Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Islam in Oakland

It doesn't surprise me to see Muslim women in Oakland; I see the standard wrapped headscarf all the time.  It did startle me, the other day, to see a woman walking along Telegraph Avenue wearing the full niqaabThis isn't the full-coverage Afghan burqa, but you've probably seen photos of Saudi women wearing something similar - full black, head to toe, except for a narrow slit over her eyes.  She was pushing a double stroller and accompanied by a small boy, about 4 or 5 years old.  Since I was driving a car, I didn't get a photo, but I did think about taking one.

On one level, it's her religion, and I defend her right to practice it.  But on another level, the niqaab really gets to me.  Islam as a religion imposes a great deal of physical modesty - men and women are both expected to keep themselves covered except in the presence of spouses.  But you'll never see a Muslim man who covers his entire body except for his eyes; only women are expected to do that.

I don't know enough about Islam to evaluate the differences among the various requirements to cover the hair, or more; and I've read interviews in which Muslim women explain that covering themselves makes them comfortable, and if so, more power to them.  But it bothers me.  It disturbs me in a way I can't quite define, that has to do with personal empowerment, and equality, and the absence of choice.

It also disturbs me in a way I can define:  concealment of identity and purpose.  I don't really know whether that was a woman pushing that stroller.  It was a human being wearing an all-enveloping black robe that revealed only the eyes.  (I don't recall whether I could see the hands or not.)  I assumed it was a woman because men don't wear the niqaab.  But there've been cases in Afghanistan when male suicide bombers disguised themselves in burqas to get past checkpoints.


  1. I had a disturbing moment myself years ago. Probably in 2005 or so. I was in Kennedy International Airport in New York City, and I walked up to the 2nd floor above the check in area, where international travelers have a place to eat and wait for flights, and I was enjoying the diverse multitude of faces, so unique, when a group of 4 women in burkas came walking at me from the other direction.

    At first, I thought nothing of this -- only that they seemed a little out of place in an open world full of the art of humanity. But they strode down on me without sharing the space.

    I didn't mind them being there. I minded that they didn't share the walkway, so that I had to jump out of their way, as if they owned the world, and that they seemed unable to share the area, as if unwilling to accept being *with* the rest of the world. I hope that was my imagination.

    But I'm sure there is diversity under the burka. But these 4, at that moment, seemed ominous to me.

    For a view of Islam that is less offensive, though, I suggest a great movie we just watched -- Arranged.

  2. I always find myself disturbed when I see a woman in a full burka walking with - or several steps behind - a man who I assume to be her husband, dressed in the latest urban styles. Much more so than when both the man and the woman are dressed in culturally specific clothing.

    I withnessed an amusing incident in a parking lot a few months ago. As I was loading my car, a family pulled up and parked near me. I don't recall what the father was wearing, but the mother and younger daughters were wearing burka. But not the rebellious young teen, who was dressed pretty much like any other seventh- or eighth-grader. She made a big show out of getting out of the car, pulling out her burka, and gradually pulling it over her street clothes - in full view of me, and anyone else in the parking lot.

    A while back I saw two women in what I assumed to be burkas, though rather than the traditional black these were in matching elaborate and colorful patterns (lavender, black, and yellow, I think.) I wanted to approach them and comment on how beautiful these patterns were, but I was thinking that might breach all sorts of cultural taboos.

  3. There was no man around the woman I saw; she was alone except for the small boy - I assume, her son. I agree that fully covered women submissively trailing their men gives me a creepy feeling.

    Hal, if those 4 people who ran you down were in full burqa, you don't know if they were women or not; that's exactly my point. Frankly, their behavior sounds more male to me.

    I gather that if one goes to Middle Eastern countries, in some places the coverings aren't all black, in fact they can be quite beautiful. But let's get the terminology right (this is from Wikipedia which has much more information):

    It isn't a "burqa" or "burka" unless the entire face is covered, with a sort of netting window for the wearer to see out. Burqas, I believe, come in colors in Afghanistan.

    The full coverage garment with an eye slit is the "niqaab."

    The full coverage garment which exposes only the face is the "chador" and is common in Iran. I'm not sure if it's only black or not.

  4. The Muslim culture is diametrically opposed to Western notions of equality--both of sexes and classes. There are pockets of liberalization, but then there is a much more powerful recrudescence of rigid divisive formalities on the move again. I know a family of Iranians, who now (in America) dominate their men. This American-ized (or "Western-ized") unit acknowledges the work and organization the women actually do, whilst the men sit by like the impotent princes they always were, being waited on hand and foot, like royal babies.

    Islim and Western democracy are incompatible. I don't know what the ultimate solution is going to be, but either the Muslims are going to have to toss this bullshit, or we're all going to have to go back to the Middle Ages. You can't have slaves in a democracy. It won't work.