The Personalist Project

I think that not even the most literal interpretation of the Koran’s dressing codes for women, wearing burqas, ought to be outlawed in the West, let alone Muslim women covering of heads by normal veils (which are equally outlawed in many Western countries). It seems to me that any observance of a religious tradition that is not in any way in itself evil, or criminal, or offensive, ought to be permitted by the law and never be banished or outlawed, which does not exclude to persecute domestic crimes even if justified in the shariah.
Not only is there a sacred right to the freedom of religion and to the freedom of conscience to obey one’s positive religious mandates as long as they do not entail crimes or oppression bordering on crime (which wearing the nice burqa that underlines the mystery of the woman’s body, certainly does not). One may remind oneself that also Saint Paul demanded that women cover their heads in Church as sign of their submission to their husbands and of their respect for the angels. Should it be outlawed that women wear veils in our Churches (which is still being done in some places)?
The comparison with religious habits of nuns is not that far-fetched. There is a Catholic nun’s order of the “slaves of Christ” in Spain, and some other Eucharistic feminine orders, who wear almost the same veils that completely cover their faces. Should this be outlawed?
Moreover, in general the outlawing of any dresses that do not offend public morality is an assault against freedom, even if these dresses have nothing to do with religion.
Besides, to want to forbid pious Muslim or Hindu women (in the name of fighting oppression!) to wear veils or other dresses that correspond to their beliefs, while we do nothing to solve first our problems with women’s dresses, as an extremely witty Muslim Professor remarked when called to speak out in the veil-processes in England, seems doubly wrong.
There is another reason against this. It seems in general quite wrong to support any kind of pressure (as in Mexico for decades in regard to the Catholic priests and nuns and now increasingly in the West) that demands that nobody may wear in public places or private schools symbols of their religion.
Moreover, it is ludicrous, grotesque and utterly hypocritical that in Germany, France, England, or the USA, Muslim women should be forced to take off their veils against their conscience, while our women may wear the most offensive and unbelievably impure dresses in public, indulge in the most shocking public seduction, for example as naked prostitutes on TV commercials giving their phone numbers and “prices,” pose in offensive nakedness in Playboy and other magazines, without being outlawed!
Finally, a country that forbids burqas but “legalizes” the murder of one’s own children is in my opinion absolutely cynical and grotesque!

Comments (7)

Katie van Schaijik

#1, Jun 23, 2009 5:28am

I should have made clear when I raised the question that I was not speaking of head coverings (perhaps burqa is not the correct term) but rather of the full, face-covering garment mandated by religious authorities in some Islamic societies and sects.

Would you agree that those are an instrument of oppression?

If women wear them not out of religious devotion, but out of fear of punishment by the men in whose hands and at whose mercy they live their lives, is not the question more complicated than you indicate here?

Finally, I deny that there is any genuine respect for the mystery of the feminine body in those portable prisons.

Josef Seifert

#2, Jun 23, 2009 8:12am

I understood what you meant by burqas since you had pictures of them. These are those feminine dresses that most literally correspond to the dress code of the Koran; there are two other forms, one that is more a veil for the head (which they forbade the Muslim schoolteacher in Germany to wear for school), another “middle one” leaves part of the face free.
Now, as I am not a Moslem, I do not think that God ordered women to dress this way through the prophet neither do I think that the Koran (in spite of the beautiful praise of Mary as the virgin mother of Jesus, Sura Maria, 19?, on which one of my Muslim students wrote a beautiful poem) implies a similarly deep appreciation of the dignity of women as the Jewish and most of all the Christian religion. Nevertheless I think that calling these dresses “a means of oppression” is incorrect and sounds Marxist or wildly feminist. They are similar to the beautiful Hindu dresses and almost identical to those of the Catholic order of the “slaves of Christ”. It seems to me that you are full of negative and generalizing judgments (about the Islam, Islamic men, the reasons why women wear certain dresses), for the truth of which there is no evidence and which contradict many experiences. Quite apart from the profound respect for the unborn, which made respresentatives of Islamic countries the best allies to the Vatican and to some of our pro life students in Cairo, there is also a lot of other values that are upheld more in Islamic countries than in the US or Europe. Attributing to the Islam quite generally an utterly negative and oppressive sort of slaveholder-attitude towards women is wrong. There are very different Muslims, good and evil ones (I have rarely seen a more respectful attitude towards women than in my young male Moslem friend and assistant in Liechtenstein).
Moreover, your analysis of the reasons why women wear the burqas seems quite apodictic and judgmental, and in this general form quite certainly incorrect (even though no doubt applicable in some, possibly in many, cases). How do you want to know whether many women do not wear these dresses out of a sense of religious devotion but only “out of fear of punishment…” from their husbands?  The German teachers whose veils the Bavarians outlawed were not even married. How do you know that in Islamic families there is more “domestic violence” than in an average of other families in the secular US, where countless women and children are mistreated?
Finally, I find in general both the Hindu dresses and the Muslim dresses of women - at least if we prescind from a totally veiled face and take the two other kinds of more “normal” Muslim dresses, but even if we include the burqas - aesthetically much more beautiful and feminine, not only as the countless indecent dresses of Western women, but also as the barbarian blue jeans and other ways in which women dress in the West. Just read Christopher Dawson on blue jeans and you will understand what I mean.
Therefore I cannot agree with your claim that there is not “any genuine respect for the mystery of the feminine body” in these dresses, which you like to call “portable prisons”  (which seems to be a disrespectful and insulting name for the traditional dresses prescribed by another religion and for which, I dare say, you ought to apologize to Islamic readers of your Linde-homepage).
Kind regards,


Katie van Schaijik

#3, Jun 23, 2009 8:39am

Josef, I do not speak of every individual or communal case.  That would be impossible.  (Note that I made my point conditional: “IF women wear them not out of devotion but out of fear…”)  But I have read many books of by women whose experience corresponds to what I say and who testify not just for themselves but for whole societies.  For instance, “Reading Lolita in Tehran,” “The Caged Virgin,” “The Torn Veil,” “Infidel,” “Not Without My Daughter,” “Inside the Kingdom,” and others. 

I see no similarity with the Hindu dress, which adorns rather than hides the feminine figure and which draws attention to the face and individuality of each woman. Nor is it comparable to a religious habit, inasmuch as it is required for all women because they are women, not freely chosen as a particular vocation.  (I don’t here assert that no women choose it freely, but rather that as a matter of fact in some Islamic societies and among certain Islamic sects, it is imposed by religious and political and domestic authorities, regardless of a woman’s desire and on pain of beatings and even death if she refuses to conform.)

As for aesthetics, I agree with you when it comes to the traditional Hindu dress, which I find particularly lovely and the dress of western women (me included!) comparatively wretched—unbeautiful, unfeminine, undignified.

But I cannot find black tent-like robes that hide the face and form of a woman aesthetically pleasing and I’m surprised that you can.  To me, it is ugly—especially because I can’t help associating with all the wrong to women I perceive in Islam. 

I want to add, though, to balance the harshness of my judgments a little, that the Iranian movie “Colors of Paradise” is an enviably beautiful depiction of what is good in Muslim societies.  I understood much better after I saw it how they must experience the aggressions of western cultural invasions.  The modesty of two little girls and the feminine strength of a grandmother are especially moving and admirable.  I’d be hard pressed to find examples of feminine moral beauty to compare in contemporary American movies.

Bill Drennen

#4, Jun 23, 2009 11:00am

I have 2 points, one in favor of Katie and one scored in Josef’s column (I’m keeping score).

1. I think Katie has a valid criticism regarding the inherent value or lack thereof of a religious requirement for women to cover their faces. This does seem to be an obvious violation of the dignity of the person and also suffers from a severe lacking of the enlightened Christian view of female beauty ect. Now if a religious group wants to hide their face and women voluntarily join then we can not judge and should defend their right to do so but what about being forced?

2. I agree with Josef that freedom of religious expression must be protected and the state can not infringe upon it.

What about the difficult question of children being forced to wear them at home or in church? We would not allow a more serious violation of human rights in church what about this one? Perhaps you can say that an adult woman has a choice in this country to join or enter that church. More difficult question is regarding the youth at home. Here I guess we need to balance the limit of the state to interfere with parental authority vs. the interest of the state to protect against abuse. Can this be similar to the gray area of spanking? The parent has some leeway to judge and the child less rights until they become an adult. While I defend a parentÔøΩs right for the appropriate use of corporal punishment and detest the interference of the state, I detest even more the abuse of that parental authority and applaud the state stepping in at some point. I would not want the state to interfere with me if I imposed a requirement on my daughters to wear head coverings at home but what if I required them to cover their faces?

Katie and Josef, what do you think? I’m not sure.

Katie van Schaijik

#5, Jun 23, 2009 11:46am

That one seems less challenging to me.  Minors living at home are under their parents’ authority.  Nor have I heard of Muslim girls being required to cover their faces at home.  I WOULD, however, favor laws against such practices as the genital mutilation of girls; underage marriage, and forced marriages, not to mention “honor killings”.

Josef Seifert

#6, Jun 23, 2009 10:04pm

My goodness - burqas
Goodness gracious! What did I get myself into with what I thought to be a defense of Muslim women and families against state interference! Now I appear to promote their oppression and to discuss for the rest of my few more years on earth their dress. One can’t be careful enough discussing women’s clothing,
Well, there is no way out any more. Be it then:

First I apologize to Katie that I sloppily overread her “if” and misrepresented her as if she claimed that all Muslim women veil their faces out of fear not to be physically mistreated and beaten up. Sorry! I should have known better and a priori - knowing your fine mind! This “if” refutes three quarters of what I wrote.

As to the aesthetic comparison between Hindu and Muslim women clothing, I must admit that I too find it much more beautiful to see the almost always beautiful faces of the Hindu women together with their beautiful colorful dresses than to see their faces completely covered.
Now as to the inherent aesthetic aspects of burqas and the question whether they per se entail acts of oppression:
I must admit that I find also the burqas beautiful and mysterious and in some sense poetic like the Arabian nights stories (the most beautiful and least indecent ones of which also show a very profound appreciation of women, of their femininity and high dignity - almost worshipped by men - and of the love between man and woman in Islamic culture). I recommend you to see the Bollywood movie “Ver and Sarah”?, which gives a wonderful portrait of two Moslem women and shows the kind of recognition of their dignity and courage which I think characterizes many Islamic families (wherefore I would be a bit careful with some of the autobiographies you have been reading).
Moreover, only very few Islamic countries seem to have a lot of the burqas, maybe Jemen? I traveled in Marocco, Egypt, Syria, and Tunisia and saw only approximately one out of a hundred women wear a burqa. And the other more traditionally clad women looked very decent and aesthetically attractive to me.
While I decry with you any of the countless acts of humiliating women and failing to recognize their dignity (a unique dignity which I passionately defended in several works), I personally find it exaggerated to speak of burqas as “portable prisons”¬ù and saw many young men behave extremely respectful to their completely covered wives, more expressing a spirit of guarding them as a thing of great value and “sacredness” from the irreverent looks of men, analogously to how we used to veil the Blessed Sacrament in order not to expose it to disrespectful looks, than in a spirit of enslavement.
I do neither deny nor belittle acts of aggression against Islamic women, but do not regard the wearing of burqas as such an act of oppression even if it can be one and often reflects a deplorable lack of recognizing the equal dignity of women.
I do perhaps react so strongly because I have many dear and noble Muslim friends and among them are beautifully and decently dressed Muslim girls (that do not veil their faces), and I felt unjustifiedly (largely because I overlooked your “if”) that you insulted them as a group.
Most important of all my points is: many of those who want to force Moslem women to take off their veils do so out of an idolization of Western pseudo-civilization and forget the horrors of our own libertarian and degenerate society. Compared with the acts of “legalized”¬ù crime and oppression (that alone the abortions here and the increasing threat to the freedom of conscience constitute), I find wearing burqas (even if I wish women replace them by other decent robes) not only completely harmless but in no way intrinsically wrong, and certainly nothing that our states should hypocritically forbid (in contrast to some of the other practices you mention: forced marriages, honor killings as well as schariah laws such as to kill one’s own child if he or she become Christian etc.), where of course the state has to interfere against crimes and grave oppressions of religious freedom of this nature.
I think we agree on most points now and politely ask to be released from the heavy burden of the burqa debate.

Katie van Schaijik

#7, Jun 24, 2009 5:14am

No, no dear Josef, you shall not get off so easily with jokes about women’s clothes and flattery about my “fine mind”!  We have hardly BEGUN to discuss this question!  I still have LOTS to say to protest and to urge! 
But I jest (partly).  You, as always, are perfectly free to disengage the question. I am glad you’ve said as much as you have, and now qualified it, which helps very much in drawing the discussion out where others may take it up if they choose.  It’s the way of the Linde.

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