Quite a long time ago, having briefly joined the herd of 20-something backpackers that eternally roams Southeast Asia, I found myself in Bali. Like all of the other 20-somethings, I carefully read the Lonely Planet backpacker's guide to Indonesia and learned, among other things, that it was considered improper for women to wear shorts or trousers when entering Balinese temples. I dutifully purchased a Balinese sarong and, looking awkward and foreign, wore it while visiting temples. I didn't want to cause offense....[Link]
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.
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