Quite a long time ago, having briefly joined the herd of twentysomething backpackers who eternally roam Southeast Asia, I found myself in Bali. Like all the other twentysomethings, I carefully read the Lonely Planet backpacker's guide to Indonesia and learned, among other things, that it was considered improper for women to wear shorts or trousers when entering Balinese temples. I dutifully purchased a Balinese sarong and, looking awkward and foreign, wore it while visiting temples. I didn't want to cause offense.
I thought of that long-ago incident while in London last week, where a full-fledged shouting match has broken out over Islamic women who choose to wear the veil. This particular argument began when a Yorkshire teaching assistant refused to remove her full-face veil—a niqab, which covers the whole face except for the eyes—in the presence of male teachers, which was much of the time. She was fired, she went to court, and a clutch of senior British politicians entered the fray.
Jack Straw, former foreign secretary, called the full-face veil a "visible statement of separation and of difference." Prime Minister Tony Blair added that he could "see the reasons" for the teaching assistant to be suspended from her job. What followed was predictable: accusations of racism, charges of discrimination, and disagreement about whether the veil was even a valid topic of discussion. If Blair and Straw are really concerned about the fate of Islamic women, shouldn't they be more interested in underage marriages, or wife beating, or something more important?
The short answer is yes, probably the politicians should be interested in something more important. But the curious fact is that the veil won't go away as a political issue. The French have banned not only the full veil but also head scarves in schools. Some German regions have banned the head scarf for civil servants, and they are not permitted in Turkish universities at all. Slowly, the issue is coming to the United States: Just this month, a Michigan judge dismissed a small-claims court case filed by a Muslim woman because she refused to remove her full-face veil. Critics call the veil a symbol of female oppression or of a rejection of Western values. Defenders say the veil is a symbol of religious faith and that it allows women to be "free" in a different sense—free from cosmetics, from fashion, and from unwanted male attention. Debate about the veil inevitably leads to discussions of female emancipation, of religious freedom, and of the assimilation, or lack thereof, of Muslim communities in the West.
And yet, at a much simpler level, surely it is also true that the full-face veil—the niqab, burqa, or chador—causes such deep reactions in the West not so much because of its political or religious symbolism, but because it is extremely impolite. 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.
It would, of course, be outrageous if Tony Blair or the French government were to ban veils altogether—just as it is, of course, outrageous that Saudi Arabia bans churches and even forbids priests from entering the country. But just because Christians and Jews are persecuted in some parts of the Muslim world doesn't mean we need to emulate them. In their private lives, Muslim women living in the West should be free to cover or uncover their faces, using veils or head scarves, as they wish.
Still, freedom to practice religion in the West shouldn't imply freedom to hold jobs that impinge on that practice. An Orthodox Jew should not have an absolute right to work in a restaurant that is open only on Saturdays. A Quaker cannot join the Army and then state that his religion prohibits him from fighting. By the same token, a Muslim woman who wants to cover her face has no absolute right to work in a school or an office where face-to-face conversations are part of the job. It isn't religious discrimination or anti-Muslim bias to tell her that she must be polite to the natives, respect the local customs, try to speak some of the local patois—and uncover her face.