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Of Spike Heels and Headscarves

5 years ago
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Since I seem to be taking the unpopular, counter-intuitive stance lately, I thought I'd chime in on our burqa debate with a nice holiday story in support of them. (Well, in support of those opposing a ban, at least.) It's entirely apolitical and completely self-sourced, but nonetheless an illustration of Delia's excellent point, which I'll reproduce in its entirety: one of the reasons burqas are such a bugaboo for some American women is that they don't encounter them all that frequently.

I live in Jersey City, land of Little India, as well as very large Dominican, African-American, Pakistani, Arab, and Irish- and Italian-American communities. Interracial couples abound, as do well-shod expatriates fleeing Manhattan's rents. (They don't mind being in Jersey.) In the morning, the river path is crowded with Korean grandparents pushing the strollers of their children's infants; at night, it's Indian families taking post-prandial strolls. Walking down the street, it's not uncommon to hear French, Farsi and Spanish in one block -- plus plain old Jersey -- and when I'm directing my visiting friends about which train to take here, I usually finish by saying, "If you're on the train with the white people, it's the wrong one."

Which is all a very long wind-up to the story of my Christmas, which began very dismally, indeed. Brief background: My family, compared to Jersey City, is pathetically homogeneous -- only black, Jewish and Catholic -- but we've always enjoyed Christmas insofar as a bunch of atheists happy to trim a tree, eat goose and hang out with the family for 24 hours can be.

This year, however, a sick family member and various other events meant I was, at the last minute, completely on my own. The family of a very accomplished WomanUP! cook visiting the city kindly took me in for the northeastern Jew's traditional sea bass Christmas dinner, but like many who are stranded on the holiday, I was still consumed with anomie.

Even if you're entirely resistant to the seasonal deluge of Christmas jingles, parades, tree-lightings and parties (I am), spending the actual day sans friends or family feels not only lousy but wrong, as if you've overslept and missed the first day of school. What had I done to deserve this? Did I need to change my life? What did it mean that on this day of global coming together, I was exiting the turnstile for a dark 10-minute walk home to an empty home and unlit hearth?

That was the general tenor, to say the least, of my gloomy thoughts as I walked out of the station. But there, to my surprise, I was met not by the mocking sound of distant carolers but by what seemed like every Muslim family in the city, out strolling in the mild air. I nodded at one of my familiar neighbors in her traditional chador, and was suddenly filled with an incredible sense of relief. So what if my Christmas this year hadn't been the cultural and emotional touchstone TMC had promised? Apparently, no one in Jersey City even celebrated Christmas -- which meant that a sizable portion of the globe did not either.

This was something I'd always known intellectually, of course, but as Delia points out, there's a very big difference between what we know as thinkers and what we do as people, in a life that expands (one hopes) beyond the boundaries of critical assessment of those around us. Which is to say, there's critiquing chadors in the abstract, and then there's waving hi to your neighbor in unseasonably pleasant weather as you both make your way home in the city you share.

This doesn't mean the critiques of how women in the Muslim world are treated aren't valid, and disturbing. (Nick Kristof has spent the better part of the last two years making them plain.) But in diverse urban communities in the West, it's simplistic to conclude that how women dress is a sign of repression. (After all, that just makes room for religious conservatives to shoot back that we're subjected to violence because we don't cover ourselves.)

If we in the U.S. are going to connect modest dress to abuse and domination, then how do we explain how female members of our own military -- the defenders of our country's freedoms! -- are subject to extraordinarily high levels of physical and sexual violence? The misogyny in the media? Domestic abuse? Is there something we wear that symbolizes what happens to us?

If legislators are worried about women being repressed, they'd be advised to lay off critiquing dress and pass stricter laws defending women everywhere -- like making sure military contractors can prosecute rapists, or passing the legislation sponsored by my hometown mayor (and now congressman), Steve Rothman, the Domestic Violence Victim Protection Act. (It never became law.)

Leave burqa-interpreting to cultural critics: The governments of France and the U.S. have laws that protect all citizens, and they can be enforced for victims in spike heels and headscarves alike. Last month in Jersey City, my neighbor and I had the freedom to greet each other, and to walk home safely at night alone. Let's use the law to make sure all women can do the same.
Filed Under: Woman Up

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