I’ve written before about religion’s harm to women, but today I’d like to focus on a more specific example, the face-covering veils and shrouds that are often imposed on women in fundamentalist sects of Islam. These garments oppress women and are an affront to human dignity. By design, they are dehumanizing and degrading, and remain so even if the woman freely chooses them for herself.
If there is anything that defines human beings as a species, anything we do that differentiates us from other animals, it is communication. Other animals use sounds to convey meanings, such as the alarm calls of monkeys or the mating songs of birds, but human communication is unique in that it is not limited to conveying information about the immediate, present circumstances. Instead, we can discuss how we’re feeling and what we desire; we can describe and compare possible futures; and we can talk about our talking, in potentially endless self-referential loops of recursion.
But the full act of communication encompasses far more than just assembling strings of words. On the contrary, a person’s facial expressions, their body language, and the tones of their voice convey a huge amount of contextual information, tacit meaning and emotional significance that would be very difficult to express verbally. This non-verbal interaction is what gives warmth and genuineness to human interaction, and more than anything else, it gives assurance that we are communicating with a fellow person who sympathizes with us and feels what we feel.
The face-covering garments common in Islam deny their wearers this means of interacting with the world. Both the burqa, which covers the woman’s entire face except for a mesh grille over the eyes, and the niqab, the somewhat less severe face-covering veil that leaves the eyes exposed, have this in common. They rob social interaction of the facial cues and body language that are so fundamental a part of human communication, and therefore they are dehumanizing in its most literal sense, even if the woman voluntarily chooses them for herself. Their purpose is to make women invisible, inaccessible, and less than fully human – especially when combined, as they often are, with the tyrannical rules in Muslim theocracies that prevent women from going out in public unaccompanied or speaking to men who are not relatives.
Being able to see the other person’s face is not an absolute prerequisite for communication. Other media, such as telephones or instant messaging, also deny people this added context. But these limitations are inherent in the medium, not freely chosen by its users. And whatever their virtues, no one I know would claim that telephone conversations or the Internet are substitutes for human contact.
I will grant that the hijab, since it does not cover the face, does not have the same degrading effect. But its claimed good effect – allowing women to be appreciated for their personality and intelligence, and not just as sex objects – is unlikely to succeed. Women covering more of their bodies is not likely to lessen men’s desire. If anything, it makes ordinary interaction more sexually charged by expanding the zone of what is forbidden.
I can testify to this personally. During our junior year in college, my girlfriend shared an apartment with several other women, one of whom was a conservative Muslim who habitually wore a headscarf. Entering the apartment on one occasion, I caught a glimpse of her in the living room, without her headscarf. There was nothing unusual about her hair: it was long, flowing and black, perfectly ordinary, just like the hair of women I pass every day on the street without being in any way aroused or disturbed by the sight. But when she noticed I was there, she dashed into her room to hide, and I felt a hot bolt of embarrassment and guilt – as if I had accidentally glimpsed her topless.
Trying to lessen people’s interest in something by hiding it away, whether by headscarf, veil or burqa, will never work, and anyone who understood human psychology would know not to try such a thing in the first place. Not only does this not work, it cruelly and pointlessly punishes women by shutting them out from the world of interaction with others for something – their appearance – that is in no way within their control. I’ve always said that if it’s men’s sexual desires are the problem, then rather than Muslim women having to veil themselves, Muslim men should have to blindfold themselves, and have the women lead them around.