What would you say if you saw a man wearing a ball and chain walking down Lexington Avenue? Would it startle you? It startled me to see a woman in a burqa pushing a baby carriage down Lexington Avenue last week. Although it’s no longer unusual to see women wearing headscarves and even full body covering in New York, this is the first up-close burqa I’ve seen since a trip to Afghanistan in 1973. In those pre-multi-culti days, Kabul was considered one of the most primitive places in the world and one made adjustments in comparative cultural expectations based on a 12th century lifestyle of open sewers, no residential electricity and the exclusion of women from public view. Those who think that nuns’ habits or Chasidic women’s garb is a western counterpart to the burqa have never seen the de-humanization of a woman without a face. In addition to the myriad cultural symbols attendant to the disappeared female, there are the visual problems that ensue for women who see the world from behind a grid. And just as we would find it unacceptable to watch an enslaved man on public view, even if this were his disturbed, voluntary choice, we are shocked to see the symbol of an enslaved woman parading in our midst.
Americans have laws about indecent exposure in the public sphere and violators are apprehended and removed. Despite the hard work of the American Civil Liberties Union, schools still retain the right to impose dress codes, as does the workplace, the park, the beach and even the bench. Now that Muslims have politicized flaunting the veil is part of a larger statement, many more women have adopted it as an in-your-face response to a perceived Islamophobia that never actually materialized in post 9/11 America. The burqa is the furthest button to be pushed in this campaign. I’ve heard that there is a public school teacher in Illinois who wears one to work, and though I haven’t verified the truth of this yet, I believe that our confused reaction to trampling on Muslim religious rights might actually have allowed this to happen. It required a lawsuit to insist that a woman be photographed without a veil for a driver’s license. Bravo to Sarkozy for calling for a burqa ban and understanding the difference between religious expression and cultural subjugation.
We in America suffer from indecent exposure to overly sexualized advertising, movies, music videos and clothing for young girls who are tarted up as early as primary school. This is a problem that needs to be addressed. The answer however, is not to allow the opposite extreme to enter our public sphere - the acceptance of women as third class prisoners whose fathers and husbands wear western tee shirts and jeans while they keep their women in the anonymous isolation of virtual tents. Underexposure of women is antithetical to our laws, our mores and the progression of women’s rights in our society. Let’s take our dress code lead from the fashionable French and ban the burqa in the U.S. as well. It hobbles a woman as much as a ball and chain and springs from the same inhumane desire to enslave, a primitive urge to which all Americans should stand in firm opposition.
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