Fear the Burqa: Why Covering Up Defeats the Purpose and Creates More Problems


burqaI, like many, grew up with rulers and rules concerning clothing. Many a time I sat through lectures or speeches concerning modesty and appropriate. clothing. Yet the more we talked the more problems we seemed to have. I noticed that at the public pool where bikinis reigned no one seemed to mind; yet at Christian outings the lack of a t-shirt over a one-piece always caused problems. It always seemed to me that the more clothing we had equalled more issues concerning lust.

I have remembered those frustrating days when debate and. discussion over the Muslim world erupted. At times I wondered if full cover might help. At others I doubted the party line. Now Martha Nussbaum in her amazingly prolific and profitable work The New Religious Intolerance  has provided the intellectual scaffolding upon which to build my argument over tees. In the first chapter she seeks to define fear in several philosophical and biological terms. Two ways of discussion resolve around the ideas of disgust and the startle tendencies. The startle tendency is what makes the cat in a dark corner continues to be a valid horror movie trope. We all fear that which can leap from nowhere and scare the unsuspecting. Nussbaum defines the disgust this way: “it is a shrinking from contamination that is a type of fear, or at least fear’s first cousin. People fear and shrink from those to whom, in some fantasy of animality, they attach these properties.”

Taken together Nussbaum can then analyze my problem, here is what she said*:

” We can now connect the disgust tendency with the surprise-startle tendency. Group A fantasizes that Group B is oozy, slimy, disgusting, hyper-animal. But the members of Group B look, in fact, like the members of Group A. What could explain this dissonance? They must be hiding something. And so, the fantasy develops that underneath the innocuous exterior of these people is something hidden, foul, that could suddenly surface to revolt and overwhelm.”

What we see is that in our situation we have two groups of people mostly alike; yet in the confusion of emotions (many deeply buried although culturally conditioned) the other group equates a serious of emotions with the existence of the other. This group creates in us these emotions that threaten us. They leap out and startle us. They overwhelm us. Therefore, fear builds. And so in many fundamentalist countries the answer for men’s feelings of desire for the female is to cover the object of fear from head to toe. The idea works in an out of sight, out of mind way. The flesh of a woman entices; therefore the removal of flesh should mean the removal of the feelings, right? Nussbaum continued*:

“Historian of fashion Anne Hollander** has perceptively argued that such fantasies flourished when women kept their legs and hips covered by wide skirts. They were seen as a kind of mermaid: human on the top, but with a secret concealed area that was unspeakably foul and might suddenly cause disgust or even death. (Hence Hollander’s view that the suit was an important statement of equal humanity for woman.)”

Nussbaum went on to discuss how these same fantasies and ideals have damaged both the homosexual and Jewish communities in the 20th Century. Yet I think that her argument needs not to left so easily. We see here the reasons behind many feminists cry that they are damned if they do; and damned if they don’t. She does return to drive home her point, saying*:

“Many things are at work when people fear the Muslim burqa, but we should at least ponder the propensity of the human mind to imagine horror and corruption beneath many different kinds of concealing cloth.”

The catch 22 is in play for both the feminist and the traditionalist. Cover the female form and the repressed emotions go into overdrive, kicking at the conscious male, and driving him and society into a gigantic tailspin. Uncover the form and the fear and ensuing hate goes viral.

If Nussbaum is correct and I think she is on to something, then the way out of our situation lies not with the female. It lies not in within the cloth and dimensions of the cloth she applies to her body. The problem lies with men. Rather than learn to deal with the conflicting emotions of adolescence, many men within our society have come to secretly fear and loath the object of their private obsessions. Rather than learn to appreciate the female; than to learn to see beyond the superficiality of flesh and bone; than to learn to work beyond their superficial emotions to the deeper recessions of their psyche, men have demonized the innocent. Rather than mature, men have remained stunted emotionally, spiritually, and psychically. And who is to blame for this (at least according to them): women, am I right?

Now there is a sense in which the meat passage of I Corinthians (chps 8-11) can be applied. As men are in this case the weaker links; perhaps the female ought to consider condescending to them. Perhaps they ought to be the better men, ahem, persons; and take one for the team. Hence the Christian lake outing requires a t-shirt that can get wet; and a dry one for later. There is something here, I guess. Yet one continues to hear the words of Nussbaum. When we talk like this, are we perhaps making the situation worse? When we talk about women’s bodies as something dangerous, something to be covered, something to be avoided for the good of others; what does this mean about women’s bodies. Can we hear these words without coming to believe (unconsciously) that perhaps there is something horrific, something scary; something appalling going on that any right minded person would and should avoid. And if this message is percolating what does this mean for women? What does this mean for the men in their lives? This would seem a recipe for disaster. Men are stunted in their developmental process; while woman become less than human. Both are harmed terribly.

The answer, then, is not in the clothes; but in the way we raise boys, and in our ability to turn them into men (and I am going to hate myself for saying this because whenever Driscoll et al use it, it grates my ever last nerve), real men who can appreciate, respect, and view the whole of the women in their lives. Men who can admire physical beauty and say so; yet do so without sin, without lust percolating in their hearts. Men who can also look beyond that outer appearance (precisely because they are not fixated upon it) to the heart, and appreciate the inner working of that woman.

When one is irrationally afraid of something, a psychologist may invoke what we call immersion therapy. That is to immerse that person slowly into a level of ever increasing comfort with that thing. The reason is this: so that by slow acclimation the individual should discover that the lies and fears associated with that terror are not true and should not be given hold in their minds and hearts. With that idea in mind perhaps our sisters do us men a favor with the showing of some skin. Perhaps the way out is through the steady acclimation to the female form. Perhaps bikinis have their place at the pool, and skirts have their place in the school. And before anyone go all reductive on me, I am not saying we should become that mythological parent who buys porn for their teen son. I am not saying women should dress like they are working the street. Women do need to respect themselves by respecting their dress (and please do not accuse me of pulling a Robertson: I am not saying go all business all the time- I like my sweats and lucky tees as much as the next person).

I am saying that perhaps it’s time we, men, learn to address our feelings in a more productive manner; and that women may help us out by showing (or not showing) us a little (or a lot of) skin. Perhaps its time for us men to stop blaming others for our shortcomings, and get right with our sisters.

* Quotes from pps 36-38 of Nussbaum, Martha. The New Religious Intolerance: Overcoming the Politics of Fear in an Anxious Age. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP; 2012).

** Quote from Hollander, Anne. Sex and Suits. (New York: Kodansha Globe, 1995).

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