A few news events have caught my eye this past week—particularly, the Orthodox Jewish newspaper that photoshopped Hillary Clinton out of the iconic Situation Room photo and The Atlantic Monthly’s report “Danger: Falling Tyrants” by Jeffrey Goldberg on the move toward democracy in the Middle East. But it was an email exchange with one of our former editors/writers, Maura O’Connor, who is reporting from Afghanistan where she’s embedded among US troops, that made me think about these events in the context of our responsibility, as sophisticated postmodern individuals who are living in a pluralistic global society. We often literally brush up against those who have very different worldviews—radically different ways of understanding reality and human relationship.
Maura told me that she and a friend, another young American female journalist, were talking about whether to wear headscarves in Afghanistan. Maura covers her hair out of respect for their religion—much as, she noted, we cover our shoulders when we go into Catholic churches. Yet her young colleague, often doesn’t. She wants to show the Afghan women that they don’t have to cover themselves and believes that showing her hair, contrary to custom in this Muslim country, was a way of taking a stand against their oppression and supporting them. I would imagine that she saw her actions as a way of inspiring change. While her actions were obviously well intentioned, and may even in some way inspire the kind of culture change that she hopes, they may also have very unintended consequences, and be met less than enthusiastically by both men and women in Afghanistan.
That’s where my rumination over these events begins.
First, the newspaper that photoshopped Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (and counterterrorism director Audrey Thomason) out of the White House Situation Room where President Obama and his top leadership team watched the events leading to Osama bin Laden’s death. While Clinton’s expression—hand partially covering her mouth—was the subject of too much scrutiny in the press, Der Tzitung, produced by an ultra-Orthodox Hasidic sect in Brooklyn, sidestepped that hornet’s nest and created another by getting rid of Clinton completely. Why? The editors of Der Tzitung explained:
In accord with our religious beliefs, we do not publish photos of women, which in no way relegates them to a lower status. Publishing a newspaper is a big responsibility, and our policies are guided by a Rabbinical Board. Because of laws of modesty, we are not allowed to publish pictures of women, and we regret if this gives an impression of disparaging to women, which is certainly never our intention. We apologize if this was seen as offensive.
As they saw it, they are upholding laws of modesty. Apparently, their prohibition of photos of any woman at any time is a very strict interpretation of Jewish law—the same laws that direct married women to cover their hair and wear sleeves and skirts of a certain length. As other commentators have made clear, the reason for this is that the sight of a woman’s body is sexually provocative. Within Jewish law, a wife’s modest dress helps maintain the special sacred sexual union that is so essential to married life—sexuality is meant for each other, not for public display. Tznius is the term for this mode of dressing, meaning modesty and subduedness. The aim is dignity—to protect women from being exploited and men from their baser instincts so that they both can focus on higher matters. While the way that Der Tzitung is interpreting these laws—to the degree that they are reinterpreting history—may seem absurd for a religious group that is located in one of the most cosmopolitan centers of the world, Brooklyn, New York, this type of law was actually an important development in cultural evolution, one that eventually enabled women and men to live side by side with the freedoms that we share today.
The transition from the ancient world to a world dominated by the traditional religions marked a significant shift in sexual mores that directly relates to the development of human consciousness. It’s well known that the ancients were, as we would say today, “liberal” in their attitudes toward a range of sexual practices. Homosexuality was fine, as was sex for pleasure or entertainment. But it went far beyond this. Elaine Pagels, in Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, notes that in the time that Christianity was just forming the Romans engaged children of conquered tribes as sex slaves, supported legalized prostitution (both male and female), and saw the sexual impulse as an impetus from the gods. While fidelity in marriage was important, particularly to ensure paternity, and self-control was a virtue, a close reading of Roman cultural artifacts suggests that the ancients experienced the sexual force as almost an external compulsion, rather than an inner one. This is enormously important. At the time of the ancients, the human psyche was fragmented in such a way that one’s inner drives were compulsive, not under conscious control. The strict sexual morality of the Abrahamic religions created very strong guidelines to enable human beings to renounce those impulses and thereby to individuate as responsible, conscious, moral agents. In this light, for example, St. Augustine’s despair and torment over the lust that drove him—and led him to equate lust with sin—makes sense. And so does the Jewish tznius.
My young friend Maura told me another story from her colleague that illustrates this point. Her friend, newly arrived in Afghanistan, thought that she should have a headscarf and went to a local shop to buy one. But she didn’t know how to wear it. So, she did what any American woman would do—she asked the male shopkeeper to show her. Ignorant of the fact that the reason women wear headscarves is to not arouse sexual interest from men, she didn’t understand that she was inviting him to cross a line. The man agreed, and apologized that he would have to touch her. She didn’t get what the big deal was, but as he helped her with the headscarf, his hands roved over her breasts, patting them all over. Touching her hair, touching her breasts—once he’d crossed the line there was not much distinction. It’s all illicit. The young women recognized that, in some way, the man couldn’t help himself.
The “laws of modesty” that led the Orthodox Jewish newspaper to delete Hillary Clinton and the laws governing dress in the Arab world arise from the same historical epoch to foster the development of self-control in relation to one of the most powerful internal drives that moves us. None of us would be here without it, and our “control” of that force is often tenuous at best. (Despite strict Catholic sexual morality, sex scandals in the Church are endemic, for example.) I would imagine that among the Orthodox community in Brooklyn, the extreme interpretation of these laws has less to do with self-control than other gendered dynamics relating to power. But in much of the world, including the Middle East, the need for this strong and rigid boundary is a necessity. (One only has to look at the horrifying attack on CNN reporter Lara Logan to realize how volatile this issue is. While the group of men who assaulted, violated, and nearly dismembered her has been called “a criminal mob,” the more terrifying truth may be that they are not criminals but fairly ordinary men at a certain level of consciousness development who lack the interior resources for self-control and are very easily roused to mayhem. Such behavior, frankly, is not unusual at certain stages of human and cultural evolution.)
This brings me to the second news article, by Jeffrey Goldberg, on what may happen in the post-tyrant Middle East. We associate democracy with liberal ideals and values that support individual freedoms and rights to self-determination. But duly elected governments in the region may not embrace such values. Goldberg observed a recent protest in Tunisia, after the fall of Ben Ali, at the Interior Ministry. These “vociferous, even volatile” young protestors where carrying apparently contradictory signs: the Shahada, a profession of Muslim faith, and “Our Freedom Can’t Wait—Malcolm X.” What were they protesting, men and women together, with such intensity? That the ministry was demanding that women not wear the hijab for their identity card photos. They, men and women alike, wanted women to wear the hijab. As one young woman protestor told Goldberg, “They force women to remove the hijab….This is an insult to Islam. We are demanding that the ministry allow us to wear the hijab at all times.” When he spoke to a young man about this, the man responded: “We are striving for a society in which women understand that they are expected to be modest….There is no compulsion necessary….In a just society, men and women would understand the roles they are supposed to play.”
It is very difficult for us to see this as anything other than oppression or, in Marxist terms, “false consciousness”—that the women are protectively taking on the attitudes of their oppressors. We don’t think of freedom as having anything to do with choosing to wear the burka or hijab. But at a certain stage in consciousness, a woman may not only aspire to a Godly modesty, but realize that she is far safer when covered because there is so little self-control among the men in her community (or in herself). Our sense that democracy is going to magically take care of these gender dynamics and pop people into a totally new value system, consciousness, and culture that supports women’s rights and pluralism is naïve at best. From their perspective, our so-called freedoms whereby girls and women are so blatantly sexualized are a nightmare, a prison made of our most primitive compulsions. They aren’t all wrong about that.
As any developmentalist can tell you, you can’t skip stages in development, and as any political analyst will remind us, no one gives up power easily. Women’s freedom in the Middle East is caught between these two: the lack of interior development that makes this type of “modesty” essential to one’s survival and the resistance of such patriarchal cultures to women’s emergence as a social and political force. These two are deeply intertwined.
Where do we end up? I’m not arguing for a blind cultural relativism. The remarkable drive of evolution moves toward greater freedom, self-determination, and choice. The movement in the Middle East toward more liberal, modernist values for individuals may be slow, halting, and even violent but it is inevitable. But we won’t hasten that process by flaunting our freedoms so that they constantly struggle with being out of control and fear those forward steps. Our responsibility to our brothers and sisters who showed such courage in overthrowing tyranny means that we have to show deep respect for the developmental tasks that they are taking on by recognizing the tumultuous forces, inner and outer, that they are navigating. In other words: I’d wear the headscarf.