Muslim Veils and Cultural Norms

Anne Applebaum has an interesting take on the controversy in the UK and the Continent over the requirement that Muslim women show their faces in public. While mentioning the high level arguments over religious toleration and respect for the rights of women that has characterized much of the public debate on the matter, she says there is a more simple cultural issue:

[A]t a much simpler level, surely it is also true that the full-faced 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 in other facets of their jobs, it doesn’t seem to me in the least offensive to require schoolteachers or civil servants 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 Muslim women show respect for the children they teach and the customers they serve by leaving their head scarves on, but removing their full-faced veils.

It would, of course, be outrageous if Tony Blair or the French government were to ban veils altogether — just as it is outrageous that Saudi Arabia bans churches and even forbids priests from entering the country. But just because authorities persecute Christians and Jews in some parts of the Muslim world, that doesn’t mean we need to emulate them. In their private lives, Muslim women living in the West should be free to use veils or head scarves as they wish. But 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.

It’s an interesting feature of Western culture that we tend to be careful not to offend when traveling abroad, often curtailing very natural behaviors if we’re aware that they offend local sensibilities, and yet feel the need to accept alien cultural behavior even from those who chose to make permanent residence among us. Yet, while we intellectually believe that Muslims and Sikhs should be free to wear their native garb and that Latinos should be able to access government services in their language, these things go against our visceral sensibilities.

Applebaum is ultimately right: It is the domestic culture that should prevail. If it is common decency to respect local sensibilities when traveling, it is all the more true for those who have decided to make their home outside their native land. When in Rome and all that.

UPDATE: Daled Amos argues that the “politeness” compromise will not work:

Muslims are not going to see the wearing of a veil as anything less than an absolute value that cannot be negotiated and must be respected. Moslems have no concept of Dina D’Malchuta Dina (the law of the land is the law), allowing for compromise when the country’s law does not conflict with religious law. They make no such distinction and do not see the wearing of the veil as mere custom. To them the Saudi ban is correct–at the same time that the British and French ban is an insult.

A fair point, although one needs modifers before Muslims/Moslems in each instance. Many if not most Western Muslims manage to observe D’Malchuta Dina without much trouble regardless of what the letter fo the Koran says. Amos is right, though, that the fundamentalists see no such distinction between public and private.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. bithead says:

    Applebaum is ultimately right: It is the domestic culture that should prevail. If it is common decency to respect local sensibilities when traveling, it is all the more true for those who have decided to make their home outside their native land. When in Rome and all that.

    (Emph is mine.)

    Precisely. This is an argument I’ve raised several times. And even from a practical level, the arguments are overwhelming. Allow me to draw a parallel to demonstrate:

    FoxNews, I think it was, recently ran a story out of San Francisco, where the story focused on ‘Liberal flight”… the concentration of liberals in the city is dropping, because of the numbers of them that are leaving for the more conservative areas of the state. Why are they leaving? Lower taxes, lower crime rates and generally, a better quality of life.

    Now, they tend, according to the story, to bring their liberal voting patterns with them. What the story didn’t say or imply, was a point that stuck out at me like an elephant in a room full of mice: Are not the higher crime, the higher taxes and the other problems a direct result of the chosen political leanings of the area they left?

    And so the question, in that case, becomes: If they bring their voting patterns with them, will they not destroy the very thing that caused them to choose this new area to live in? They’ll simply turn their rural area into more of the same area they LEFT.

    By the same token, then, comes the issue of allowing our western culture to change and bend at every opposition… do we not lose the very thing that attracted people to us in the first place?

    During the immigration push of the early part of the last century, people came here not just for the economic opportunity. They came here because they saw clearly that one major reason for the success of this relatively new nation, was it’s culture. To a large extent, these new immigrants chose to allow themselves to become immersed in AMERICAN culture, and AMERICAN ideals, leaving their old world… and it’s culture, behind. They saw that the reason for the failures in the place they left, were culturally based,a nd if they were to have a hope of chaning that situation for themselves, they must remove themselves from their old culture.

    Our western culture must be the one to dominate. And we as a people, must force that issue. even assuming we’re not talking about a hostile takeover of our culture, if we,out of a false ‘respect’ cease to be who we are, what has either culture gained? Since we ARE talking about a hostile take-over of our country… well, you get the idea.

    This meshes rather well with the write-up I did several years ago as regards the original purpose of government, which I have always held to be to support, nurture, and if possible, expand the infleunce of the culture that gave it life.

    I tell you: If we fail in that task, we fail, period.

  2. lily says:

    She’s right that Westerners interpet the veils as bad mannerrs. It is disconcerrting and weird to talk to someone you can’t see. However, that does not justify violating another Westtern cultural norm: tolerance for inndividual freedom of expression. Our discomfort with talking to a “masked” person does not justify using a big government authoritarian approach to force the individual to unveil. That’s not where the battle should be fought. In fact it makes all of our rhetoric about Western values and freedom and individual rights look pretty hyocritical.

  3. James Joyner says:


    Doesn’t it depend on time, place, and manner though? Applebaum is talking about rules for schoolteachers and civil servants dealing with the public. Doesn’t the public right to be comfortable when dealing with their government trump the individual right of a prospective employee to do as they please? I’d say it does. And, surely, that’s even more true in the case of grade school teachers. Building raport with the kids is the sine qua non of teaching at that level.

  4. bithead says:

    And that’s just the half of it.
    Are not teachers, among all the other things they are, represetatives of cour culture?

  5. Occasionally I see women in full burqa at the mall. Two things I’ve noticed that I find a bit odd:

    1. The middle eastern Muslims only seem to where the hijab (headscarves). Whenever I see someone in a full burqa, it’s always an African American Muslim. That may be different in other areas, but that seems the pattern in my area.

    2. The one that really irks me, is that whenever I see a woman in a burqa, the man she’s with is inevitably dressed like an extra from a rap video. My personal feeling is, that if you’re making your woman dress like that, you better be in a coat and tie.

  6. To give into the “I must wear my veil for religious reasons” is to set up a separate law for Muslims vs non-Muslims. To take it a step further, if a wiccian believes that being naked is natural, should their religious dictates mean we must allow them to teach or work in the nude? (Not Scarlett Johansen is not a wiccian, so don’t get your hopes up).

    Muslims who do not see the possibility of compromise may need to reconsider taking that school teacher position. They need to either convince the majority that the new ideas they bring are superior to the ideas currently held, compromise with the current ideas at odds with their own or go where others agree with their ideas.

  7. lily says:

    Is a veiled school teacher a real problem or just a worst case example? I don’t think the public has any more “righht to be comfortable” with an unveiled public official than to be comfortable with a public official of the same gender or one who wears insignia of the same religion. In other words, if someone is mifffed because the lady at the driver’s license desk is in a veil, that’s not the lady’s problem.
    There are some jobs (teaching, for example) where report is important. A culture that uses facial expression as a big part of communication is going to have a hard time with a veiled teacher. However, I don’t think there needs to be a rule or law about this. Instead, employers who genuinely can make the case that report is an essential feature of the job can simply factor that into their hiring decisions. In truth, they already do. An applicant for a teaching position that behaves in a poorly socialized way is less likely to get the job.

  8. bithead says:

    However, I don’t think there needs to be a rule or law about this. Instead, employers who genuinely can make the case that report is an essential feature of the job can simply factor that into their hiring decisions.

    The inherrent problem with this is that nature hates a vaccum. In the abesense of a law, it will be such factoring wll be considered profiling in short order, upon which there WILL be a law, moving in the oppoiste direction.

    Our multi-cultural push the last few decades along with our over-dependance on the law, has brought us to this pass where we can no longer make those kind of culturally based assumptions within the law.

  9. Bandit says:

    Why don’t they just wear what they want?

  10. Tano says:

    The issue is, once again, not Islam per se, but religous zealotry. The overwhelming majority of Muslim women do not cover their face. It is not a requirement of Islam, except in its more zealous forms.

    Most of us “normal” people react to foreign cultures, when abroad, as Applebaum describes. But we have our own fanatics, missionaries, who go to foreign countries and act far more aggresively than do these burqa-ed women in England. They actively try to persuade, cajole, and pressure the “natives” to give up their own religion and culture and to conform to western Christian culture.

    To focus the critique on Islam is really to miss the target. Criticize Islamic zealots yes, but go after all religous zealots who try to impose their cultural norms on others.

  11. I’ve linked to you here.

  12. bithead says:


    No, not particularly. Certainly, there is a religious element, here. However, the larger issue at work here is cultural, of which religion is but a portion.