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April 27, 2010
Do I dare write about Muslims so soon after writing about fundamentalism? Shouldn't I put something funny about the cats in between? Probably, but if writing more than a thousand eMos over almost a decade has taught me anything, it has been to go with what comes up.

Because the French and the Swiss are on my mind. A few months ago, Switzerland voted to prohibit the building of mosques with minarets. The minaret is a symbol of Muslim domination, they said. The posters they created to advertize their position featured a line of black minarets that looked for all the world like missles, with a veiled woman in the foreground. And the French have banned women wearing the hijab in any public buildings including, of course, courtrooms and schools. Veiling is oppressive to women, President Sarkozy said, and has no place in a secular republic.

But wait a minute. The minaret is an architectural device designed to help make the voice of the muzzein audible over the din of the marketplace, with its maze of winding streets -- a tower from which he would chant the call to prayer five times a day. It was the medieval equivalent of a public address system. Only large mosques have minarets today -- most mosques are storefronts. It turns out that there are only four mosques in all of Switzerland that even have minarets.

And veiling may be oppressive to women but so, surely, is legislating what they may and may not wear. Moreover, banning headcoverings for Muslim women in public buildings will have the immediate unintended consequence of denying them access to both education and to the courts -- a family in which covering is expected will not be a family that allows its woman to appear in public bareheaded. Whatever we may think it should be, that it what it is: maybe that family should hold a view other than the one it holds and should conduct its affairs differently, but what will actually happen is that the girls will have to stay home. A measure intended to liberate will further enslave.

When I was a young priest, it was part of my responsibility to prepare young people for Confirmation. As the time for the bishop's visit drew near, the children were excited about many things, including their attire: unaccustomed suits for the boys, who were bored by the concept, and white dresses for the girls, who were a little more interested. That was the year after the parish had retired the little white veils girls wore for this rite -- just too patriarchal. I was surprised - though I shouldn't have been -- to learn that the girls themselves wanted the veils. They thought they were pretty. But I wanna look like a bride! one of them said, and the rest giggled. I was torn: I understood both the patriarchy part and the pretty part. Veils are about preserving chastity, a motif pretty much absent from the Confirmation rite as we have it, which is about making an adult profession of one's faith. But veils are also about pretty: most, though not all, of my brides wear them, including brides who have lived with their grooms for a long time before marrying them. Maybe the veil was originally about preserving a woman's virtue by hiding her beauty, but now it's just about the transition from one state to another. You don't know all there is to know about something just because you know its orgins. Every religious and cultural symbol acquires layers of additional meaning as time passes, and it takes time for time to pass.

Change in religious tradition probably can't be legislated from the outside. It must grow. The empowerment education brings will help women secure it for themselves, and this will be a painful, back-and-forth process, much slower than we might prefer. The primary engine of this empowerment will be exposure to modernity, not draconian sumptuary laws that reinforce a seige mentality among Islamists and make even moderate Muslims uneasy about their place in western society.
To see the Swiss anti-minaret poster, visit
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