The view from behind the veil

turkey12 enlargeI spent most of today walking around in Istanbul, or riding a bus from one part of the city to another. It is impossible to do this without thinking about Islam, secularism, modernity and the paradoxes of this tense nation.

This leads, of course, to meditations on the meaning of the various forms of head coverings chosen, or rejected, by Muslim women.

There is no way around this. There is no way for a journalist to avoid this issue here.

Washington Post op-ed columnist Michael Gerson — yes, that Gerson — is attending the same conference here in Istanbul that I am and he used some gripping language on this subject in the piece that he filed from here a day or so ago. Check this out for a strong metaphor:

ISTANBUL – Here in Turkey, the matter of headgear is taken seriously. An edict in 1925 forbade the wearing of the fez, causing millions of Turkish men to don bowlers, which were seen as more Western and secular. In 1982, the government of Turkey banned the wearing of headscarves by women in university classrooms — a symbolic statement that Turkey would not be taking the route of the Iranian revolution across the border, which mandated the veil. But colorful headscarves are common on the streets here, worn in piety and protest. And the resulting headscarf debate is the Turkish equivalent of the American abortion controversy — heated, culturally defining, admitting no compromise.

I am not sure I would go quite that far. But it is certainly true that this topic seems to come up every time that you talk to a moderate Muslim in Istanbul, whether they live here or are just visiting. The topic is in the air and everyone knows that it is a symbolic issue that stands for larger questions looming in the background.

Secularists care about it. Devout Muslims care about it. Political “secularists” who are also devout Muslims care about it.

To step into this subject even deeper, check out an edgy first-person piece in the Los Angeles Times by reporter Megan K. Stack titled “In Saudi Arabia, a view from behind the veil.” Here is the we-warned-you subtitle: “As a woman in the male-dominated kingdom, Times reporter Megan Stack quietly fumed beneath her abaya. Even beyond its borders, her experience taints her perception of the sexes.” So there.

Obviously, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, is not Istanbul, Turkey.

VeilsMcDonaldsStill there are sections of this story that show — from behind this Western set of eyes — why this is such a hot-button subject. Here, she talks about her arrival a few years ago:

I was ready to cope, or so I thought. I arrived with a protective smirk in tow, planning to thicken the walls around myself. I’d report a few stories, and go home. I had no inkling that Saudi Arabia, the experience of being a woman there, would stick to me, follow me home on the plane and shadow me through my days, tainting the way I perceived men and women everywhere.

I’m leaving the Middle East now, closing up years spent covering the fighting and fallout that have swept the region since Sept. 11. Of all the strange, scary and joyful experiences of the past years, my time covering Saudi Arabia remains among the most jarring.

I spent my days in Saudi Arabia struggling unhappily between a lifetime of being taught to respect foreign cultures and the realization that this culture judged me a lesser being. I tried to draw parallels: If I went to South Africa during apartheid, would I feel compelled to be polite?

Ah, so some cultural values are right and some are wrong? Is that a moral absolute? Does this doctrine apply to other moral, cultural and religious beliefs, in America or abroad?

Read this Times piece and let me know what you think. This issue will come to America, as it has to Great Britain and France. You know that.

How will the press cope? Will multiculturalism apply to this issue and others that grow out of it?

Print Friendly

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry

    Ah, so some cultural values are right and some are wrong? Is that a moral absolute? Does this doctrine apply to other moral, cultural and religious beliefs, in America or abroad?

    Clearly that’s a rhetorical question or should be. To take it to the extreme, would anyone accept cannibalism because that was the cultural value of a group? So the question is always how far do you go.

    We’ve already faced that issue here multiple times from Muslim cab drivers carrying passengers with alcohol, Christians pharmacists refusing to accept prescriptions, doctors refusing to perform abortions, Amish and triangles on buggies, Mormon marriage customs, Native American tribes and hallucinogens, Christian Scientists and medical care and so forth. I’m sure other readers can come up with many more examples.

    There are no obvious or easy answers to every situation but there are some basic principles that the US has imperfectly implemented. Key is that all are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This means that people should be free to live the way they want unless that significantly impinges on the rights of others or public safety or strays too far from a societal consensus.

    So if a Muslim woman chooses to wear a head-scarf, it’s her right. If she chooses to wear a garment that blocks her face, she gives up the right to a driver’s license. Such things as this and many others are messy, but life is messy.

    We can’t impose our moral and ethical beliefs on others but I really wish we’d stop throwing our morals into the toilet for fleeting financial or geopolitical gain. I’m sure I’m not the only one who remembers the Bible’s quote of gaining the world and loosing one’s soul. I believe that applies to nations as well as people.

  • Irenaeus

    I am not sure that I would go quite that far. re: the veil issue raising the same passions there as abortion here in the US.

    I think it just might raise the same level of passions, because veils, scarves and burkas are public things. You wear them or you don’t, and if you do, how you wear what you wear says something. By contrast, a person can have an abortion in this country with nobody really knowing, and people who don’t have abortions (like the male gender and most women) can simply ignore it, for the most part. It can be a very private thing and altogether ignored if one is not an activist and pays little attention to politics.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Considering things Islamic–where is the MSM’s coverage of the slaughter just the other day of a Chaldean Catholic priest and three Chaldean Catholic deacons in Mosul. I think I saw a one or two sentence story buried in one newspaper. The slaughter of Christians in Islamic lands is virtually constant but gets virtually no coverage in this country or coverage so minor only those in the Catholic and Christian blogosphere even know these horrors happen on almost a regular basis.
    The priest had just finished celebrating Mass and was leaving the church with 3 parish deacons and one deacon’s wife. They were quickly stopped by gunmen who ordered the woman out of the car, then riddled the 4 Catholic clergy with bullets.

  • Kelly Schreiman

    Hey Megan, Just a thought….. Stop complaining about countries that you know have a social policy that you dont agree with! If you dont agree with countries social policies such as Saudi Arabia — DONT GO THERE!! Stop writing articles about ooooooh those terrible Muslims who are so behind the times and segregate the sexes..
    They have a totally different system than we Americans enjoy and its not up to you to make judgements on other countries like Saudi Arabia…
    Whats next? Going to the Vatican and complaining about how Catholics are against abortion and gays in the priesthood??? Most of the Muslim women that are living in a society such as Saudi Arabia or Iran with a social system that segregates women and men are happy to do so..They wouldnt have it any other way. I am Jewish and have lived in a strict Jewish community and I am telling you that these women ENJOY this.. In the modesty and segregation, one finds FREEDOM.. Yes, freedom in a way that most secular non religious Americans cannot and will never understand.. What is wrong with that? Respect their religion and their social laws…

  • Jennifer Emick

    Great, Kelly. I suppose you felt the same way about Apartheid?

    If a culture if screwing over any part of its population, we have every right to pass judgement. I simply do not understand why we’re so tolerant within our own borders but faint and weep at the thought of expecting tolerance in return? I don’t care if women anywhere want to veil up and lurk behind curtains- it’s their business. But the minute any of them force me or anyone else who doesn’t want to, or tell one person they can’t do what another one can, that’s where “social laws” become pure and simple oppression.

    The reporter had as much right to be offended as a woman as she would have as a black visitor to South Africa in 1987. The mistake we’re making now that we didn’t make then- then, we called bullshit on the people doing it and the public scrutiny brought change. Now, we bend over backwards to show how much we “respect” a culture that shows no respect for half of its own population.

    As for the women who “enjoy” forced segregation, tell that to the Jewish women who get beat up for refusing to sit of the back of a bus in Jerusalem..I’m sure they’re THRILLED.

  • carpetblogger

    The slaughter of Christians in Islamic lands is virtually constant but gets virtually no coverage in this country or coverage so minor only those in the Catholic and Christian blogosphere even know these horrors happen on almost a regular basis.

    Ooooh, boy. I just walked home from work today in Istanbul and stepped over literally dozens of Christian bodies. Whenever will this carnage be reported? Stop this madness!

    It’s not getting reported because it’s not happening. It happens occasionally. And if you’re prosletyzing in a Muslim country — or anywhere — you’re asking for trouble. Respect their religion and their social laws.

  • Ellen



    Christians were in Islamic lands long before Muslims were. Their presence is not new. The Chaldean Catholics who were killed and the Christians in Iraq who are being persecuted and slowly driven out of the country are members of an ancient faith which far predates Islam.

  • Sarah Webber

    Somehow, Megan’s comments struck me all the way to my soul. This was how I felt at our previous church, constantly feeling the pressure that I was a second class citizen. Why would I want to read Scripture from the pulpit? My husband can read it for me. This is how I often feel when people ask me where I work: I am at home with our two small children (3 & 1/2 and 7 months). Perhaps it’s that as I grew up I was taught to expect to be treated as an equal (not the same, but of the same value) and so I find inequalities like those experienced by Saudi women to be absolutely intolerable.
    Americans realized that “separate but equal” is completely oxymoronic decades ago. I do not believe it works in other geographic locations when it didn’t work here. Human beings are the same broken creatures the world over, regardless of culture or nationality, and in our brokenness, we create hierarchies of power. It happens everywhere, but that never makes it right.

  • MT

    Hey carpetbagger,

    Why don’t you walk around Fener and ask where all the Greeks (Orthodox Christians) are? Or, stop by the Orthodox church in Ortakoy to see all the Christians worship on Sunday morning, etc. And, Turkey is relatively tolerant!

  • tioedong

    Laws that forbade tribal costume and replaced it with total coverage are new.

    And wonder if she noticed the millions of foreigners who run the place? Like women, they lack civil rights…a million Catholics, and the neartest church is Dubai…

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    A media survey group just reported that NO major MSM outlet ran an article on the slaughter of the Catholic clergy in Iraq, or of the kidnapping of a Chaldean Catholic priest, or of the Moslem invasion and takeover of a Chaldean Catholic Church. Also unreported is that Moslem terrorists are
    going around demanding that Catholic Christians in some areas of Iraq pay the Jizra tax that non-Moslems are supposed to pay as protection money and as a mark of their subservient status according to the Koran.
    The MSM is blind and useless when it comes to honest reporting about the horrors non-Moslems have to endure in majority Moslem countries. It goes against the fraudulent media and secular template that says Islam is a “religion of peace” and that all religions today are basically the same.

  • Maureen

    Exactly. Traditional regional and tribal female dress is slowly being stamped out across the whole of the Muslim sphere, both by oppressive laws and sheer terror by outsider radicals.

    Go to an old National Geographic issue, or look at old books on fashions of the world. A hundred years ago, Muslim women in most parts of the world were free to wear all sorts of finery outside the home, and to show their faces. Many even wore outfits that exposed plenty of hair, just as Christian women of the time did when “covering their heads”.

    It’s the Wahhabists and the jihadists who are imposing this — the same people whose theology rejects all kinds of music, art, and simple joy in life. The prejudices caused by Arab hostility toward non-Arab culture, and their love of forcing non-Muslim women to dress to be oppressed, is just a lagniappe.

  • Maureen

    Re: Megan Stack

    It’s good to see (with all the guff folks like Ayaan Hirsi Ali get) that there are still real feminists in the world, concerned with real oppression, frustrated by and unable to compromise with all that stupid evil. I am thankful for Stack’s article.

  • Nijma

    Nobody seems to be getting it. Arab women cover because they are afraid of the men. All the rhetoric about “modesty” and “freedom” and “happiness” misses the point that being invisible is one of the few defenses Arab women have against sexual harrassment and sexual assault. Where are the laws protecting women against rape? It’s more likely that an Arab woman who reports a rape will herself be killed for being unable to carry the family “honor”. No one will dare to go after her attacker because killing a man would trigger revenge killings from his family.

    Someone should be asking how many Sri Lankan domestics show up at the Sri Lankan embassies in Arab countries every day asking to be repatriated, what percentage of domestics in Arab countires are sexually assaulted, and why Arab women don’t work as nannies and domestics in their own countries. Someone should also ask about desperation of the foreign domestics who keep their mouths shut and stay in spite of what they have to go through every day, just for the chance to send money home to their children and families.

    What a tourist protected by an American passport experiences in one of these countries is just the tip of the iceberg compared to what the third world women experience.