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AUGUST 3, 2011 2:22PM

Removing the veil doesn't empower women

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            An Italian parliamentary commission passed a draft law yesterday that would prohibit women from veiling their faces in public. Lawmaker Barbara Saltamartini said she approved the move that would “put an end to the suffering of many women who are often forced to wear the burka or niqab, which annihilates their dignity.”

Saltamartini’s blanket statement makes it sound like veiling is always an oppressive move by an outside force, instead of allowing for the possibility that individual women could choose the veil for their own reasons. Or, to put it another way, this is yet another example of how Westerners swoop in and make their own definitions and interpretations for the behavior of another culture.

During the year I spent in Saudi Arabia, several of my closest friends wore the niqab. I once asked one of them point-blank whether she considered the veil oppressive. By the way she looked at me, you could tell the thought had literally never occurred to her.  

“Of course not,” she said.

 “Saudi women are so, so beautiful,” she went on. “If I cover, I can decide who will see my beauty. I am in control.”

I couldn’t help but consider the marked difference between her own confidence in her beauty versus mine as an American. I don’t think I would ever describe myself as “so, so beautiful.” Nope, my culture conditioned me out of that pretty early, with its parade of anorexic models with Photoshopped faces attacking my self-esteem everywhere from the supermarket shelves to my living room’s TV. My culture screams that I’ll be pretty if I just lose a few pounds, spend $43 on this particular skin bronzer, and buy the right jeans that make my butt look good. The pressure on Western women to look and dress a certain way never ends. I bet we could cure cancer if we re-directed the money we spend on diet products, cosmetics, and extremes like plastic surgery.

Personally, I find all of that pretty oppressive.

Of course, my friend is just one example. Muslim women are a diverse group, and not everyone feels the same way about the veil. There are women who love it and women who hate it, women who find it a refuge and women who find it a prison, women who choose it and women whose relatives make them wear it, women who consider it a sign of piety and women who think God has bigger problems than what’s on their heads.

            But that’s just the point: Because of the widely varied beliefs about the veil, a simple blanket rule—Thou shalt not cover thy face—will not work to empower women. Rather, to empower women, we need to give them the personal choice to wear what they choose, to dress in a way that will make them feel comfortable, confident, and that will not make their moral compasses go haywire.

             But by forcing women to remove the veil so that they will not be forced to wear it, this law definitely won’t be granting any new dignity to women.

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Alex, I agree. The only way to empower women, in my opinion, is access to education and ideas. Also, access employment so that she can be self-sufficient, and laws that support equality.

It is always easier for us to see what is wrong in other societies. We have enough to work on right here in the USA. Our girls face incredible pressure to measure up physically to our ridiculous images of women, as you've mentioned.

I think a woman in a full-covering, a dark moving image with only the eyes showing, is a very sad image. But I also think a woman in an Amish buggy, in full dark garb in the summer heat is a sad woman, an uncomfortable woman, a submissive woman. And I also felt heartbroken at the string-bikini clad girls in the doorways of New Orleans on Bourbon Street. But I don't know if they are all sad or not. And I too have been sad when a man has measured my worth by my outward appearance rather than my mind and heart. What saved me was education and reading the stories of other women and meeting and talking with men who were more enlightened and balanced in their thinking. In short, expanding my little part of the universe, and the freedom to do so. And, the example of my parents, true partners in every sense of the word.
I agree that the real empowerment comes from education and self sufficiency. Any form of dependence on men is a step away from a woman's power to be treated as equals on social and economic terms. Very good points raised by your veiled friend and by you in terms of what you find oppressive about American women.

The niqab and burka are banned in public places here in France, too, for the same reasons the Italian law has been proposed. I feel like you do about it; a woman wearing these garments isn't necessarily oppressed. What also makes me laugh is how people think that by eliminating the right to wear such things in public, they will help "free" oppressed women. Unfortunately, women oppressed by their culture/religion don't just suddenly become free because they can't dress a certain way. I wish it were that simple, but it's not. In extreme cases, such laws may even lead to women not being allowed to go out in public at all. Thank you for a concise, intelligently written argument about a well-meaning law that ultimately strips women of other rights, while failing to solve the problem that inspired it.
It's pretty hillarious to hear an Italian remark that something "annihilates [a woman's] dignity" and yet becoming, say, one of President Berlusconi's "bunga bunga" girls, is less degrading? It's ridiculous and hypocritical for any culture to dictate to women from other cultures what's dignified and empowering behaviour and what is not. No culture is a bastion of pure female empowerment. I understand there are logistical problems with women covering their faces and bodies (like personal identificiation and security concerns) but to be truely empowered, women need to decide for THEMSELVES how they want to live their own lives.
i personally am 100% behind that protest by saudi women to drive cars that their males won't let them do (is your saudi friend in on that?); i am also personally totally aghast at the murder, by relatives, of young women solely for embracing western culture and/or having a "western" boyfriend (what dignity?)....or being murdered (some) for not wearing certain apparel in some of their countries......or being denied basic education....or having acid thrown on their faces

i think some balance is due and certainly a bit more intellectual modesty about the fate and dignity of women from other cultures that do not have the "tools", that are available in the west, to gain on their own the rights with which to combat the worldwide predominant male culture

but, hey , i am an italian male therefore a bunga-bunga suspect .....
Points well taken. Removing the veil in and of itself will not promote freedom for women in countries so unlike our own.
What I've noticed is that in countries and areas (as in Place Pigalle, Paris) where the women are generally covered up, the men are often very rude to women. I'd bet some of the men who want "their" women veiled is because they know/can guess that the woman will be subjected to crude comments, running commentary on her body and, possibly groping, is she isn't covered from head to toe and not sufficiently hideous to keep the wolves at bay.

I think all countries with anti-veiling laws should also have laws against street harassment so the newly unveiled women will actually feel comfortable walking down the streets of their neighborhood.
Would that the horrific oppression of women by Islam could be lessened by unveiling them.

Women, like men, should not be permitted to wear masks in public. It's a matter of personal accountability and public safety--nothing to do with all this oppression nonsense.

I'd like see a picture of this "I'm too beautiful to share" babe before I buy into it. Sounds sufficiently vain and egotistical to be Western.
Removing the veil DOES not empower women. Empowerment comes from within. Young American women have the "power" to go have naked and do not glean any extra Wonder Woman power from it. Instead they squander their power chasing dependent romantic love relationships and being a reality tv star.
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