Friday, October 20, 2006


More about the veil

Jim raises some good points in the comments section of the other day's "Veiled intolerance" post. I have enough to say about it that I thought I'd do it as a new post, rather than as a comment to that one.

Taking things a bit out of order:

Hiding one's face is an act of distrust and isolation.
But this is a cultural thing. Hiding one's face is an act of distrust in your culture (and mine, indeed). But in Ms Azmi's culture, to show her face would be an act of disrespect, and, in fact, would be shameful.

That points out a key question: to what extent are people who join another culture expected to adapt to that culture and give up their own? The answer to that question has varied over time (and cultures). We generally try to be more tolerant of people retaining their native culture than we once were, and I think that's a good thing — it's what I'm advocating in the "Veiled intolerance" post. But it's not the only answer, and it hasn't always been that way.

There are also, clearly, limits, and the other key is deciding where the boundaries should be. Someone who came from a culture where any clothing was considered disrespectful would have to adapt to our norms, at least to the point of covering certain bits, because nudity is not something we're willing to accomodate in our culture. Jim is arguing, along that same line, that face-covering is also something we shouldn't have to accomodate. I'm arguing it the other way. The British authorities are with Jim.

This is why people take their hats off when they enter buildings — not to do so shows disrespect.
That's also cultural. I have a story....

Around ten years ago, on a visit to the United States Holocaust Museum, I walked into one of the exhibits behind a school group from the south (Georgia or Alabama, I forget which), and in front of an old-ish Jewish man who wore a yarmulke. Some of the school boys were wearing baseball caps, and as they entered the exhibit an adult brusquely told them that this was place of respect, and they should take off their caps! Which they did. The man behind me quietly observed that if they want to show respect they should all keep their heads covered. I nodded to him, and said, "Yes, but they have to show respect their way in order for it to be meaningful." He thought about that for a moment, then nodded back and said, "You're right."

Turning it around, one has to wonder what someone says with a gesture that has different meanings in their culture and yours. Are they giving you their culture's message? Or your culture's? I'm told that in Turkish culture it's rude and disrespectful to show someone the bottoms of your feet, so one never puts one's feet up in that attitude there. Here, it's an expression of comfort and casualness, but not of disrespect, and if someone puts his feet up in my house I consider it a sign that he feels comfortable enough there to set formalities aside. It's a friendly act, to me. If a Turkish man puts his feet up in my house, what does that say? In general, I'm not sure.

In the case to hand, I think Ms Azmi considers it shameful to show her face to strange men (men outside her family). That's what removing her veil would mean in her culture — that she has low morals. It's easy to say that she should just adapt to our culture... but how easy would you or I find it to adapt to that hypothetical culture that said we should walk around naked?

Perhaps I'm just reactionary, but I wouldn't be comfortable if (e.g.) my doctor had his face covered, whatever the reason.
Well, I don't think you're "reactionary" at all, no. I think you're coming from your own culture, and that's normal, of course. And, in fact, in Ms Azmi's culture her doctor wouldn't cover her face either — because her doctor would be a woman, and they would be unveiled in front of each other. But I'm sure that the doctor would have a veil ready to don when she leaves her office.

We think of airport security as a classic place where this is a problem, and it is a problem there for us because we have so few people who push this issue, so we're unprepared. But in airports in Arab countries there are separate security and waiting areas for women, where women check women with no men present, and the veils do come off. Even here, all that's needed is a visually screened area where no men are present during the search. That's not hard to provide.

[...] there's nothing in the Qu'aran that compels them. It's just an Arab interpretation of the commandment to dress modestly.
I don't think that's relevant, because it's all interpretation. There's nothing in the Bible that stopped Catholics from eating meat on Fridays, either. It was interpretation/custom, and it was changed in 1966, when Pope Paul VI limited it to the period of Lent. Many of the Jewish customs come from the Talmud, not the Bible, interpretations by rabbinical scholars. They're religious/cultural law nonetheless.

And, in fact, I'm not arguing that we should accomodate any of these customs specifically because they're religious customs. I'm arguing that we should accomodate them because they're part of the person's culture (which includes religion) — and because there's no harm to us in accomodating them.

But would the same logic apply to a teen-age boy who decided he wanted to walk around school/town/wherever with a balaclava helmet on?
If I walked into the bank or some such place with a balaclava on I'd expect to be asked to remove it; why should there be one rule for me and another for Muslim women?
I think if the teen-aged boy, or you, walked around with a balaclava and refused to take it off, citing cultural norms, we should accept that after verifying that you weren't just making that up. But you are making it up, which is a central part of the issue. Of course the folks in the bank would freak out, as people do in this video.

But that's really a straw-man argument. We can always make up scenarios where the accomodation will be unacceptable (as I did with the nudity culture, above). The point, though, is whether it serves society best to accept and accomodate real, well-known, common cultural differences.

I think it does.


The Ridger, FCD said...

I disagree with you in this case. (a) she didn't wear the niqab when she interviewed (b) she insists on wearing it in the classroom which (b1) sends a very bad message to the boys and girls and (b2) has been determined to hinder their ability to learn from her (c) even in places like Oman, where the niqab is de rigeur, student and teachers don't wear it at school and (d) where does it freaking stop?

What about the cab drivers in places like Chicago who are refusing to pick up fares with wine bottles in their luggage, or accompanied by guide dogs? Do they get to refuse to pick up women out without men next?

Barry Leiba said...

Ah, you have information I didn't have, that wasn't given in what I read about it. Will you post links to those details? I'd like to read better accounts.

(a) I suppose it's possible that she interviewed only with women, and never had to wear the veil because there were no men around. Still, that seems a stretch — it's quite unlikely that she could get through the entire process innocently without letting anyone know about her preference.

Certainly, if she actively hid this issue earlier, and brought it out only afterward, then she's being dishonest and deserves what she gets. And that might affect this particular case.

In the general case, though, I still think that it shouldn't matter, that even if she'd worn it during the interview she shouldn't be denied the job just because of it (but see b2, below).

(b1) Why does it "send a very bad message"? I'll reserve comment on this until I hear why you think so.

(b2) Here's where I'd like a reference, because I want more information on this. Has it been determined in general that teachers who wear veils are less effective teachers? Or has it been determined that Ms Azmi is not an effective teacher (or teching assistant)? If the former — if there's realy evidence supporting this — then that changes everything I've said, because then there's a reason that this is not a "reasonable accomodation". If the latter, then it's just an issue that Ms Azmi is not doing a good job, and she should be sacked for that... but not for wearing the veil. That's an important distinction.

(c) As I said in references to doctors and airports: the deal here is that in places where this is common, they have things set up to separate the women from the men, creating environments where the veil is unnecessary. So this just points out that in our society, where it's rare, we're not equipped to deal with it.

I'm not sure what the best answer for that is, but I come back to "reasonable accomodation". If we can show why the accomodation isn't reaosnable, then I'll agree that we shouldn't make it. Otherwise, we should do our best.

(d) It stops with "reasonable accomodation". As I said in the comments to Paul's post about the cab drivers, people performing a standard, regulated service have to abide by the regulations, and if they're not willing to then maybe they're in the wrong jobs. Barring regulations or anti-discrimination laws, they can do what they want and let the market decide.


1. Cabbie won't take passemgers carrying sealed bottles of alcohol: Hack regulations require them to do so; sorry.

2. Cabbie won't take solo women, because he isn't allowed to be alone with a woman: Hack regulations and anti-discrimination laws say "no" to this; sorry.

3. Cabbie is Sikh and wears a turban, gets few fares and many complaints because dumb-butt customers are prejudiced, boss fires him: Boss has numbers to back it up — he brings in half of what the next worst cabbie brings in. Have to let him go. That sucks; sigh.

4. Cabbie is Sikh and wears a turban, gets few fares but is self-employed: His choice, and the market is speaking. The market is being stupid, of course, but that's the way the market is. In any case, he can do what he wants here.

The Ridger, FCD said...,,1922394,00.html and

Apparently I read some incorrect info - she will unveil in front of male students but not male teachers. (That bit about being "caught unaware" by a male interviewer sounds like a rewrite of history to me - how come she didn't have a niqab with her when she left for the interview?)

As for the "bad message" - she's implicitly telling the boy pupils that they can't be trusted around women when they grow up, and that women should hide from them unless they're wanton; and the girls that they are something men shouldn't have to see; and both of them that women are less than men. I don't care if that's the message she thinks she's sending; it's the message they'll get unless she spends time preaching to them. Which she shouldn't do in the first place and won't be allowed to do in an Anglican faith school (and don't get me started on that bad idea, faith schools at all, I mean).

Oman doesn't have segregated classrooms. They just don't have women in niqabs in schools.

Now, as to her effectiveness, you can go to the Independent and pay for the articles if you want, but as I remember them, they didn't get much beyond the they said-she said stage. But apparently the court was convinced; they awarded her 1000 pounds because she wasn't fired according to the procedures, but she doesn't get her job back.