Jamil Khader is known around Stetson University as a professor who pushes his students harder than most. He teaches literature, gender and women’s studies, among other boundary-testing disciplines. For the university’s Town Meeting on Diversity last week, he suggested testing boundaries beyond the classroom: “Veil for a Day.” Undergraduates not used to wearing their religion on their sleeve, at least not Islam, would wear one not even their own around their face, with Islam’s most explosive symbol. Khader wanted students to experience what it’s like to be that other person, especially when that other person happens to be one of the most stereotyped, misunderstood and demeaned figure on the planet. Sixteen students and one faculty member went for it. Anyone who thinks we’re a post-racial society should get a load of the reactions.
The fact that there were reactions, “good” or bad, is in itself a sign that differences are not necessarily accepted, let alone tolerated (a word pregnant with more condescension than Simon Cowell’s judgment nights). Some of the students were told they were beautiful. Veils can do that. Unlike stereotypes, veils come in a variety of colors and styles that defy the imagination of your trendiest mall outlets. To call someone beautiful because she’s wearing a veil is a positive reaction, yes, but not a neutral one. How often do we hide our discomforts with strangeness behind square compliments? Better than the alternative, which women experienced plenty: “They were ignored,” Khader says, “despite the visibility of the veil itself, they became invisible for most people. Some students talked about their closest friends who would look at them and not see them, would not know who they are.” If Ralph Ellison were alive, he’d have had himself a sequel rich in irony: “Invisible Woman.”
I was alerted to the experiment by my colleague Mark Harper’s story in the Feb. 11 News-Journal, which drew its own assaults of reactions. “This crap is why prejudice is alive and well, it is learned through this ‘oh, we need to be diverse,’” went one glass-housed stone-thrower. Or: “Since the homocide (sic.) bombers are muslims (sic.) these days, it makes sense to stay away from them and suspect them.” Or: “And to think that Stetson University was founded as a Baptist college. Could it become any further leftist than it has now?” That one from someone who knows about Stetson’s 125 years of progressivism or Baptists’ 200-year history of liberalism — latter-day Southern Baptists excepted — or even less than he or she does about Islam. Online comments mostly amplify the hisses of a community’s degenerates and cowards — literally, the intellectual equivalent of the underwear bomber, as they sit firing Molotov missives in the anonymous comforts of their skivvies. But even degenerates and cowards reflect the state of the culture, otherwise tea parties wouldn’t be the xenophobic phenomenon they are, or veils the unintended triggers they are.
Khader calls women and the veil the “second-major misconception about Muslims in this country” (after the one about Muslims being all potential terrorists). He’s right. One thing we can say with near certainty is that the Muslim veil is as much head scarf as projection screen. I’ll admit to my own projection: I think veils, to quote the word Salman Rushdie used to describe the things, “suck.” I find them primarily sexist, imposed by men on women as means of control rather than proscribed by religion for any rational purpose. Neither the Prophet Muhammad nor the Koran proscribed them. What veils Muhammad’s wives eventually wore, as Muhammad’s importance grew, were the kind worn as status symbol, a habit Muhammad adopted from Christian Byzantine culture. Misogyny and Muhammad’s latter-day dogmatists took over from there.
But it isn’t for me to say what a woman should wear, whatever her reasons. Nor, for that matter, is it for Islam, any other religion or, as is the case in parts of Europe, for government to say, though they frequently do: Turkey (one of the world’s most populous Muslim countries) banned the wearing of the veil on public property until recently. France is preparing to ban the wearing of the more pronounced, full-body covering known as niqab, or burqa, even though no more than 1,900 women wear them in France, a country of 60 million people. Switzerland, whose formerly broadminded voters just banned the building of minarets, may be next. It’s edicts like that that make democracies look no more enlightened than the Taliban.
So far the United States is avoiding those hysterics, at least officially. But reactions to Stetson’s experiment are an indication that diversity in this country is a hierarchy still defined by a mostly white, mostly Protestant, disturbingly insular majority, diminishing though that majority is. Blacks, Latinos and Indians have their admission card to the Diversity Club. Muslims are still in line for questioning.