Sunday, January 16, 2011

(Dis)robing: veils and the state

Hal Pepinsky,,
January 16, 2011
Rick Steves’ weekend travel hour has just aired on a local npr station, with an apparently married, apparently Muslim, couple of travel guides in Istanbul. Rick got them to talking about silk shops. The woman guide pointed out that the rate of religious observance (as in prayer) in Turkey far exceeds observance in Iran, a theocracy. She talked to how youth are more flamboyant, less protective than their parents so that in a single shop, observant women are either traditional or into more color and less cover, in a scarf that can be pinned in an instant to publicly conservative cover. And I thought to myself: How religiously liberated urban Turks are.
My first chair at Indiana U pointed out that I had never (except in cap and gown, at my 1st advisee’s graduation) dressed for professional appearances in anything but jeans (which I do try to keep clean). This remains my uniform to this day both privately and publicly unless I appear in court or am persuaded that failure of a coat and tie would be disrespectful. My freedom of dress is important to me. Now that I’m on pension and off the payroll, no one is going to change my dress code. Luckily, I was tenured and fully promoted a quarter century earlier without ever have being instructed to change my pants in class. Throughout my teaching career, my wearing the same uniform became a badge of my commitment to giving away my professorial power. I continue to wear jeans. With time jeans have become a virtually sacred part of my public identity.
When Rick Steves started asking the guides about Islam and its effect on state policy, I thought of France. If I might have considered quitting had a court dared tell me to wear a coat and tie at work, suppose Indiana U, on a campus of some 37,000, had ever decided to tell women whose equivalent of a yarmulke is to cover whatever privacy she wants when appearing in public, to take it off? Is a woman whose face is covered on her driver’s license not verifiable in 21st-century technology? There’s no security justification for having one’s face bared. Many are those who do not want their pictures taken for personal reasons having nothing to do with offending anyone.
I feel more honest and comfortable in public when I wear jeans. Wearing jeans has become my form of public worship of powersharing. I figure the same sense of sacred presentation of oneself in public can go for what women wear in or on their heads. Regulation of how we dress in public is as intimate and totalitarian as social control can become. Enforcement of dress codes/uniforms amounts to social assault on the power of individual expression of personal identity and compassion anywhere, anytime. In the case of how women are undressed by law, orders to disrobe amount to sexual assault, and in effect force women in some case to submit to private violence to avoid public assault and degradation. I am continually fascinated and appalled by how seriously we dictate to one another how to robe and disrobe. Love and peace--hal

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