I’m not really sure if it was a burqa or a niqab. A burqa is a whole-body covering for Muslim women with netting over the face. A niqab is a similar covering with a slit for the eyes. Perhaps more “progressive” husbands allow the niqab.
I was standing in Bloomingdale’s Department Store in Century City, an upscale area of Los Angeles. My wife was completing a purchase at the counter when a shadow passed behind me. No, not really a shadow − a human being reduced to the form of a shadow.
A Middle Eastern-appearing man walked by, wearing a suit and an open-collared white shirt. The shadow came two or three paces behind him. It − and I thought of it as an “it” − was covered head-to-toe in loose black cloth. Normally I first look at a person’s face, especially the eyes. But in this case, I saw that the face was covered, so I concentrated on the body.
I concluded that “it” was probably the man’s wife or other female relative. But then I realized that “it” could just as well be a man with explosives strapped to him − studded with nails designed to penetrate eyes and brains.
California and other states have laws against appearing in public masked. Since the days of stagecoach robbers, people have known that someone in a mask probably is up to no good. If masking the face causes mistrust, how much more does masking the whole body evoke suspicion.
But a woman forced to go around like a dehumanized blob is only half the problem. Equally problematic is how everyone, including me, allowed her to pass without comment. As we have done with homeless people, we will now do with women in burqas. We will grow accustomed to averting our eyes from injustice − and that is unacceptable.
Yes, I know about “cultural sensitivity,” “tolerance,” and “diversity.” But tolerance of what? People who tolerate the intolerable will themselves become intolerable. Diversity of what? A prison contains diverse criminals − does that make it a desirable place to live? Sensitivity to which cultures? Cultures that degrade women to less-than-human status? Cultures that encourage child marriage, wife-beating, and “honor” killings? Cultures that deny women the right to divorce or child custody? Cultures that practice genital mutilation of older girls?
Generations of parents have circumcised newborn boys for religious reasons, and now for health reasons. The incidence of HIV, as well as herpes and penile cancer, is lower in circumcised males. What’s more, the incidence of HIV and cervical cancer is lower in their female partners.
On the contrary, all civilized people condemn genital mutilation of older girls as a revolting method of blocking sexual pleasure. But “progressives” have taken over professional organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, which changed its position on female genital mutilation from condemnation to allowing a “small nick” for “cultural” reasons.
● A nick in what − the clitoris itself?
● Small? How small? Pretty small? Small-to-medium? How about removing the whole clitoris? In young girls, it is small.
● What “culture”? Does a bad habit become a custom, and then a cultural tradition?
Fortunately, public pressure forced the Academy to reverse itself. It no longer recommends genital mutilation of girls. But stay tuned. “Political correctness” is like a vampire. You think you’ve killed it, but it comes back again and again. As with the burqa, so-called liberals are “sensitive” to the misogynistic, oppressive males of primitive cultures, but they are utterly insensitive to the women who are so dehumanized that they cannot show their faces in public, and to the girls who are forced to undergo painful surgical procedures that have no benefit but are deleterious to health. How “sensitive” is that?
Years ago, some people spat on the floor. When I was a kid, streetcars in San Francisco carried signs saying, “Expectoration prohibited.” This assumed that a person who spat on the floor knew what “expectoration” meant. Still, it’s fortunate that “cultural sensitivity” had not yet been invented. Otherwise, public-health officials hoping to prevent the spread of tuberculosis would have been told to remove the signs.
But how, exactly, is the centuries-old “tradition” of spitting on the floor different from the centuries-old “tradition” of dehumanizing women by making them go around wearing tents, or of mutilating their genitalia to preclude sexual pleasure? Just because something is centuries old does not mean we must allow it, much less respect it. Calling it a “cultural tradition” does not make it respectable. You can call spitting on the floor “expectoration,” but it’s still just a filthy, unhealthful habit.
Fancy terminology or fancy surroundings cannot alter reality. A burqa in Bloomingdale’s is still a burqa. Why do we feel too insecure to uphold our values in our own country? All this reminds me of a quotation from Yeats:
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
On the contrary, what we need is the moral courage of General Napier.
When the British gained control of India, they got rid of suttee, the Hindu custom of burning a widow alive on her husband’s funeral pyre. This was done to express grief, and also so that the husband’s family would not have to share the inheritance with the widow. The British commander-in-chief in India, General Sir Charles Napier, was informed that suttee was an ancient tradition with a religious basis, and that suppressing it would cause resentment. (Sound familiar?) Unimpressed, Napier replied:
You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.
I am not an admirer of multiculturalism. But if we must have it, let us practice the kind of multiculturalism advocated by General Napier. If they insist on their customs of misogyny, domestic violence, and “honor” killings, let us insist on our customs. In case you forgot, let me remind you:
● Our customs include protection of women and children − if necessary, from their fathers, brothers, or husbands.
● Our customs include equal rights for women, especially in regard to education, career, marriage, divorce, and child custody.
● Our customs include severe punishment for those who mistreat women and children, including deportation, long prison sentences, and − in the case of murder − execution.
A burqa in Bloomingdale’s? A “small nick” in the clitoris? “Honor” killings in America? A mosque two blocks from Ground Zero? What’s next? Criminalization of critical statements about Islam, as is already happening in Canada and Europe?
If they insist on following their customs, we must insist on following ours.
Our ancestors were able to exert a civilizing influence in other people’s nations. If we are unable to exert a civilizing influence in our own nation, we do not deserve to have a nation of our own. And before long, we won’t.
A prior version of this column was posted on June 1, 2010. In it I expressed the fear that a burqa could be used to conceal a terrorist − male or female − strapped with explosives. Some readers thought my fear was unreasonable, even bigoted. It wasn’t. Check out a photo collection of terrorists in drag. Male terrorists have been captured in Afghanistan and elsewhere, disguised in burqas and loaded down with weapons and explosives.
What is happening there can happen here. In 2014 a man disguised in a burqa robbed a bank in La Grange, Illinois. Perhaps our ancestors knew what they were doing when they passed laws forbidding going out in public wearing a mask. Perhaps stagecoach robbers had taught them a valuable lesson.
Meanwhile, in Britain there are concerns that Sharia courts are enforcing anti-woman decisions; in Canada Hindus protest Muslim religious services held in public schools; and in both countries polygamy is officially condoned when husbands receive welfare payments for multiple wives.
France and Belgium, on the other hand, are having second thoughts about “multiculturalism,” and have banned the burqa in public. Liberals want us to emulate the French. In this respect at least, let us do so.
“Tolerance” does not require that we tolerate the intolerable. “Diversity” does not require that we tolerate diverse varieties of injustice, oppression, and misogyny. “Sensitivity” does not require that we be sensitive to the feelings (if any) of those who are so utterly insensitive that they oppress women, mutilate girls, and practice “honor” killings. “Multiculturalism” does not require that we throw our own culture into the trash − and endanger ourselves in the bargain.
On the contrary, our values require that we apply the same standards of justice and protection to all people within our borders. Sometimes we fall short, but this is no excuse to abandon our values. Other nations are defined by their ethnicity; America is defined by its values. If we abandon our values, we lose our reason for existence.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org. You are welcome to publish or post these articles, provided that you cite the author and website.