A Minnesotan in the Mideast: Veiling

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by Rosemary Ruffenach | July 23, 2009 • As a T.C. suburbanite, I hadn’t thought much about conservative female dress until my recent trip to Syria, Jordan and Israel. There I saw a range of conservative dress: from the ultra-conservative, Muslim full-body veil, with only slits for eyes, to the bright kerchiefs knotted tightly at the nape of the neck worn by Hasidic women. What I didn’t see were bare shoulders and cleavage—except in Western hotels. At the same time, over in France, President Sarkozy’s stated that the burqa was “not welcome”, the French National Assembly announced plans to debate the issue, and Al Qaeda threatened to “take revenge.”

Rosemary Writes – Rosemary Ruffenach is a teacher who occasionally finds time to write for the TC Daily Planet.

Of course, I believe families have the right to establish appropriate dress standards in non-public places, but the trip started me thinking about the societal effects of covering outside the home. Now, when I am among a people who see certain apparel as too revealing, I feel I should honor their beliefs. Thus, the “conservative dress” (no shorts or sleeveless tops), requested of visitors to Hasidic neighborhoods and Christian holy places seemed appropriate. When visiting a mosque in Damascus, I gladly took off my shoes and put on a hooded, full-body robe. I was unsurprised when women in shorts were denied entrance to a Greek Orthodox monastery. Nor do I react negatively to the headscarves and long coats worn by Muslem women with traditional beliefs. I only wonder how they stand the heat in hot climates, where the local temperatures sometimes top 110 F. (I had the same question in third grade about the heavy medieval dress worn by my nun teachers—and also wondered how they rode bicycles.)

In fact, I think we could do with a bit more conservative dress in the U.S. As a secondary school teacher, I get very tired of seeing the top eight inches of boxer shorts, cleavage and skimpy camisole tops in class.

Although burqas and head coverings (as well as nuns’ apparel) seem okay to me if they are freely chosen, I don’t feel that way about face veiling. Encountering a full-veiled person, I have no idea if she is fearful, happy, mad, or perhaps even crying. I cannot react to her at all and consequently pass on by. She is almost a non-person.

But, what effect does this lack of interaction have on a society’s feeling of community? At least in a democracy, that community, or mutual assistance for the common good, is essential for self-governance. Not surprisingly, in countries where full veiling is most prominent, there is little democracy as we know it. This, I think, underlies much Western uneasiness with veiling. (Of course, human rights concerns are also part of the unease.)

Not long after my initial encounters with fully-veiled women in Syria, I recalled a Hawthorne short story—“The Minister’s Black Veil.” The tale follows a Puritan minister in a small New England town who has an epiphany, after which he decides to wear a black veil over his face. Though his manner towards the townspeople changes not at all, theirs toward him does. At first his veiled appearance causes speculation—he’s in mourning, been reading too much or suffered a temporary disfigurement. One parishioner comments that it makes the minister seem “ghostlike.” But as no apparent reason behind his veil is revealed over the succeeding months and years, he becomes ever more isolated. His fiancé cancels their marriage—she must be able to see his face at least once more. The veil’s blackness casts a shroud of sadness and gloom over him, which, interestingly, turns out to be strangely attractive to the dying. A reader comes away from this ambiguous story suspecting the minister was attempting to demonstrate in a very a material way that we all are veiled to each other, all harboring secret sins.

The story’s relevance here lies in what happens when we, as a community, are unable to interact with the person before us. When we are given no clues as to who she or he is, what she or he is experiencing, we make up a narrative—often a narrative with sinister dimensions. And that can only have a detrimental effect on community.

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