“American Culture,” Burqa Bans, and the Need to Embrace the Other

screenshot-2016-12-08-09-06-26What I should’ve been doing this morning was preparing for the meeting I have in an hour, or working on my paper that’s due tomorrow, or studying for the Hebrew exam I have tomorrow. I did none of these things. Instead I decided to read the paper, and, as has happened before, I came across something which pissed me off. Maybe my problem is just that I read the Letters to the Editor, or maybe the problem is on the editors’ end over at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, because some of these letters are just real winners. This particular letter, which expressed support for burqa bans as a means of promoting American identity and freedom, really just pushed one too many buttons, and I know the author of the letter is not the only person harboring these views (in America or abroad), so I’d like to address the flawed thinking behind it.

Mr. Watkins writes responding to opposition expressed by Soumaya Khalifa of the Islamic Speakers Bureau over a bill proposed in the GA legislature which would have banned the wearing of any face covering. The bill has already been withdrawn, but Mr. Watkins seems to think that was a mistake. Whereas Khalifa argued that the bill was “un-American,” Mr. Watkins disagrees, claiming that Khalifa simply “misunderstands American culture.” The wearing of a veil covering the face is “of a completely different cultural tradition,” because “Americans do not cover their face in public.” Americans “do not subjugate women.” American is “an open society.” Covering your face amounts to rejecting American culture and expresses a “desire to remain unassimilated.”

Where to start…

Let’s start with this whole idea of “American culture,” because I think Mr. Watkins is misunderstanding American culture as much as anyone else. The culture he’s thinking of is the one constructed through the “Anglo-Saxon myth” which Kelly Brown Douglas has written and spoken about. It’s the narrative of American history that supposes American culture should and was always meant to reflect White Anglo-Saxon Protestant ideals. Considering that the Constitution was written by white males for white males, and just looking at the way our history has played out, Mr. Watkins isn’t necessarily wrong about the way American culture actually is, but he’s wrong in light of what American culture ought to be. The wearing of a veil will stem from other cultural traditions, that much is true, but that doesn’t mean it’s outside of American culture. If you’re going to claim America is an open society, then you yourself need to be open to the fact that this nation is ideally made up of a melding of a variety of traditions, many of which will be different from your own.

This claim that Americans “do not subjugate women” is equally problematic. First off, there’s plenty of data to suggest otherwise. Wage gaps and just the length of time it took for us to decide that maybe women are people too and should be allowed to vote are both embarrassing examples of the fact that America has subjugated women, and continues to do so. But, that’s not even the problem with this statement. The issue is the Western conception of the face veil as a means of subjugation. In a nation where we somehow manage to give equal importance to slut-shaming and the shaming of those wearing face veils, I’m not surprised by this, but the cognitive dissonance still just makes my head hurt. The veil can actually be a means of liberation for women, a means of actually rejecting subjugation and retaking one’s humanity and individuality. One is respected for who they are rather than what they look like. Sure, if a woman is forced to wear a face veil against their will and they have a problem with that, then they should be allowed to resist. They should, because it’s their choice, not you. You’re just some random guy, allow them their own agency, that would be much closer to the American ideal. But, when you decide for them that they need to be freed from their veil because they are being subjugated, you’re not actually standing for freedom. You’re just participating in the subjugation of women yourself.

This leads me to my final point. Mr. Watkins claims America is an “open society.” You then follow this up by becoming angered when someone preserves their own traditions, because this is a rejection of assimilation. You’re damn right it is, and the fact that you have a problem with it is the issue. You laud American openness, and then juxtapose this with an expression of intolerance for those who are different from you and refuse to willingly submit to becoming like you. American culture is not, in theory, a culture which should demand assimilation. The First Amendment allows freedom of religious expression, and we always claim to be a melting pot nation of immigrants. In reality, we’re a nation which would rather trample some freedoms than risk losing homogeneity. Martha Nussbaum discusses this in her book, The New Religious Intolerance. All of this is rooted in fear of the other, and if we’re going to actually become the open society Mr. Watkins envisions us to be, we have to reject that fear and learn to embrace others for who they are.

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