Veils

[Exchange with Mark, on a train in Holland]

We were settling in our seats when a vision of loveliness floated by us in airy layers of black and brown chiffon. I immediately understood the Arabian Nights tales where our hero nearly dies of lovesickness after glimpsing the beautiful princess. How do you know a woman is beautiful enough to develop an adolescent crush on if she is draped in loose clothing that only reveals her eyes? Well, you do.

Mark started to become visibly agitated. I asked him what was wrong and we had the following conversation.

Mark: My friend would be very upset if she saw that.
Alison: What?
Mark: A woman veiled like that.
Alison: Oh. Why would your friend be so upset?
Mark: She would say the woman was oppressed.
Alison: She’s a young woman travelling alone. I’d say that’s a pretty good sign of emancipation in any culture.
Mark: She was married young.
Alison: Who is she? What’s her social background?
Mark: Oh, her husband’s a factory worker or something.
Alison: I don’t think so. She’s extremely stylishly dressed. I don’t think factory workers’ wives swathe themselves in silk to take the train.
Mark: Well anyway, she’s isolated and not integrated. She can’t read. She doesn’t even speak Dutch.
Alison: [Craning to get another look at the woman, now seated a few rows down] She’s reading a book.

Hm. What a veil can hide and reveal are not necessarily what you’d expect.

*** *** ***
[Exchange with a Greek-born taxi driver in Mississauga]

Taxi driver: Immigrants have more rights than Canadians these days. It’s not right.
Alison: You weren’t born in Canada. Do you think you have more rights than I do?
Taxi driver: No, but I’m old school. In my day immigrants came to Canada and adapted. Immigrants these days go too far. Just look at the problems muslims are causing with their veils.
Alison: A veil is a declaration of faith. I see a cross hanging from your rear-view mirror.
Taxi driver: They take it too far. In Quebec they were having all that trouble because the women wouldn’t take off their veils to vote. They had to make a law.
Alison: Well, I’m from Quebec and I can tell you that when I go to vote nobody asks to see my ID. All they want to know is my address. If they don’t need to see my face, then they don’t need to see my muslim neighbour’s face either. It should be the same for everyone.
Taxi driver: That’s right! The same here in Toronto! They just look at my address. No ID. It should be the same for everyone! You’re a really nice person, do you know that?

Taxi driver: You’re such a nice person.

Taxi driver: Well have a good trip home! You’re so nice, I wish you have a really good trip.

I’m trying to imagine what it must be like to have a job where you work for tips by deprecating a group you belong to. It reminds me a little of a scene in Black Like Me where the author witnesses an elevator conductor charging passengers a dollar to kick his ass.

*** *** ***
[Exchange with a Syrian-born taxi driver in Montreal]

Taxi driver: I’m muslim but I don’t like it when women have to wear veils. That makes me angry.
Alison: Aren’t they a statement of faith? Don’t women choose to wear the veil to make themselves visible as Muslims to everyone?
Taxi driver: You know what I hate? When those hypocritical imams get up in front of everyone and say so sweetly that you have to treasure and respect women. And you know exactly why their wives can’t show their faces. They’re hiding the bruises and scars.

11 Responses to “Veils”

  1. Kathleen Says:

    That was lovely, thank you for sharing that with us.

    I’m glad you started blogging. I admire you a great deal.

  2. alison Says:

    Oh Kathleen, you’re my first commenter! You have no idea how honoured I feel.

  3. Deirdre Says:

    I loved it, Alison. I saw a woman in West Philly last week wearing the full head-to-toe veil on a humid 96-degree day. I couldn’t help but think she looked pretty oppressed as she crossed the street. Yesterday, I saw a teenager wearing a veil with her stylish T-shirt and tight jeans. I wondered how long it would be before she had to wear the full coverings.

  4. Susan Says:

    Oh Alison, you ARE such a nice person.

  5. Roz Says:

    It was nice to hear so many different points of view.

  6. Mansa Says:

    Well said, Alison! I still am awed that, when people talk about the integration of the islamic world into western cultures, they talk about the women and how they dress. And when muslims talk about preserving their culture they talk about the women and how they dress….

  7. Luc Says:

    Content de te pouvoir te lire Alison.

    Je reviendrai.

    Cassandra arrive, c’est l’heure d’aller au lit.

    18 h 51.

    Bisou

  8. Sandra B Says:

    I’m a 6th generation, anglo-Australian living in a very multicultural suburb. Until recently there was a lot of public and low-cost housing, so every wave of post-70’s immigration is well represented here, and a lot of the infrastructure is set up to meet the needs of recent arrivals, often refugees. (My sister hates my local shopping centre because she says she feels like a foreigner :-)) In the past 5 to 10 years, that means many muslims. There are so many variations to wearing a veil, that I find it hard to generalise. The South-East Asian muslims wear a head scarf and cover their arms and legs, which means the teens wear long sleeve tees and trendy jeans, while the various Middle Eastern immigrants wear everything from full hijab (fairly rare) to long dresses and scarves. I often see family groups with the older ladies well covered and their young adult daughters in (modest) western clothing and no head covering. The Africans, who are the most recent arrivals, wear extraordinary colours and prints, and intricate headwraps that sometimes seem to defy gravity.

    My husband taught at the local high school, and found that often the muslim girls were very serious about their studies, whereas the boys had a tendency to feel entitled simply for being male. Are the women oppressed? Possibly. Likely to stay that way when they are better educated than their brothers? Probaby not without a darn good fight.

    The whole debate about “Them” and “Us” happens in Australia too, but when the “Them” are part of your everyday life, they seem more like “Us” than anything else. Yesterday I shared a joke with the headscarfed check-out attendant and then ran into my Sudanese former neighbour, who told me off for not visiting her at her new house yet.

  9. alison Says:

    Deirdre: Interesting that in a humid climate, men are quicker than the women to adopt local dress and uncover enough to get a bit of breeze…

    Susan: Maybe, maybe not. But the taxi driver figured that to work me for tips he should start with the assumption that I was not.

    Roz: But none of them was the point of view of a woman who wears hijab!

    Mansa: Spoils of war…

    Luc: Je t’attends !

    Sandra B: Thank you. Veiling the face is relatively uncommon here too, but for some reason it’s what people think about when they’re talking about hijab, rather than the more common headscarf. (Yes, this post was about veils, not headscarves.)

  10. alison Says:

    More on why women veil themselves here:
    http://faculty.sites.uci.edu/jpcarv/files/2011/03/Veiling_final.pdf

  11. Alison Cummins Says:

    The article above has been moved, and is (sadly) now gated.
    http://qje.oxfordjournals.org/content/128/1/337.full.pdf?keytype=ref&%2520ijkey=3gwNU8QzLuKWbc4

    However, the abstract and a teeny bit of commentary are here:
    http://dailysalty.blogspot.ca/2012/06/economist-looks-at-veiling.html

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