Thursday, December 07, 2006


"Butterflies and Wheels" has this to say about the face-covering veil (niqab) some Muslim women wear.

Purves and the niqab again. I find I haven't quite finished with that subject - I find I didn't chew it over quite thorougly enough. I find that one small paragraph is peculiarly full of matter for contemplation. I find there is more to say.

One: she said it was 'good to have the student speaking of “ghosts”, and good to have women who had worn the niqab saying it made them feel not only more devout but more private.' But that's ridiculous. You might as well say it was good to have the student saying torture is cruel and bad, and good to have other people saying it is kind and useful. Why would that be good? On Millian grounds, because arguments are stronger if they meet opposition? But that's not what she says; she doesn't say why; she just says it was a fun evening. It seems to be merely a matter of let a thousand flowers bloom, let a thousand opinions flourish, they're all good, all interesting, all colourful. But that's saying anything. If the things people say are in tension with each other, and they relate to actions and rules and laws, sometimes a choice will have to be made, so it's not helpful to just beam fondly and say they're all lovely.

Two: she 'admitted' a moment of discomfort about encountering a woman in a niqab. Why did she 'admit' it? That means she thought she did something at least slightly wrong in feeling discomfort. But why should she think that? Why should anyone? Why should there be guilt about feeling discomfort at seeing women with no faces? What's not to feel discomfort about? Suppose we encountered someone crossing the road wearing a Tshirt slogan in huge neon letters: 'Woman is man's rib and born to serve him.' Would we feel discomfort? Would we feel guilty and apologetic about the discomfort? I doubt it. If not, should we feel guilty about niqab-discomfort? I don't think so.

Third: the biggest omission, the one that bugged me: the cheerful man's 'She can speak, you know!’ I should have noticed that. No, we don't know! Of course we don't know - how would we? She's wearing this thing over her face that makes it impossible to know, isn't she; that's the point! For all we know the lower half of her face has been sheered away and she can no more speak than she can fly. Of course we don't know. And the cheerful man is being completely ridiculous in pretending there is simply no possible reason to think a woman with a bag over her head might not react just like any other person in the street to a casaul uninvited remark from a stranger - in pretending she's just perfectly routine and familiar and ordinary and commonplace and just like everyone else except for this one tiny detail that she's dressed like Darth Vader. And in fact he's being not only ridiculous but also disingenuous, because the point of the niqab is to ward off contact and conversation, not to invite it and not even to say that it's difficult but possible - it's just plain to prevent it. Get real, cheerful man. And then of course there's the question that Purves should have asked, which is whether this mandate to say 'Good morning!' applies to men. But that would have taken her into territory that might cause 'discomfort,' so instead (apparently) she let cheerful man buffalo her into treating the revolting medieval nonsense as normal and healthy and fine. Sad.

While this custom is not as widespread in Montreal as it appears to be in London, I have noticed an increasing number of ladies walking with their faces covered. I've been wondering about the reason why I even notice it, the way I do not notice teenage girls baring their midriffs and sporting skimpy skirts and skimpier tops. What is it about my inability to see the face that creates a certain mental nudge, a silent withdrawal.

I recently dared to read some of Emmanuel Levinas's thoughts. Even though I find him too complicated a thinker for my intellectual abilities, his ideas about the Face and the "other" have helped me make some sense of my reaction to the veiled face:

A face expresses feelings, moods, inclinations, all those attributes that define one’s character and uniqueness. Human visual sense is the strongest. First, comes the impression of a human face, then comes the verbal accordance of a name. I, as I encounter another’s face, can respond to what I see in her face.

For Emmanuel Levinas, the face is place where ethics begin. In Ethics and Infinity, conversations with Philippe Nemo, he says:

There is first the very uprightness of the face, its upright exposure, without defense. The skin of the face is that which stays most naked, most destitute. It is the most naked, though with a decent nudity.... The face is meaning all by leads you beyond.

In Face to Face encounter with the other, she signals to me that she shares with me human frailties and vulnerabilities. Naked and needy, the face makes a demand upon my care, my concerns, my dependability. For Levinas, as much as I can understand him, the face-to-face encounter is the undeniability of the other’s autonomous self. To which I respond. It makes possible an exchange. When a face is covered, the encounter cannot take place. There is no recognition on any level, no flow of emotion, no transaction of good will. The cheerful man tried to offer an alternative to the visual. But his suggestion wishes to substitute the spontaneous accessibility (of the visual) with an exerted form of selective reciprocity (the audible). When you say “good morning” to a faceless stranger, It’s like a gamble: you might or might not get a reciprocal greetings. The veiled face makes relationship harder, if not impossible.

Another tangential comment re: the covered face. We see Muslim men cover their faces in Hamas and Hizzbala rallies. They are the jihadists and the purpose of covering their face is both to protect their identity and inspire unease and fear. There seems to be a tacit understanding there that the covered face creates alienation, seclusion, maybe even antagonism, and does not encourage a friendly exchange.

A woman’s veil hiding her face prevents friendly exchanges between her and others. Dooms her to an isolation, except that of her closest family. It prevents women from independently forging strong social ties with women who are outside their immediate circles, which may lead them to seek out solidarity in the agora of talking and interacting with other women. The veil, a-priori, thwarts the passage from the visual to the verbal. It thwarts free association and expression. It controls.

In my opinion, it’s all about men taking extreme measures to keep their women under strict discipline and virtual confinement. Since they cannot in good conscience forbid them to leave their homes (Taliban-style), they make them as secluded as if they were confined to the home by minimizing their opportunities for establishing any sort of spontaneous exchange outside it.


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