Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Burqa debate brings forth memories

Last week, French president Nicolas Sarkozy said, “The burqa is not welcome on French territory.

The burqa is the head-to-toe garment that is worn by a small minority of Muslim women. It conceals even the face. In this photo of two women in Marseille, the woman on the right is wearing a burqa.

President Sarkozy declared that the burqa was not a religious symbol but a sign of women’s “debasement.” “In our country,” he said, “we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen… deprived of all identity.”

United States President Barack Obama criticized Sarkozy’s stance, suggesting that the burqa was part of a religious practice that government should not impede.

With these two world leaders taking opposing views, the burqa debate is now raging. It’s amazing how this garment can inspire such strong feelings.

For me, it’s a debate that calls to mind the summer when I was an anthropology graduate student working on an archeological dig in Israel. Physically, I did battle with scorpions, sand and sun, but mentally, I was enmeshed in the religious imagery that surrounded me.

At summer’s end, I joined friends in Belgium and then traveled south with a Moroccan friend to attend a wedding in Marrakech. I felt so honored to be invited.

We stayed in the home of a family member in the ancient, maze-like medina of the city. Never in my life have I encountered more hospitable people.

It was a Berber wedding with 5 days of feasting and dancing. We arrived just after the wedding itself, with the post-wedding celebration in full swing. It was a sensory overload of spice and sweat and music and drums. Men were singing and women were ululating. It was the first time I had ever heard that unique sound of ululation, and I was mesmerized. According to tradition, all this was going on while the bride and groom consummated the marriage in a room off the courtyard.

I was told that the bride was 15.

Late into the night, a roar went up from the crowd, and I glimpsed a wave of something white. I was told it was the bloody sheet.

The next afternoon, I went back over to the house of the wedding party and sat down on a cushion in the women’s room. The women danced for one another… old and young in turns… moving their hips and swaying and laughing. I couldn’t understand any of the chattering because the women didn’t speak French or English, and I didn’t speak Arabic or Berber. But I joined them in the universal language of giggles and grins. I was told that this was when women shared with the bride the secrets of marriage.

The bride herself sat huddled at the end of the room underneath her bloody sheet. I would occasionally glimpse her hennaed hand when other women would lift the sheet’s corner to pass her a morsel of food. Sometimes I would hear the sound of a low moan from that amorphous mass beneath the sheet.

The blood was spread and splattered. It was a lot -- more than just a spot. I tried not to look at it. I kept hoping that maybe it was the blood of a goat because I had heard that brides sometimes ensured the display of virginity by carrying a vial of goat’s blood into the bridal chamber.

But in one brief moment, when the sheet was lifted, I suddenly found myself looking straight into the girl’s kohl-lined eyes. What I saw in them was fear.

In that moment, I lost all sense of anthropological detachment. I was overcome with the sense that something was wrong. And I couldn’t intellectualize it.

Perhaps it was my own ethnocentricity, but for me, there was no escaping what I felt. I was bearing witness to something wrong.

I view this practice of proving up of a girl’s virginity as more of a cultural practice than a religious practice. I feel the same about the burqa . . . though culture and religion are obviously intertwined.

Of course, the mixing of culture and religion isn’t unique to Muslims. And Muslims don’t have any lock-box on religious authoritarianism and paternalism. If there is one thing I know for sure, it is that any religion can be misused for oppressing the weak and perpetuating the powerful. That’s a lesson I learned from my own westernized Christian religion.

Though Baptists don’t display bloody sheets, there is nevertheless much about Baptist culture and belief that is often misused to train girls into the bondage of a subservient self-image. And if you’re a Baptist clergy abuse survivor of either sex, you are virtually guaranteed to experience religiously-fueled oppression, particularly if you dare to try to report it.

I don’t purport to know what the “right answer” to the burqa debate is. But I do believe that, if the debate is to be honestly engaged, we should not pretend that a burqa is nothing more than the equivalent of a Texas Baptist’s bolo tie, or a Jewish man’s yarmulke, or a Catholic’s cross necklace.

A bolo tie doesn’t deny human dignity. A burqa does. A yarmulke is worn by choice of the wearer. A burqa is typically worn by choice of the wearer’s male relatives.

Those hidden women are at least deserving of a reality-based debate.

When all the celebrating was done, I got on a train to try to make it to Luxembourg in time for my discount flight back to the United States. The last of my money had been stolen, and I didn’t even own a credit card back then. I had only my train ticket, my plane ticket and my passport. But I wasn’t worried. My train ticket was good, and with lots of connections, it would eventually get me all the way there. Or so I thought.

Between Marrakech and Tangiers, the conductor came by. He became irate, but I couldn’t understand because his tirade was in Arabic. Still, there was no mistaking his tone, and the two young girls across from me grew eyes as big as saucers. Before, they had been engaging and curious, eagerly practicing their limited French by barraging me with questions about myself and America. But after the conductor left, the girls fell totally silent.

Their djellaba-dressed dad told me that the conductor was upset because of the Israeli visa in my passport and because I was on the wrong train. It was a train that went to the same destination, Tangier, but it was a faster, more expensive train than the one allowed by my ticket. The conductor was going to put me off at the next station.

Sure enough, when the train started slowing down, the conductor was waiting in the corridor. I looked out the window and knew I was in trouble. The station was little more than a stop in the middle of the desert. Without any money, how would I get out of there?

I think the girls’ dad must have seen the fear in my face. He pulled out his wallet and pressed some bills into the conductor’s palm.

I wept with relief and thanked him, but he simply shrugged. “I have two daughters,” he said. “I hope someone would do the same for them someday.”

In the desert between Marrakech and Tangier, a Moroccan father gave me sanctuary.

His example, of extending human dignity and safety, is an example that religious leaders of all faiths could learn from.


Ramesh said...

In the west (and east), this is more hidden but still present.

Under Much Grace Blog > Fight the Mental Burqa (Showing all the posts with label).

Ramesh said...

This losing of virginity is lot of times brutal. I have seen this fear too many times in girls getting married off. Lot of times, it almost feels like they are being turned inside out. Sometimes rituals and culture cushions these shocks, but for some there is no cushion. When there is no love or tenderness, it feels like something is taken from you. I have seen girls in a daze for a long time after this. Sad.

This happens in the west too. I mean amongst westerners.

gmommy said...

what you are describing is rape and post traumatic stress syndrome. (brutal, fear, shock, something taken away from them,in a daze,sad)

Humans are such animals.

Lydia said...

fascinating story!

Bravo for Sarkozy! Obama is not real bright.

I have a dear friend that went into Afghanistan right after the war while jeeps were still burning at the Kabul airport. She went in as a public health consultant for our government.

One of her biggest frustrations was trying to talk the tribal leaders into allowing the women to have exams done by women doctors. Most had not seen any kind of doctor for over 10 years.

Funny, they had no problem talking to HER as a western woman. They pretty much wanted money so many times a deal had to be struck where they would profit.

The other frustration was seeing women beaten with sticks and rods right in the street! It was an everyday occurance. And not one thing she could do about it. In some cases she took secret videos of these beatings while being driven around Kabul.

There is no way I could ever be convinced that the way scripture is interpreted by many to keep women under some sort of earthly priest whether it be a husband or elder is not a mild form of the same type of thinking. (All women are more easily deceived. All women need a 'head', etc)

It is nothing more than a way of elevating themselves over others. It is man centered.

God was angry that the Isrealites wanted a king. He wsa their King. He was angry that they ignored and disobeyed Him while He was leading them out of Egypt...so the law.

Now, we are to have direct access to Jesus Christ. No earthly authority between us and Him. Not even the government that He instituted will stand between us and Him. But Jesus Christ is the authority of the Body of believers. Not humans.

Christa Brown said...

Read my book. Child sex abuse among Baptists -- in the name of God, in the house of God, with words of God -- is certainly equally horrifying. And even more horrifying is the fact that, at the very highest levels, no one in Baptist leadership does anything about it or even acts as though it matters. Why don't people call THEM out on it???

gmommy said...

"no one in Baptist leadership does anything about it or even acts as though it matters. Why don't people call THEM out on it???

I don't think they say Amen in the church I go to now but since we are talking about Baptists....BIG Amen to that!!!!

Anonymous said...

People ARE calling the Baptist predators out, Christa. HELLO?! Isn't that the purpose of this blog, Wade Burleson's book, several other books and COUNTLESS other blogs and posters all over the internet.

gmommy said...

Dang...zipping mouth...help please.

Ramesh said...

Yes, people are calling these abusive Pastors and Clergy to repentance. But if the SBC Leadership turns a blind eye towards this problem, and at times only offers a palliative and the local churches ignore the voices of victims, allowing these abusive pastors and clergy to continue working ... then I would say the problems are not being solved. Even the symptoms are not being addressed, let alone the causes.

Then the only thing we can do is to voice our stilled voices.

But please note that the voices being heard now, went through lot of agony, before they could be heard. And the thankfullness is not to SBC or the Churches but to Blogs and the internet, where these voices can not be silenced.

Anonymous said...

In reading Obama's remark is another reason I will vote for Hillary in 2012

Christa Brown said...

Let me help you out, gmommy.

Where is there any accountability for predatory Baptist pastors and cover-uppers within the Southern Baptist convention? That's the question.

Answer: There is none.

We are but a few small voices. Where are the Baptist churches, pastors and congregants who will call their state and national leaders to account for their do-nothingness and their failure of leadership? Where are the Baptist leaders who will call predatory pastors and churches that harbor them to account? Where are the Baptist leaders who will even bother to look into reports about predatory pastors? Where are the Baptist pew-sitters who will call Baptist pastors who have harbored predators to account? Why does Steve Gaines still carry the title of "senior pastor" at one of the largest Southern Baptist churches in the country? Why is he not appropriately held to account for having kept quiet about a staff minister's admitted molestation of a kid? Why is he still held up as an example of pastoral leadership at pastors' conferences? And hey... don't even get me started on this one... Why is Paige Patterson still the president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and held up as an example for new upcoming young Southern Baptist pastors to follow?

Thy Peace: You are 100 percent right in saying that "the problems are not being solved." But let me be clarify something... the voices of MOST Baptist clergy abuse victims are indeed silenced. They are silenced every day and all across the country. They are silenced by Baptist bullying and intimidation tactics. They are silenced by Baptist church leaders' unwarranted threats of lawsuits... even when they know that what the people are saying is true. They are silenced by contracts for secrecy that victims often wind up signing under duress when they are in desperate need of counseling. And of course, they are silenced by the unwarranted shame that they carry in their hearts and in their very cellular structure because of what a Baptist minister did to them... in the name of God.

I weep for so many Baptist clergy abuse victims whose voices have indeed been silenced.

Michelle said...

Thank you Christa for your story. I wonder about the same things, and struggle with the same concerns you do here. As a human, these stories rip me. Sometimes when outright rape is adopted into religion I am not a part of, I keep quiet, not knowing where my own cultural ignorance begins and ends. And then I feel guilty because HOW I wish more of other faiths would have come to my rescue as a 7-yr old girl sadistically raped by a known pedophile in my church sanctuary, and if I don't do it for them, then how does any of this begin to change? Doesn't it all start with us?

However, I'm disturbed by some of the anti-Islam commentary within the comment section. I nannied for a Muslim family in Scotland. I had my difficulties (i.e. 84 hour weeks) but I loved them, and the man of the family isn't someone who would rape his wife. I would give my life in a second for those kids and used to take them in the living room each noon to listen to the Koran on tape, as requested by their parents. I have questionable Jewish heritage and they--while arguing from beginning to end with me regarding Israel and various beliefs--were very kind to me despite our differences.

I saw on BBC once how a French politician referred to the women in the French government as "a chorus of whining vaginas." Misogyny and cruelty and humanity is everywhere. France also has a pretty bad track record doing (and not doing) in Rwanda, where mass rape and hacking of human beings reigned supreme for a horrible 90 days of hell. Likewise, I can understand the distaste for the burqa. I shudder and am often moved to tears each time I see it, in my humble opinion it's significantly different from the hijab.

The main thing here is that this is a place to pour love on women, men and children who have been victim of awful "cultural" and "religious" horrors like the woman described by Christa and by Christa's own awful, and in the end, very redeeming story. This is a place where we move in unity to protect and tell our own stories. Questioning culture that hurts people is one thing, hating on them is quite another. Safety of kids and healing of survivors is number 1 on this site.

Forgive me for going on a rant about this off the topic subject. It's something I feel so strongly about.

Junkster said...

I saw nothing anti-Islam in Christa's post. I only saw criticism of some practices of some Muslims. That is not anti-Islam any more than it is anti-Christian to criticize the practices of some Baptist leaders regarding abusive ministers.

gmommy said...

All those out there who usually isolate on a holiday...lets try something new! How about that person who has invited you before and would make it really easy for you to invite yourself over?? Or a movie?? I'm going to give it a try!

Phyllis Gregory said...

Christa, the story was tragic and fascinating. Did you see your own terror in the eyes of the young girl? I think I would have.

Michelle, thank you so much for your insightful comments. I appreciate all you said.

I still say there is NO HOPE for Southern Baptists. I do not believe there will ever be change within the church -- it takes leaving the church to save yourself. Wolves might change their clothes but that doesn't ever change who they are.

Michelle said...


I didn't think there was anything anti-Islam in Christa's post (rather, she's had significantly more experience and insight than I do). I found the anti-Islam commentary in the comments by people I REALLY don't want to call out or argue with. We're likely all victims here. This is (and should be) a place where respect and tenderness remains at the core, and I was saying it generally to not make anything personal in such a hard, already personalized subject as misogyny in various cultures.

atticus said...

yes, the obsession with the hymen seems to be universal, in fact. and so little education about the reality--it is a collar of tissue, not a band (at least in most women) i use a scrunchy (for hair) to show folks what a hymen looks like (in medical talks) then i discuss the importance of a woman realizing that "virginity" is a mental state, not to be confused with our real worth as human beings. this is along the tex-mex border. similar issues in mexico.
Your book was wonderful, such good writing. Inspired me to start my own story.