Thursday, June 25, 2009

In Defense of the Burka (2)

In my last post on this subject I gave the impression that I think women should be allowed to wear a Burka if they want. While it does look to me as though many Western politicians oppose even this moderate position, it's not much of a defense of hijab as a style, I will grant.

Hijab, like any other code of moral conduct (or Sittlichkeit), isn't very much good if left only to the personal whims of individuals. To truly "defend" the Burka, or any more moderate variety of hijab (i.e., modesty), is to defend the idea that a specific group of people (defined by age and gender) must conform to the style of covering the relevantly "suggestive" body parts in the relevantly public spaces. If it is a good idea to cover the bodies of women, then it is good for everyone, not just the men or the women or the powers that be.

Even Western cultures, of course, have standards of dress, however lax they may be. On most beaches in America, women must cover four specific organs (or three depending on how you count), and men must cover only two, and once we move into public squares and public buildings, private homes and private business, we also have ways of making you dress. "No shoes, no shirt, no service." It may not be hijab, but it is very definitely a public standard of decency in dress.

My point is that hijab is merely an argument for drawing the line in a different place. I am not at all certain that I prefer my mildly (perhaps even softly) pornographic public spaces (keep in mind that I live in Denmark) to the more modest styles I might find on the street in Saudi Arabia. I don't know that I would be disappointed to find all the cleavage in a glossy magazine covered with a thick black marker. Like most men, I know how women look under their clothes. You don't have to draw me a picture. And I certainly don't need a fashion designer or advertising executive to spell it out for me on a daily basis.

Now, I've been raised in a Western, sexually liberated democracy, so I tolerate it without giving it much thought, and I can't imagine the passing of a law that would impose hijab in Copenhagen against the general will of the population. But I can imagine a long and interesting public conversation that ultimately moves our standards of dress in a more conservative direction. Supporters and observers of hijab, i.e., people who both promote and conform to the style, have an important place in that conversation. They are very much welcome on my territory.

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