Wednesday, October 25, 2006

La politesse de la voile

I came across an excellent, enlightening point on l'affaire de la voile this morning in Slate. Here is an excerpt:

"Just as it is considered rude to enter a Balinese temple wearing shorts, so, too, is it considered rude, in a Western country, to hide one's face. We wear masks when we want to frighten, when we are in mourning, or when we want to conceal our identities. To a Western child—or even an adult—a woman clad from head to toe in black looks like a ghost. Thieves and actors hide their faces in the West; honest people look you straight in the eye.

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. " (full article)

Thank you, Anne Applebaum, for pulling this out of the context of racism or anti-Muslim sentiment. It makes perfect sense when explained in this light. It is striking how much the "customs" of Western culture are overlooked in these debates. We frequently make adjustments to what is acceptable or lawful in our culture, under the guise of the First Amendment or otherwise, without giving any thought to the fact that other cultures do not make the same adjustments - or, at least Westerners do not expect the adjustments to be made for them. I am by no means advocating the inflexibility of Western attitudes, but it is just refreshing to have an objective anthropological eye cast upon this particular issue.

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