Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Cultural customs < Religious dictates < Necessity in the physical world

Ann Appelbaum's recent Slate article about the "to veil or not" debate strikes me as completely pathetic. See here:
Given that polite behavior is required of schoolteachers or civil servants in other facets of their jobs, it doesn't seem to me in the least offensive to ask them to show their faces when dealing with children or the public. If Western tourists can wear sarongs in Balinese temples to show respect for the locals, so, too, can religious Islamic women show respect for the children they teach and for the customers they serve by leaving their head scarves on but removing their full-face veils.
She gives an example of traveling in Bali and knowing that it's considered rude to wear shorts or pants into a Balinese temple, so she sucks it up and looks like a dorky tourist in a sarong (I'm tempted to say she's not concerned so much about looking like a tourist but about wearing the silly clothes that silly Balinese people wear when practicing their silly religion - but I'll give her the benefit of the doubt) so as not to be rude and disruptive in a foreign culture.

What Applebaum does not appear to notice is that you can't just turn this situation around when it comes to the culturally-determined propriety of wearing a face-covering veil in a formal situation in a Western country. Namely, her religion does not dictate that she wear shorts into Balinese temples, whereas a Muslim woman's veil, depending on the views of the woman, is pretty cosmically important. Applebaum goes on to give some examples where one cannot expect some of their specific religious practices to be accomodated by their workplace.
Still, freedom to practice religion in the West shouldn't imply freedom to hold jobs that impinge on that practice. An Orthodox Jew should not have an absolute right to work in a restaurant that is open only on Saturdays. A Quaker cannot join the Army and then state that his religion prohibits him from fighting. By the same token, a Muslim woman who wants to cover her face has no absolute right to work in a school or an office where face-to-face conversations are part of the job. It isn't religious discrimination or anti-Muslim bias to tell her that she must be polite to the natives, respect the local customs, try to speak some of the local patois—and uncover her face.
While I do not believe that religious beliefs and religion-related behaviors are beyond questioning, I do appreciate that what I consider to be the superstitions of others are still important to our shared culture, not to mention religious people themselves. Applebaum seems to think that we're constructing a society to be as secular as possible, instead of a society that serves and supports its community members.

Speaking of which, Applebaum seems to be completely unaware that English Muslims are, in fact, actually a part of English culture. There are lots of differences amongst English people, but what - besides reflexive racism and xenophobia - makes this particular one too much to bear? Does a veil make it any harder to communicate with someone than blindness (a condition that is protected against this type of discrimination under law) does? Is it unbearably rude to wear an eye patch in civil society? If the same obstacle to communication can be fairly easily overcome when it comes to disability, there's really no good reason why it can't be as easily overcome when it comes to religious customs.

As an example, accomodating the religious practices of others might be annoying, but it's also annoying when the church across the street from my apartment meets and I can't find any parking. I'm not about to complain to the church, though I would probably engage in some cultural disobedience if there were a downtown Moscow custom that gave men preferrential parking rights. Then again, if the church felt the need to congregate in the emergency room at Gritman hospital, I would object.

Even if we were to consider religious practices to be equally important as entrenched cultural customs, I don't see why it's more important for white Westerners to be comfortable than it is for Muslim (of whatever color) immigrants or indeed Muslim Westerners. Applebaum was sure to wear a sarong in a Balinese temple, but she apparently didn't mind sticking out like a sore thumb outside the temple. Where it is practical, I don't mind accomodating the religious beliefs of others. I'm not religious, and don't expect to be changing your religion. The culture we share, however, is where I and even veiled women get an input. A woman covering her face with a veil does not impede the exercise of my own rights, and doesn't really make working with her practically difficult. I think Anne can get over it.

UPDATE: Beware the discussion at the Slate site. It's ridiculously anti-Muslim and xenophobic.

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