Pourquoi No Burqa?

Two months after 9/11, I was at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York for the World Economic Forum summit that was moved there from Davos and I was talking with Rabbi Meir Lau, the Chief Rabbi of Israel, when a vaguely familiar diminutive woman walked over and held her hand out to the Rabbi. He placed his hand over his heart and said, “Dr. Ruth, you know that as an Orthodox Rabbi, I do not shake hands with women, especially when they are as attractive as you are.” It was a most gracious, if not flirtatious, approach to deflecting a problem that vexes Orthodox Muslims, who unlike Orthodox Jews, represent a majority within their faith.

In the recent pronouncement by the French government that citizenship would not be granted to men who required their French wives to wear the face veil, Prime Minister Francois Fillon was quoted as saying, “This case is about a radical religious person: he imposes the burqa, he imposes the separation of men and women in his own home, and he refuses to shake hands with women.” He went on to say that such a man “has no place in our country.” I, alongside many other American Muslims, can only say, thank God that I live in a truly secular nation that does not butt its secular head into the religious business of its citizens. The Jacobins must be rolling over in their graves. Por que no burqa.

While I am personally opposed to the face veil, it is a legitimate, if minority opinion, in the Islamic legal tradition for a woman to wear one. Most women who wear it believe they are following God’s injunction and not their husband’s. French laicism seems as fundamentalist as the very religious fanatics it wants to keep out. On a trip to France a few years ago, I was shocked to see pornography openly displayed on the streets in large advertisements. How odd that to unveil a woman for all to gape at is civilized, but for her to cover up to ward off gazes is a crime.

In America, we have whole communities of peaceful, law-abiding religious fundamentalists who drive buggies, wear 19th century bonnets on their heads, and eschew everything modern. But we admire them in some curious way and envy their simplicity and commitment to their way of life. Even Jewish Orthodoxy has so many similarities to many aspects of a normative reading of Islam that it is surprising the two groups don’t get along far better than they do. Jewish Orthodox women cover their hair or wear wigs; they do not shake hands with men, and vice-versa. They are largely segregated, but they are tolerated and left alone.

Muslims, however, are a pariah, a target for everything odious about religion that secular people find disturbing. But we are nearly a quarter of the world’s population and getting along with us is a moral imperative. Most Muslims in America, as the recent Pew and Gallup polls have shown, are happy in this secular state and treated with dignity and respect, but that is not the case in large parts of Europe where too many Muslims bear the brunt of racism and xenophobia. It is not surprising then, that European Muslims, unlike their American counterparts, tend to slip into the backlash of extremism and resentment of a West that claims pluralism and inclusivity but too often has two sets of rules.

The Talmud, which Rabbi Meir Lau has no doubt studied for many years, says a woman’s hair is of her nakedness. While the French Prime Minister sees no problem with exposing in public places a woman’s glorious nakedness, he is oddly and quite rabidly disturbed by allowing others to cover it up. The sooner secular nations learn to allow people of faith to live their lives in peace, the sooner peace will flourish.