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Tuesday, November 21, 2006

What do gay marriage and burqas have in common?

Answer:  They both get the vote out -- at least, such is the fervent hope of the Netherlands' center-right government, which is trying to use the issue of Dutch burqa-wearing much as Karl Rove has used the issue of gay marriage.   Experts estimate that roughly 100 Muslim women in all of Holland don the burqa.  (The burqa is the full-body garment that hides a woman's face -- think Afghanistan during the Taliban era -- as opposed to the abaya, which is the full-length robe more commonly worn by Muslim women.) 

Given the minuscule numbers involved, you'd think that the Dutch government would have something better to do with its time.  But just five days before national elections in Holland, the government announced that it is introducing legislation to ban the wearing of the burqa in public places, arguing that it poses a grave security threat.  The announcement is part of an ongoing (and increasingly divisive) debate across Europe on the issue of just how far European governments can go in legislating what Muslim women and girls are allowed to wear in public.   (The European Court of Human Rights' answer, by the way:  Pretty darn far.  It held that a Turkish ban on the wearing of headscarves in public universities did not violate European laws protecting religious freedom.)

The New York Times has an article about the Dutch legislation here.

Think about this:  If the legislation is enacted, a Dutch woman could marry her lesbian partner, spend her life smoking a little hashish now and then -- and when the time comes, get a doctor's assistance in pulling the plug -- all well within Dutch law.  But she couldn't ride the subway with a veil over her face.  What an odd country. 

(Of course, I fully recognize that the Dutch find the balance that we Americans have struck on such issues to be a bit odd, as well.  I could go on at length pointing out the ironies of the peculiarly American approach to legislating morality -- but why spoil others' fun?  (Anyone care to comment on what the Dutch would find most odd about our approach?))

Posted by Melissa Waters on November 21, 2006 at 05:01 PM in Current Affairs | Permalink


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I don't want to comment on what the Dutch might find odd about our approach to law and morality, just thank you for posting about this. The proposed legislation is strangely reminiscent of the methods of forced secularization previously employed by Kemal Ataturk in Turkey, which not only made religious attire illegal, but abolished the use of Arabic script and generally prohibited public markers of religious practice. Turkey's Islamic revival represents a belated but no less popular and vigorous response to the Turkish model of secularization.

This legislation is foolish and dangerous (i.e., asinine): it is bound to backfire on the Dutch. It seems obvious that Muslim integration would be aided in Europe were Europeans like the French and Dutch to allow for such expressions of religious identity, expressions that are multivalent, hence often involve, alone or in concert, other motivating reasons: cultural, economic, political, demographic, etc. (Please see Ron Greaves' discussion, 'The Discourse on the Veil,' which references a nice article by Yvonne Haddad, in his Aspects of Islam (2005), pp. 232-34; Leila Ahmed, 'The Veil Debate--Again,' in Fereshteh Nouraie-Simone, ed., On Shifting Ground: Muslim Women in the Global Era (2005), pp. 153-171; and, especially, Saba Mahmood, Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (2005)). State-mandated endeavors to suppress innocuous forms of expression of religious identity serve to (further) alienate young individuals who might otherwise, in the course of time, become loyal citizens of democratic regimes in Europe. Indeed, this leaves them that much more vulnerable to radical 'jihadist' (the 'lesser jihad' here) Islamist discourse and recruitment....

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Nov 21, 2006 6:02:48 PM

Are you saying that "marrying her lesbian partner" is as bad or weird as smoking pot or physician-assisted suicide? If so, what exactly is it about the gay issue that makes it parallel to these other ones?

Perhaps the real oddity is a willingness to join the Rovian vision of seeing all these things as "of a piece" in a "culture war," rather than disentangling the quite different implications of each.

Posted by: anon | Nov 21, 2006 7:53:00 PM

Anon, I think she included the lesbian marriage as an example of something that is legal over there, but not here, not to imply that it was a parallel issue. Also, please use your name when you post.

Posted by: Paul Washington | Nov 21, 2006 8:16:52 PM

Thank you, Paul -- you're right, I simply intended to point out an interesting irony in the Dutch approach to these disparate issues, as compared to the American approach. I wasn't suggesting any parallels at all -- and certainly wasn't intending to make a value judgment one way or the other.

Posted by: Melissa Waters | Nov 21, 2006 8:54:52 PM

Whoops: Please read 'Geaves' for Greaves above.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Nov 21, 2006 8:56:45 PM

The Dutch debate over burqas extends what is now the global controversy over law and fashion. I wrote about the American approach to this problem in "Lex and the City," http://papers.ssrn.com/abstract=928108.

Posted by: Gil Grantmore | Nov 21, 2006 11:42:34 PM

I really must send you a copy of Phyllis Chesler's book The Death of Feminism: what's next in the struggle for women's freedom. I've found that it's really very hard to sustain much of a case against this sort of law in the face of the kind of gender apartheid (Chesler's term) that what has become a colonizing force in Europe (20% of Holland's population) would impose.

Posted by: Simon | Nov 22, 2006 9:28:39 AM

Simon, are you seriously suggesting that the entirety - or even the majority - of the Mulim immigrant populatino in Holland wants to impose gender apartheid? That screams of someone who's never spend much time around Muslims or in a Muslim country as far as I can tell.

Posted by: s | Nov 22, 2006 12:21:20 PM

"S" -
I'm deferring to Chesler's assessment that the cultural and the religious views that lead to it are endemic within Islam and arab culture, whether individual muslims personally agree with it or not.

If and when the spiritual and political leaders of Islam adopt with full-throated condemnation a commitment to rid the arab and muslim worlds of the practices Chesler charges them with fostering as cultural norms -- inter alia, polygamy, domestic violence, rape and sexual assault in the home, female genital mutilation, honor killings, gender apartheid, mutilation as punishment for petty crimes and capital punishment for heresy and apostasy -- then at that point, I will start to take seriously (although never accept) the argument that there is no need for legal measures to put a halt to such activities.

Posted by: Simon | Nov 22, 2006 4:17:05 PM


It's clear your ignorance of Arabs and the Muslim world is, alas, colossal, or else you would not indulge in such outrageous generalizations: all of the items in your list have been condemned by Islamic scholars, intellectuals and teachers. To claim such things are 'endemic' with 'Islam and arab [sic] culture' is to succumb to ethnic and religious stereotypes and racism of the most egregious sort. First of all, there is no singular 'Islamic and Arab culture:' there are a variety of cultures that are predominantly Muslim and there is variegation within the Islamic world. What is more, most Muslims are not Arabs, so the conjunction here is unavailing. Rape and sexual assault, domestic violence, adultery, pedophilia, capital punishment for the mentally ill, gang violence, and so forth are conspicuous in this country, and yet no measure of 'full throated condemnation' has made them disappear. Are such things 'endemic' to 'Christian and American culture?' I doubt it. Many Muslims are struggling against cultural norms that encourage or ignore the behavior you cite, as there is nothing intrinsic to Islam that sanctions such norms and violent behavior, as one learns from educated Muslims not mired in poverty. I doubt you are well-acquainted with the literature written by articulate Muslims or else you would not have said the things you say here. In any case, wearing the burqa has no causal role whatsoever in this catalogue of violence. I do not recall an argument to the effect that there should be no laws against female genital mutilation, sexual violence and so forth and so on.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Nov 22, 2006 5:01:57 PM

Your argument is explicitly anticipated and countered by Chesler's book - and, to be entirely frank, even if it were not, I see no particular reason to trust your account as much as I trust Chesler's.

Posted by: Simon | Nov 22, 2006 10:53:25 PM


Indeed, given her use of sources, her animus against Islam, where she has chosen to publish, I'm not at all surprised you'd trust her.

And it is true I've only been publishing for a comparatively short time in Islamic Studies, having come into the academic world in my 40s (I don't see any publications by Chelser in this field), but I can provide impeccable references for my work in this area, including Oliver Leaman, Professor of Philosophy and Zantker Professor of Judaic Studies, University of Kentucky; Professor Juan E. Campo, Department of Religious Studies, University of California Santa Barbara; and Professor Manou Eskandari-Qajar, Professor of Political Science, Santa Barbara City College. I have also published outside the field of Islamic Studies, and can provide references in these other areas as well. But as you've made up your mind, I shall not waste my time.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Nov 22, 2006 11:40:46 PM

read 'Chesler'

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Nov 22, 2006 11:45:28 PM

Patrick: and what was your SAT score?

Posted by: Kate Litvak | Nov 22, 2006 11:55:00 PM

After years of reading commentary back and forth on this issue, I still fail to see how hijab differs from the North American practice of requiring women but not men to cover their breasts. It's a cultural standard of modesty, that's all; it's not shared by all cultures, and it's also not shared by all members of the culture that prescribes it.

Or, to put it another way, requiring Muslim women to expose their hair and/or faces in countries where the majority of women do so is no different from requiring American women to expose their breasts on the beaches of the Riviera. What do you suppose would be the evangelical reaction to *that?*

Posted by: Think! | Nov 23, 2006 9:36:18 AM

Okay, I knew the problem with that analogy, but I hit the send button too quickly. It's just that, due to the pervasiveness of Christian missionaries in colonial days and the burgeoning influence of European culture, there are few remaining cultures where women go about their entire daily lives topless. However uncomfortable an American woman might be exposing her breasts during a vacation on the beach, it's entirely another level of discomfort for her to go to work or school, to ride the subway, to go shopping, with her breasts exposed. The shame would be real even if most of the other women around her were also topless.

Posted by: Think! | Nov 23, 2006 9:45:48 AM

Melissa wondered why a country renowned for progressive attitudes would ban the burqa, and I think it's important to address this question in the context of the country itself, the Netherlands. Anyone interested should take a look at Ian Buruma's new book, "Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance," or - for a shorter version - his New Yorker piece on the same topic from January 3, 2005 (still available on the New Yorker website). I can't really do Buruma justice (and so far I've only read his New Yorker piece), but here are a few relevant observations culled from his piece.

As Buruma writes, among other things, many Dutch are questioning a tradition of tolerance that they fear tolerates intolerance. From this perspective, banning the burqa would not be inconsistent with recognizing gay marriage, because the ban would be in furtherance of restricting women's subjugation, all part of a broader tolerant approach. So, on this argument, the Netherlands is not odd in Melissa's sense because it is not inconsistent. (Although, as someone with Dutch parents and a Dutch passport who grew up in the UK, I can offer to anyone interested many other ways in which the Netherlands is an odd country).

Alternatively, others in the Netherlands fear that tolerance - but possibly only tolerance, and not acceptance and integration - of immigrants has led to communities that feel disassociated and unconnected from any notion of "being Dutch" and that Dutch society needs to integrate different communities more. So, on this argument, the question becomes not whether the Dutch are inconsistent but whether they are now going too far to undo the effects of their own tolerance, trying to force integration through less tolerant means.

All of this is part of a larger debate on Europe and Islam - and taps into debates about immigration and integration that have been going on for centuries around the world. And that is no doubt why these issues are also hot election topics.

Posted by: Annecoos | Nov 27, 2006 9:39:37 AM

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