever could do directly.

  8. Mr. Bees

    May I nitpick your pet peeve?

    I would argue that, not only does the bias at hand happen “to be one that Westerners bear” but cultural bias is more of a Western issue to begin with.

    The West is firmly in control of it’s own culture. While we are bombarded with various different images, they are ours. The food we eat is ours. The music we listen to is ours. The movies we watch are ours. Even our “ethnic” encounters have been Americanized (you think that’s what real Chinese food tastes like?) The number of movies you watched this year with subtitles could be counted on one hand (most people wouldn’t need 1 finger). On the other hand, with the wind of capitalism and Hollywood at our backs, we push our culture on others. Sometimes against their will.

    While others are exposed to our culture we are, largely, ignorant of theirs. Certainly not ALL Westerners are culturally arrogant, we could all easily name the guy we know who is truly a citizen of the world. However he is the exception, not the rule. When taken as a whole I find it difficult to argue that the West is not culturally arrogantly.

    Just my $.02.

  9. I could generalize that comment to apply it to any large, diverse country. China, for one, on the Tibetans. Sectarian conflict between the Hindi and the Muslims over the Kashmir in India. Turks and Armenians. Japanese and the relocation of the Ainu to Japan’s northern island.

    That doesn’t even get into historical conflict, or that between countries. It is the nature of cultural majorities to oppress cultural minorities, whether they mean to or not.

    I’m not saying that the West isn’t culturally arrogant. I’m saying that the West is no more culturally arrogant than any other comparable culture.

  10. TeacherMom

    One more point about burqas…the mandated wearing of them (Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, for example) is ALWAYS accompanied by sharia law that is highly disadvantageous for women. For example, the barriers for a woman to file a charge of spousal abuse are essentially insurmountable. In Saudi Arabia, there is a growing movement for women to be able to drive cars. It’s shocking how women are treated in these places and it is BY LAW. So, it is almost impossible to discuss the burqa without considering the broader status of women in these countries.

    In terms of a Western (or other) bias, John Rawls wrote about the phenomena of looking beyond one’s own perspective. He termed it the “veil of ignorance” (no relation to veiling in our discussion here!). It is impossible for ANYONE to really get beyond your own perspective. The question becomes, then, how nuanced your/our perspective is either individually or as a culture. I do believe that America does a poor job of considering other cultures. This is not necessarily out of laziness, American superiority or prejudice. I think it mainly originates from our isolated physical location. Of course, this is my own theory…but I think it has merit. If you go to Europe, you quickly see that it is IMPOSSIBLE to consider other cultures because various groups are crammed into a relatively small space together. Our geography here allows us to be more isolated. Not that we shouldn’t do more to step out from behind our veils of ignorance and learn about other cultures, but I think our education system has not done a great job of promoting that.

  11. America is isolated. We haven’t had armed conflict near our borders since the Spanish-American War, and we haven’t had a bloody war in our borders since the Civil War.

    Geography is the No. 1 isolator of peoples and cultures, and I believe your theory holds quite a bit of water.

    The United States borders exactly two countries, and isn’t too close to many others. That will continue to shape our perspective, moreso than any amount of public policy.

  12. Just thought I’d notice something: None of the male readers of my blog were interested in this at all, at least interested enough to comment.

  13. I am a male and here is my comment.

    What’s the big deal here? Who cares about what women are wearing in that backwards medieval culture when many of their men are plotting to kill all infidels (read Americans and Israelis) and some of their clerics are teaching children that Jews are devils and descend from apes and pigs?

    Americans need to stay focused on the big picture.

  14. “I do believe that America does a poor job of considering other cultures.”

    Why should we when we have the overall superior culture right here?

    When you already have the best, it’s silly to look elsewhere. Baxter’s view is what informs the current push in public schools to remodify social study curricula away from what people like ED Hirsch and Bill Bennett think is important, which is concentrate on teaching about your own country and culture primarily and then look others as a secondary or tertiary consideration.

  15. Why should we when we have the overall superior culture right here?

    Not doing so is an excellent way to make enemies. Not even America can take on the rest of the world.

  16. You can’t be friends with everyone. You also can’t live for seeking approval from others. People have to accept you on your own terms. If they can’t, that’s their problem.

    Countries in this world right now dislike us for one reason and one reason only, our unwavering support for Israel, a country that is perceived by them to be “cruel and inhumane” to those “poor suffering” Pallys who in reality fire rockets on a daily basis from Gaza toward innocent Israeli citizens.

  17. “Friends with everyone” was never my point. It serves American interests, however, to be “friends with enough.”

    People have to accept you on your own terms. If they can’t, that’s their problem.

    If the whole world is against you, then it suits yourself to re-examine your terms, though with no commitment to change them.

    Countries in this world right now dislike us for one reason and one reason only, our unwavering support for Israel, a country that is perceived by them to be “cruel and inhumane” to those “poor suffering” Pallys who in reality fire rockets on a daily basis from Gaza toward innocent Israeli citizens.

    It helps that Israel lobs rockets right back, just as often killing innocent Palestinian civilians. Don’t forget that foreign powers pushed out Palestinians from Israel and into Gaza to begin with.

    I’m all for Israel as a Jewish homeland, but both sides need to work on their negotiation skills. The stick isn’t working, so maybe it’s time to offer a carrot or two.

  18. “It helps that Israel lobs rockets right back, just as often killing innocent Palestinian civilians.”

    I see, so Israelis have no right to self-defend. They should just sit and take it so the world community can look at THEM as the victims. They should just sit and wait to die like a bunch of sheep, right?

    How sad, Baxter, that as a historian, you quickly forget the lessons learned from the Holocaust.

    Obviously, you never grew up fighting or having to defend yourself. That’s sad as well.

  19. They do have the right to self-defend. However, they have also gone on some pretty aggressive maneuvers, not the least of which was the Six-Day War.

    The lesson learned from the Holocaust is that Israel deserves to exist, but the lesson learned from the ensuing and unending conflict is that not everyone feels that way.

    It will take some time to reconcile the two, and Israel lobbing rockets at civilians — considering its history of preemptive strikes — won’t help end the situation. Israeli innocents will still die, as will Palestinian innocents.

    Israel should take to that to heart.

    As a Catholic, I have had to defend myself pretty frequently in our secular culture, if not every second of every day.

  20. “They do have the right to self-defend. However, they have also gone on some pretty aggressive maneuvers, not the least of which was the Six-Day War.”

    A person who truly interpreted hisotry correctly would never say something that foolish and ignorant

    I’d wager that you aren’t defending yourself against flying glass, stones, bricks, and mortars, for starters.

  21. What makes it foolish and ignorant? My knowledge of history is limited purely by what I’ve personally read.

    I’m no historian.

  22. “I’m no historian.”

    I’m sorry, I was under the impression that was your area of instruction.

    You have to keep in mind one thing … modern historians operate as revisionists with an agenda to rewrite history from their own hard left perspective. We know this because they have rewritten history to cast American Indians as poor victims. White colonial settlers are now cruel exploiters. Israel is the aggressor and Pallys are the victims. Everything is boiled down to a single one dimensional dynamic … those in power are evil, underclasses are pure and good.

    I cite Howard Zinn’s The People’s History of the United States as the most egregious example of this revisionism.

    This type of nonsense is what fuels hard left activism like black liberation theology as espoused by Slick Barry’s mentor Rev. Wright.

  23. I passed proficiency in American and California history, but I never took a world history course, at least since high school — my understanding of the world is limited to what I read in the paper, though I read a lot in the paper.

    The purpose of historians is to sift out how much of history actually happened and how much of it was written by the victors, eliminating bias. While there are hard-left historians, I don’t disparage the entire profession by casting all of them in that light.

    There’s a new documentary I think you might like, as it’s about the filming of “Everything is Illuminated.” After a well-meaning filmmaker hires on an Iraqi film student as an intern, that intern, rather than being pure and good, sulks around with an ego the size of New Jersey.

    The film is called, “Operation Filmmaker,” and it discusses the effects of that dichotomy between one-dimensional assessments of those in power as being evil, and those oppressed as being pure and good.

  24. The description of this film is fine, then comes along this idiotic political jab at the Bush Admin. that proves that liberals just don’t have a clue about the war, except for what they glean from the dailykos:

    “The whole film could be seen a metaphor for America’s misadventures in Iraq: Schreiber and company came in expecting flowers and sweets from a grateful native, and wound up in a quagmire.”

    if the reviewer had actually kept up on the news, he’d know that troop casualties are at their lowest rate and the number of terrorist insurgents is dwindling. We have been winning in Iraq for some time now but no lib would ever have the courtesy to admit that. Plus, the situation in the film is NOTHING like the Iraq war. The comparison is ridiculous and the reviewer is obviously a moron.

  25. The Times does an even worse job of reviewing the film, and makes even harsher comparisons to the Iraq War.

    The reviewer isn’t a moron, though: The consensus of reviewers is that the filmmaker intended to tie an explicit allegory between the War and this film.

    While the troop casualties are at their lowest rate, even Gen. Petraeus says that these gains could be turned around at a moment’s notice.

    Please don’t always assume I disagree with you. There’s a lot that you say that I agree with — it’s just that there’s also a lot a disagree with.

  26. That’s fine, whatever it means to you is OK with me. I’ll just respond accordingly.

    The reviewer Tobias is suggesting there’s an allegory that in actuality does not exist.

    It’s just another means for a lib moron to make a political statement in whatever context they can find. It’s like Al Gore using every weather anomaly to justify his junk science theories.

    I can see through all that. My liberal BS meter is finely tuned.

  27. I read a lot of other reviews of the movie, so that’s why I say it was the filmmaker’s intent. I haven’t seen this film yet, so I can’t say for myself.

    When I see it, I’ll let you know.




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