Transcendental Bloviation

Politics, Space, Japan

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Personals ad: You, in burkha. Me, panting. Let's meet!

Over at Rationally Speaking, they are arguing (in comments on "Between the Scylla of moral absolutism and the Charybdis of moral relativism") about what makes a culture "superior". Dr. Pigliucci's most recent clarification of his metric:
"...the "scale" proposed here is the same that Aristotle had in mind: whatever furthers human flourishing."

Somehow, though, "flourishing" doesn't put us any closer to an answer than "superior". How do you measure "flourish"?

You might find a woman in Saudi Arabia (even one with a PhD?) saying that the burkha promoted "human flourishing" by suppressing the more trivial aspects of being female -- that a society that permits women to be ranked in public by their looks simply devalues women, by forcing them to compete for attention on superficial aspects entirely independent of their worth as individuals. (I should emphasize "public". I once read an account from a westerner invited into the home of a muslim in India. The way his host's wife dressed at home, at least for guests, left him sorely tempted to convert to Islam.) In short: let's hypothesize that public suppression of women's sexuality results in more power for women, all other things being equal.

"Sure," you might reply. "And maybe we'll find an old diary entry of Andrea Dworkin's, conveying some such sentiment, penned at 4am after waking up dyspeptic from eating too much anchovy-pepperoni pizza."

Still, it's not an entirely whacky view even from the point of view of some normal western women. I read an article recently from a woman (an academic, IIRC) who toured some Arab countries, and adopted various modes of coverup as the social situations demanded. When she returned to her native country (Britain IIRC), she was re-exposed to consensus demands about women's appearance that suddenly seemed very uncomfortable.

Now, this isn't to say that one should favor laws requiring women to cover themselves Saudi-style. Still, I look at the French reaction to headscarves on girls in schools, and vaguely recollect a recent proposed law (?) in Britain banning the burkha, and am forced to wonder whether we should adopt any such prohibitionistic approach to whatever problems these dress styles supposedly represent to a secular, liberal, democratic, humanist society.

An anecdote, if you will. Maybe you can make something of it.

My first experience of seeing a woman in the flesh wearing a burkha or anything like it occurred in Berkeley, California, where you'll more likely run into people wearing absolutely nothing. The garb didn't reach all the way down -- she was wearing pants, and I could see that. But from mid-thigh upward, all I could see was her eyes and the skin on her hands. I spotted her half a block away. What to do? Duck into a store? Cross the street? It was distinctly creepy.

"Well," I remember thinking, "Lemme just be cool about this. Yeah, it's weird, but my hometown is weird, that's practically its raison d'etre. She's probably doing this for a term paper in Post-Colonial Comparative Gender Studies or something." So I made only the briefest eye contact with her, from perhaps 10 paces away, then feigned a relaxed stroll, staring off into the middle distance as we passed each other on the sidewalk.

And as we passed each other, she turned to me for just a split second and said, "Hello." Without breaking stride.

And I remember continuing down the street in a slight daze, thinking, "Wow. That was really sexy."

Now: what made it sexy? Whatever your answer -- unless your answer is "Michael Turner clearly needs some professional help" -- I think it goes hand-in-hand with the answer to the question, Why is public nudity (as opposed to glossy pictorials with professional lighting) so NOT sexy?

We tend to think of these dress styles as necessarily sexist. But perhaps that view is simply too (dys-)informed by xenophobia? What makes us prefer to believe that such customs prevail only though reinforcement by women motivated only out of blind allegiance to ideologies of male domination, or simple fear of male retribution (a likely strong component, I'll admit). What about a general recognition that covering up feels like "the great equalizer" of otherwise rather large individual differences in sexual power among women? What if it does favor equality of sexual power for women, and moreover, greater sexual power for women? (In the aggregate, mind you, and on average, if not for the exceptional hot babe, sweating underneath all that cloth.) Might we not consider that more egalitarian, more liberating in some sense, and more likely to promote this Aristotelian ideal of "human flourishing"?

No. Of course not. How stupid of me to even suggest such a thing. I don't know what came over me. Sorry. I'll leave you all alone now. Whatever you do, don't think about this. Especially, don't think about websites full of GIFs of women's eyes, framed in black cloth, staring out at you. With delicate eye-shadow and lush lashes. And audio icons that, when clicked, purr soft and friendly greetings. (Websites which I am NOT now googling desperately for, than you for asking.)


At 5:24 PM, Blogger Sabbath said...

Those coverings are actually rather cool in the sun. A darker tight weave that is loose and baggy is cooler than a thin white cloth. It is not a burden to wear them. Make one for yourself and run around outside for an hour and see if there is a difference.

At 4:44 PM, Blogger jqb said...

I doubt that sabbath has any close experience with a burkha or chadri. It certainly is a burden, for the limited vision if nothing else. And of course the requirement that one be accompanied by a male member of one's family is quite burdensome (sometimes leading even to starving to death when none is available).

The point about equalization by suppression of female appearance is quite interesting and as usual MT addresses it with great intelligence. But it's quite a leap to go from the legal freedom but social pressure to be "sexy" that we have now to the forced wearing of burkhas (with acid in the face or even worse for violations); surely lesser measures could provide the desired end. As long as you're entertaining extremes, consider allowing women freedom of appearance while publicly flogging any man who speaks of or in any other way publicly acknowledges a woman's appearance beyond what they would be aware of were she wearing a burkha. That would invert the burden which, in light of the abuse that women have long suffered at the hands of men, would almost even be fair.

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