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Mar 21, 2011

What is a Veil, if You are not in France?

The French have banned wearing a veil in public.  Good luck with that, mon ami.  I don’t know the first thing about French law, but I can’t help but wonder how they are going to hold to a narrow definition of the veil.  I suspect that they are defining it in terms of religious use–as constitutionally committed to being a secular state, they can do that–which dodges the question otherwise while putting them far away from American habits of thought about religious freedom.  Even so, there has to be a palpable sense of inconsistency, doesn’t there, when you consider how prevalent–and dare I say, chic–sunglasses are in every modern society?

So, is she veiled or not?  I’m sure I don’t need more examples, although hundreds are available.  (Indeed, I’ve even made the point before, but until European governments start following my advice, I guess I have to keep on giving it.)  But let’s not stop there.

OK, not so chic, but not exactly a model of transparency either.  Take off the screwy goggles and hat, and you couldn’t pick her out of a line-up.  And who knows?  Perhaps someone who wears baggy T-shirts and does home-brew metal work might be a terrorist.  You don’t need a burqa to be dangerous; all you really need is a good reason to blow.  As long as the Green Bay Packers keep winning, however, we should be fine.

I can imagine a traveler from Afghanistan seeing each of these women and reporting back home that “some women in America are veiled, but you wouldn’t believe how strange their veils can be.”  If so, would they be completely off the mark?  Well, yes, they would be, but that really isn’t the point.  What we do is strange enough even if the analogy with the veil breaks down, and I doubt we really know what we are doing or why we do it.  Modern life involves a range of techniques for denying visibility in one direction while allowing it in another.  When the asymmetry is too explicit, as with the Islamic veil, we become anxious.  We shouldn’t believe for a minute, however, that the customary alternative is to see one another as if face to face.

Photograph of the Green Bay Packer fan by Mike Roemer/Associated Press.


What is a Veil, if You are not in France?


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