Thursday, October 30, 2008

Face My Expression

I value my freedom of expression, and I believe that everyone has the same right as I. One can hardly fathom a more fundamental instrument of one's free expression than one's face. Your face is your expression. It shows your reactions and your emotions: your happiness, your distaste, your pleasure, your comfort, your pain.

Your face is the strongest symbol of who you are. When I think of my loved ones, I conjure an image of their face. I love their face, as it is uniquely their own. It is my window into communicating with them, and they with me. I may not remember everyone’s name, but in the old cliché, "I never forget a face."

I can scarcely imagine a life where my face and its expressions were eliminated from my public expression. Indeed, I can scarcely imagine a life where I cannot stand up and freely speak my mind as myself – smiles, tears, scars and all. Yet, I must force myself to do so, because so many in our global community face (no pun intended) this very limitation. It is an uncomfortable scenario that I must create in my imagination, but to fail to do so is to fail to do my utmost to understand their experience. Yes, this article is about the Islamic veil, most specifically the niquab.

With this veiling, one still has the eyes, the "window to the soul", visible. Now even that has come under attack. Perhaps it has been for some time, and I simply am now becoming fully aware. I have certainly noticed that burqas have netting over the eyes, all but completely obscuring the eyes from view.

I must state up-front that is useless to discuss the veiling of the face as a personal choice in areas where personal choice simply isn’t an option. In far too many cases (and I would argue the majority of the cases), free choice is not involved. Social pressure, being ostracized, family/spousal demands, even the persistent threat of violence renders the choice not to veil outside of reality. In many places it is legally compulsory and enforced by religious police and vigilantes. If one does not have the freedom to say “no”, one also lacks the freedom to say “yes”. The choice has been made for you. For this reason, it is useless to speculate on choice. The very legal requirements for this demonstrate that there are many who would exercise the choice not to veil, necessitating legislation to compel women to veil against their will.

One is hard-pressed to conceive of a greater oppression than half of the species having their faces and voices barred from public life. One is hard-pressed to conceive of a greater invalidation of a person than to tell her that her face and expression aren't welcome in public life. By its very nature, this is the compulsory exclusion and silencing of half of our species from public life.

It is also a dangerous exclusion that is detrimental to society as a whole, including men. One wonders how men can learn respect women as full human beings with rights when women are perpetually faceless and shrouded. One wonders how men can learn acceptable and non-acceptable interaction with unrelated women when they are barred from such interactions, and, when such interactions do occur, cannot see the reaction of the women. One wonders how men can possibly respect women’s sexual boundaries in this way, or value their opinions and right to say “no”, when their society doesn’t value women's expression and right of choice.

It is for this reason that, sadly, this practice will have the opposite effect than the purpose/goal stated by the Saudi cleric. Rape and sexual assault is grounded in belief and justification for imposing your will on another against the other’s will. The inoculation against this behavior is a respect for a person’s right to choose and say no. This is just not possible in a society where women’s right to make their own choices isn’t respected.

While I will always respect a woman’s right to choose to veil herself, I find myself morally obligated to stand up and push for her ability to freely make that choice without fear of repercussions. Anything less isn’t choice, it is coercion.