Yesterday, I read about Aishah Azmi, a Muslim teaching assistant, who was dismissed from her job because she would not remove her veil when male teachers were present. Apparently parents complained because many of the children at the school were from a non-English speaking background, and they found it difficult to communicate with Ms Azmi when she had her veil on.
Have a look at the photo accompanying the article. You can barely see Ms Azmi’s eyes and the rest of her face is totally obscured. The description of the photo says “Disappointed: teaching assistant Aishah Azmi”. I suddenly realised that the only way I knew she was disappointed was from the accompanying description: you can’t tell that she is disappointed from the photo, because you can’t see Ms Azmi’s expression.
This got me thinking. Would I hire her to be a teacher’s assistant if she had turned up to a job interview for a teaching assistant wearing that veil? (Incidentally, apparently she didn’t wear the veil to her job interview with the school). Would I want Ms Azmi assisting my child? The answer to both those questions is No.
Hang on a minute! I thought I was a tolerant person! When a Muslim friend of mine was told a few years ago that she had to attend the staff Christmas party and that she could not attend her family celebrations for the festival of Eid (the end of Ramadan), I was shocked and horrified by her boss’s lack of understanding. The boss hadn’t realised that my friend was Muslim. Suddenly, the boss became very unpleasant and made critical statements about Islam in the office. Under intense pressure, my friend attended the party. She didn’t say anything, but contrary to her usual practice of going bareheaded, she wore a beautifully patterned headscarf. I thought this was a superb message of defiance, and I was very proud of her. I also wanted to sue the boss for discrimination. She wouldn’t hear of it at the time, but she now says she wishes that she’d listened to me.
I was also horrified to read about the treatment of Menachem Vorchheimer at the hands of a bus full of footballers from Ocean Grove Football club. These men allegedly shouted anti-Semitic abuse at him and his children, pulled off his hat (which he was wearing because it was Shabbat). The men punched Mr Vorchheimer when he tried to retrieve his hat. When I thought of the Vorchheimer children having to watch this happen to their father, it made me feel physically ill.
So how come I am 100% behind my friend and Mr Vorchheimer, and I don’t feel so sympathetic towards Ms Azmi? I think the reasoning lies behind why people wear particular clothing or follow particular practices which identify them as belonging to a particular religion. It seems to me that there are three reasons:
- An outward sign of inner faith. In essence, you are telling the world that you are faithful to God and proud of it.
- A gesture of modesty before God.
- A need to cover up the body because it is lewd and may incite lewd thoughts in others.
There are an infinite variety of ways in which people can give outward signs of their inner faith: wearing a crucifix, putting a “fish sticker” on your car, wearing a yarmulke on Shabbat, wearing a headscarf in mosque, wearing a bindi on one’s forehead, never cutting your hair and putting it in a turban, wearing a nun’s habit, wearing a priest’s “dogcollar”…
I am fully supportive of any one who wishes to outwardly display their inner faith. When my friend wore the headscarf to the Christmas party, she was saying “I’m Muslim and I’m proud of it!” That’s why I thought her actions were great. I am also guessing that this is part of the reason why Mr Vorchheimer was wearing a hat on Shabbat. He was saying that he is an observant Jew, and that he is proud of it. Each person is entitled to be proud of their beliefs and to exhibit that outward sign of their inner faith.
For some religions, it is also a gesture of modesty before God to cover up one’s head. Let’s look at the three Abramic religions, Judaism, Islam and Christianity for some examples.
- In Judaism, a yarmulke may be worn by men. A hat may also be worn by Orthodox men. Hassidic Jewish men may wear a shtreimel, or large fur cap. Some orthodox Jewish women wear wigs or a tichel (headscarf) once they marry.
- Muslim men may also wear a taqiyah, the white crotcheted skullcap for the same reason. Similarly, women may wear a headscarf, which can vary from a strip of material partially covering the hair to a burqa (a garment that covers the entire body and has an eyeslot covered in gauze).
- Catholic and Anglican clergy may wear a zuchetto (skullcap). Catholic and Anglican nuns may wear a wimple (or headscarf covering the head). In medieval times, many European women had to wear a wimple, whether they were nuns or not. Until recently, the Catholic Church used to require women to wear a headcovering in church (the mantilla), and some women still wear it. Women who belong to the Exclusive Brethren (who have been getting a bit of press lately) wear a small triangular headscarf.
Look at the similarities in this little list. Isn’t it interesting that the common theme for men seems to be the skullcap and the common theme for women seems to be the scarf over the head? I’m sure there’s a sociology thesis in there somewhere…
Thus, the reason why Mr Vorchheimer was wearing a hat and a yarmulke on the Sabbath would also be a symbol of modesty and respect. My Muslim friend wears a headscarf to mosque for the same reason.
Let’s look at the third reason why people wear particular religious clothing: the need to cover up the body because it is lewd and may incite lewd thoughts in others. This is related to the concept of modesty above, but it is taking it to the extreme. Each of the three Abramic religions (and some other religions) have streams of thought which adopt this notion. For some reason, it often seems to be the female body which is particularly filthy, and may cause men to have uncontrollable “bad thoughts”. It annoys me intensely that the idea is that women have to cover up their bodies because men can’t control their thoughts. My immediate response is always “Why don’t the men exercise some self-control, for goodness’ sake?”
The other day, it was a warm day and my baby daughter was crawling around the lounge with only a singlet on, laughing with delight. She was so innocent, so unselfconscious, so happy in her body. I felt that it was a great pity that many women are taught their body is evil. This is part of the reason why I don’t feel so sympathetic for Ms Azmi. The reason why she only shows her eyes when men are present is because she believes that her body is lewd and may cause others to have lewd thoughts. As a feminist, I really don’t like that concept.
I suppose it’s a free world. I am tolerant to the extent that I believe Ms Azmi is entitled to wear a burqa in public if that’s what she wishes to do. I think I’d be a whole lot less tolerant if someone suggested I should wear one. For one thing, I’m enough of a klutz already without the extra hindrance of being draped in material. For another thing, I know I’m not Cindy Crawford, but I happen to be reasonably happy with my body and I don’t think it’s evil or sinful in any way. I certainly don’t want anyone suggesting to my daughter that her body is evil!
The problem is that when you cover up your face like that, you are reducing yourself to a non-person. I have had a conversation with a woman who was dressed like Ms Azmi. I was really surprised at how disturbing it was. I suddenly realised that I was talking to this woman very loudly. I think it was because I could not read her facial expressions and so I was not sure how she was responding to me. The whole experience was a bit like talking to someone behind a pane of that “mirror glass” – the person behind can look out and read my expression, but I can’t see their expression. I find it very difficult to communicate if I can’t gauge how someone is responding to me. I’ve always been a bit wary of telephones for this reason. I vastly prefer face-to-face communication.
There’s the rub: face-to-face communication. If you cover the face, you really limit the extent to which you can communicate and to which others can comfortably communicate with you. Facial expression is so important to the way in which humans (and many other animals) communicate. Half of our communication is not in words, but in body language and facial expression. If you cover up the body and the face, it is like you are silencing them. I don’t have a problem with headcoverings in any religion, as long as I am still able to read someone’s face. If someone feels that they need to cover their face, I feel somewhat discomforted by this. Why? I think it is instinctive. We are primates, and we are designed to use gestures and facial expressions as well as sound to communicate with others.
The other thing which I do not like about all-enveloping veils is that they by their very nature, they inhibit the things you can do. You can’t use your hands easily. You can’t eat in public. You can’t even have a cup of tea in public. You cannot ride a bicycle. You cannot climb a ladder. When I went to Malaysia a few years back, I was shocked by a honeymooning couple I saw at our hotel. I think they were from the Middle East somewhere, but I’m not sure. The man was standing in the pool in his bathers. The woman was sitting by the pool enveloped in black with only her eyes showing and the toes of her sneakers peeping out in 30+ degree heat. She must have been having a great time…not. If they’re so good, why wasn’t the man wearing one too?
So I actually thought John Howard’s comments on burqas at the beginning of this year were pretty accurate. In his response in The Age, Alan Attwood drew a parallel between a burqa and a yarmulke. Perhaps Attwood is not clear on what a burqa is. Burqa does not mean “Muslim headscarf”, it means an all-enveloping garment which covers the entire body.
Let’s go back to Aishah Azmi. She wants to be a teaching assistant, but to do this, she must be able to communicate clearly with children, some from non-English speaking backgrounds who already have communication difficulties. I do not believe that she is being discriminated against on the basis that she is Muslim. The issue is not that she wears a headscarf, keeps fast for Ramadan or eats halal food. She is being discriminated against because she is making it very difficult to communicate effectively by covering up her entire body except for her eyes. The job she wishes to do hinges on being able to communicate effectively, and realistically, she is not going to be the best person for the job if she covers up her face.