I admit it. I'm bothered when I see Muslim women with their heads covered. It feels like it offends the core of my being. And why should it? Why should their choice make any difference to me, any more than gay marriage should matter to straight people?
Here's the take (however incomplete) that drives me to discomfort.
Men see women's sexuality as a threat. They know that even their strongest resolutions have trouble standing up against the promise of sex, a "woman's wiles". It's how they're built, from a purely "body" perspective. It's their achilles heel, a weakness they share with our ancient ancestors. Men get distracted by thoughts of sex. Biological, beyond reason, beyond will. It's a primal power that many have not even mastered, as displayed through violence, displays of anger, jealousy, and yes, catcalling and harassing women. Seeing women's pretty hair, round breasts, bum cheeks, etc. distracts men from their purpose, whatever that is. If they haven't taught themselves to look beyond it, to find the humanity and connect in a non-sexual space, being asked to do so can be very difficult.
Some men expect women to cover for their weakness. They expect women to keep their own power diminished, their sexuality hidden, so the men won't be offended by the reminder that women hold power over them. They expect women to take responsibility for men's sexuality and lack of control over it by removing the temptation, regardless of how headgear or burkhas affect the woman's human life experience.
Seeing women covered only reminds me of how weak men can be.
It reminds me that entire factions of people regard men's lack of control as women's problem. It reminds me of how far we have to go before a woman's human experience is as important in the world as a man's. How far we are from the social equality that peace demands. It reminds me that power over is not the same as power to.
I wonder if women are doing men a favour by covering themselves. Perhaps they pity the men for their weakness, take pity on them by downplaying their sexuality and reinforcing the men's sense of power. In that case, the practice is condescending at best.
Or maybe women cover because they don't want to be seen in a sexual way. Because they are sick and tired (read: I am sick and tired) of being ogled, of not being taken seriously, of being seen as a woman first and human second, of worrying whether a man's sexuality has been triggered by their very presence. Maybe covering is a way to take back power, to say, you may not look at my body in a sexual way. Look at my eyes, that is all you can see and all you need to see. If this is the case, it's still giving men very little credit.
I have experienced conversations with many, many men who did not let my woman-ness interfere with our discourse. I know they are capable of putting aside the biological imperative. I know they can talk with me, aware that my body is female, and let that awareness sink and fade away by giving attention to the work we are doing together, the conversation we are having as humans together on Earth at the same moment and place. That is their responsibility. I expect it from them, and every day, men deliver. They are masters of themselves. They are not so weak, when they choose.
So then it comes back to a God. Did a God tell women that we have to cover ourselves? Some say yes, some say no. I have trouble believing that anything as immense as a God would get into the details of such things, and if a God did, it was probably in response to the men's weakness more than the women's modesty. In fact, if a God did specifically say women had to cover, I think that God should change Her/His mind, and I'd like the chance to be heard if that God is taking any class action hearings on the matter. I don't choose to obey, even if I believed, because I don't accept that it's my responsibility to diminish my woman-ness in order to achieve equal consideration.
I've talked with several amazing Muslim women, some of whom cover, and some who don't. I've worked to try to understand. Largely, they tell me, the choice is culturally comfortable. It's like if I moved to California and suddenly everyone was pressuring me to wear a bikini. I am not comfortable being that close to naked. They are not comfortable being as close to naked as I am in my everyday clothes and uncovered hair. As a bonus, covering meets their cultural and religious norms. They cover because they choose to. I do understand that.
I just don't like it. And I don't like that I don't like it, but, here I am.