Friday, August 25, 2006

Burqas, Hijabs And Sheitlach

Most secular people who live normal American lives are shocked when they see Gulf Arab women dressed in burqas , the black garment covering the face and body. Many years ago in Vienna I saw a column of these burqa women walking silently one behind the other. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I was shocked one more time when I read a study released by the Gallup Organization. Here are some quotes:

Muslim women do not think they are conditioned to accept second-class status or view themselves as oppressed.

When asked what they resented most about their own societies, the hijab, or head scarf, and burqa, were never mentioned in the women's answers.

A majority of the respondents did not think adopting Western values would help the Muslim world's political and economic progress.

The most frequent response to the question, "What do you admire least about the West?" was the general perception of moral decay, promiscuity and pornography.

An overwhelming majority of the women polled in each country cited "attachment to moral and spiritual values" or religious beliefs as the best aspect of their own societies.

Western perceptions have generally cast Arab women as victims. Women's empowerment has been identified as a key goal of U.S. policy in the region. All this interest in Muslim women's rights has been without much empirical information on "what Muslim women want." It turns out they say they want to be treated pretty much in the way Muslim women are treated. (They didn’t ask anyone’s opinion of the common Muslim practice of blaming the victims of rape. No women can be so foolish as to agree with that barbaric custom.)

The study raises interesting philosophical issues concerning paternalism. Is it right to liberate someone who doesn’t want to be liberated? Is it permissible? In general I think the answer is no. For example, I think it is wrong to explain the academic studies of the Bible to people who have never heard of these studies, and would be shocked to hear the various hypotheses. One has to be very gentle and discerning in such cases, even if one believes some of these academic studies are correct and the believer is living in la-la land.

Even though I am in general opposed to paternalism in religious matters I am very proud of President Bush for raising the issue of women’s rights in Afghanistan under the Taliban. A lot of people questioned his sincerity. Bush is not the sort of President we associate with feminist issues. Women were deliberately included from the start in the Karzai government. Afghanis must have been rubbing their eyes in disbelief when the names of these ministers were announced. A year after the Islamist’s defeat, three million children, many of them girls, were enrolled in school for the first time.

A liberal reformation of Islam will be marked by at least two features: the empowerment of women in the Muslim world and the willingness of Muslims to exercise their freedom of conscience. If there was a way to help the women move on towards modernity, they might act as a moderating influence on their more primitive husbands. So far, no one has found a way to split the sexes in the Muslim world. One way might be the radio stations we and the BBC transmit into Arab and Muslim countries should include specific programs aimed at empowering women.

I think charedi life carries some insights on this topic even though it offers no practical lessons. Consider the case of sheitlach (wigs). Many Orthodox women cover their hair, and many of the women who do cover their hair, do so by wearing a wig. To the best of my knowledge women who cover their hair are comfortable and satisfied with this arrangement.

The original impulse for this rule, I would imagine, is the same as for the hijab. It’s an attempt to guarantee the chastity of the women, while the men are given a bit more latitude to roam (e.g. polygamy, but never polyandry). It is part of the honor of a man that his wife is chaste, and in order to guarantee such chastity society must enforce modesty, especially in the dress code. Along comes the modern world and Jewish women want to look good and go out into society, while at the same time, maintaining in some way or other the traditions of our past. What is such a woman to do? We all know the answer; it is to find wigmakers who are capable of creating wigs that look as good as one’s own hair and sometimes even better. Everyone is more or less happy. The women look good, the rabbis can’t complain too much since the women’s hair is covered (by more hair), and, more or less, the original impulse for chastity remains in place. A woman wearing a sheitl, almost always has high standards of virtue and commitment to family life. To a larger extent, this sort of creativity is totally missing in Islam. They are dullards, strict non-creative, almost Karaite in their legal rulings. If there were only some way to show their jurists how to keep their values while moving into the modern world, much would be accomplished. Maybe we ought to invite the Chief Legal brouhaha of Saudi Arabia to the next rabbinical convention.

I was pleased to read in an interview with the Chief Rabbi of Haifa, Rabbi Shear-Yishuv Cohen where he expresses a similar thought in a more serious way . The interview, sadly only Hebrew, is worth reading just for the biographical material about his father, the mysterious Harav Hanazir, one of the more enigmatic personalities in the circle around Rav Kook. Rabbi Cohen says "I believe that we find ourselves in messianic times, so that the children of all the Abrahamic faiths , that is to say Islam and Christianity …will accept the instruction of the people of Israel to teach them the pure faith." Before we dismiss the idea as a pipedream we should remember that the Nazir predicted the holocaust way before it ever happened. In any event in troubled times like ours it is a consoling fantasy.


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