May 2009 Archives

Philosophy's new clothes

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My most abiding response to Sophie's World is surprise at how narrow the history of philosophy is (in Jostein Gaarder's telling).  The most basic assertion of philosophy is that the "big" questions -- who are you? where does the world come from? -- are universal to humans.  As Gaarder writes in Sophie's Word, "[T]here is something else . . . which everyone needs, and that is to figure out who we are and why we are here."  (p. 14.)  And yet the history that Gaarder writes of the answers to those two questions focuses on the responses of a small group of white men hailing from a sliver of the world's geography. 

I say this not to raise an issue of political correctness, but to question the fundaments of philosophy.  If these questions are universal to humans, why does our history record answers from only so few?  The most obvious possibilities are either that (1) the questions are not universal, (2) that there's a recording problem with the answers, or (3) philosophy has failed to recognize answers to these questions that are offered in another format or under the rubric of another discipline (e.g., myths, political theory, theology).

Is it possible that people don't ask who they are and where the world comes from?  One way of rephrasing this question is to ask if we can we find a society without a creation myth?  Such a society apparently exists: the Pirahã in the Amazon have no identifiable creation myth (as documented in this New Yorker article and this Guardian piece).  The Pirahã also seem not to have a sense of time, which is a likely explanation for why no one in their society asked what existence was like before the Pirahã.

But most societies have a sense of time, along with creation myths.  Are there nonetheless people in those societies that don't ask who they are and where the world comes from?  Without having conducted any empirical research on the question, I'd venture to say "yes."  Asking these questions requires a degree of self-awareness; and self-awareness isn't as common to the human condition as, say, phlegm. 

Gaarder might disagree with me.  In Sophie's World, Gaarder argues that the capacity for wonder is innate in children, and society drums it out of them: "Although philosophical questions concern us all . . . . [f]or various reasons most people get so caught up in everyday affairs that their astonishment at the world gets pushed into the background."  (p. 19.) 

My own perspective is that the process often works in the reverse: absent awareness raising at the outset, people won't necessarily ask "who am I?" and "where does the world come from?"  In my own view, the capacity for wonder, like compassion, is innate only in varying degrees in different individuals, and it must be cultivated.  Sophie's World is itself an account of such calculated cultivation.

Moving on to the second question, is it possible that there are some recording problems with the answers?  I feel confident in saying that oral cultures got the shaft when the history of philosophy was compiled.  Without a written record, oral cultures faced problems preserving their thougths and communicating them across geography, time and language. Whether anything can be done to restore the knowlegdge banks of oral cultures is doubtful -- these repositories largely exist only in the memories of the long-dead -- but the issue of this "lost" contribution to human thinking shades into the third question as well:

Is it possible that the history of philosophy hasn't recognized answers to its questions that were offered in different formats, or under the rubric of different disciplines?  In Sophie's World, Gaarder includes coverage of Darwin, Marx and Freud, people who are not primarily associated with the discipline of philosophy, so perhaps Gaarder would reject my third question.  But I believe the challenge remains.  Aside from Gaarder's exclusion of obvious candidates, like Confucius and Buddha (there are passing references to him, but nothing in depth), Gaarder doesn't confront the fact that modes of thinking in societies vary depending on whether the society is an oral or literate one.

"Without writing, the literate mind would not and could not think as it does. . . . More than any other single invention, writing has transformed human consciousness," writes Walter Ong, a Jesuit priest and English professor, in his 1982 book Orality and Literacy.  People in literate cultures think differently; they organize information and construct the world in patterns that diverge from those that predominate in oral cultures.  Thus, they may ask different questions; and even if the questions are the same, the answers will certainly be different.  A thousand years ago, the Kyrgz tribe answered the question "who are we?" with the epic poem, Manas.  Is it philosophy?  Probably not.  Does it belong in the history of human thought about philosophical questions?  Probably yes.

From this brief examination of these three questions, the shape of an answer to my original question -- why does the history of philosophy include answers from such a narrow range of humanity? -- begins to emerge.  Specifically, before an individual will offer answers to philosophical questions that qualify for inclusion in the history of philosophy, he or she must live in a culture that:
  • has a sense of time;
  • creates conditions for the cultivation of wonder (or, alternatively, creates conditions that don't squash a sense of wonder innately present in an individual);
  • is literate.
Undoubtedly there are more factors, but this is (an already too long) blog post, not a treatise, so let's leave it at those three.  The important point, however, is that philosophy's claims for universality seem rather frail.  If we can't even say that every human society experiences time, or has a creation myth, how can we agree with Kant's theory (as phrased by Gaarder) that "moral law has the same absolute validity as the physical laws. . . . It applies to all people in all societies at all times."  (p. 330.)  It's an intriguing idea -- and one that might even be to some extent right, if an innate sense of fairness can be equated with morality -- but Kant based his assertion on only the slenderest sampling of human culture and society, which either makes his claims for the power of reason either absurdly arrogant or pitiably silly.

And here, perhaps, is the practical answer to the question of why the history of philosophy includes answers from such a limited range of people: philosophy's insistence on the supremacy of human reason and the universality of its application to humanity, regardless of evidence (or its absence), appeals to a particular kind of ego that often goes by another name: asshole.

Sophie needs less world and more story

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Almost two years ago, I saw Jostein Gaarder give a talk in Beijing.  His general theme was the human propensity for stories: we learn information when it is situated in the context of a story.  Gaarder plainly assimilated the principle without mastering its application.  Sophie's World, which I've just read for the first time, isn't an example of a well-crafted story: it's more of a series of lecture notes for a high school philosophy class strung together with a "frame" that falls apart into an unsatisfying heap by book's end.  

Nonetheless, Sophie's World delighted me in places.  In particular, I was amused because I recalled Gaarder saying that he started out writing Sophie's World without knowing what would happen, and that he spent a lot of time taking long walks around Oslo, trying to figure out how to end the story he'd started.  His resolution actually comes in the middle, not at the end, of the book -- SPOILER ALERT! I'm going to reveal the plot twist -- Gaarder makes Sophie and her philosophy teacher, Alberto, realize that they are nothing more than characters in a book that another man, Albert, is writing as a birthday present for his daughter, Hilde.  The book's plot, such as it is, consists of a not-at-all convincing rebellion of characters against their author.

That said, I love the construct, and I wish Gaarder would've followed it through brilliantly.  His basic insight -- that characters, no matter fictional, seem to have an existence apart from their creator -- immediately resonated with me.  When I'm writing, I often feel like an archeologist, excavating a character that exists independently of me, and that my job is to extract him or her as completely and sensistively as I can.  (In fact, Gaarder uses archeology as a metaphor to describe a process not dissimilar to novel writing -- psychotherapy, which he terms an "archeology of the soul." p. 426.) 

But from what material am I excavating my characters?  Reality?  My imagination?  Another dimension?  I don't know -- probably all three -- but I do occasionally feel that my characters "keep me honest": I can't just make them do whatever I feel like having them do; they have individual integrity, and the range of plot possibilities available to them is determined by their personalities.  I can't make Chastity in Portnoy's Daughter keep her adultery a secret; and I can't force Pip in The Swing of Beijing to call Tyler a loser when he ejaculates prematurely; and even I can't save Dean from his own rotten judgment in Waiting for Love Child (although I probably punish him too harshly).

I am startled every time I feel "push back" from my characters, but I respect "their" resistance because it's guidance on plot development.  The feedback I get from my characters, however imagined (or nonsensical or irrational) that dialectic may be, steers the story on an organic (as opposed to formulaic or externally-determined) course that's consistent with the voice and feel of the created space my characters inhabit. 

Like Gaarder, I don't know what's going to happen when I start writing.  My literary mentor, D.M. Thomas, once wrote to me, "You don't have to know what the end of the journey is.  As Pushkin writes in 'Autumn' -- 'We sail.  Where shall we sail?...'  You are Columbus."  (That's why he's my literary  mentor; the man knows what he's talking about!)  In Portnoy's Daughter, the final chapter, the apotheosis of the story, didn't exist -- even in my most transitory thinking -- until D.M. Thomas told me to write it.  In Waiting for Love Child, my notes for the plot said, "Reveal secret why Lan's parents don't talk to one another."  What that secret was I didn't know until I wrote the chapter.  In both these examples, what I eventually wrote turned out to be "clincher" passages for the plot and meaning of the book.  And those passages function the way they do because I was guided by the characters, not vice versa; or, at least, I wasn't consciously, rationally or cerebrally guiding the story development.

Ultimately, that's my guess about where Gaarder went wrong: he experienced the phenomenon I've described, but he couldn't resist getting cerebral about it, and consequently the life he'd sparked on the page withered.  (He's aware that interference by the cerebellum in reflexive, irrational, creative processes -- like dancing -- is fatal; see the tortoise and centipede story on page 437.)  I can't blame Gaarder; philosophy is cerebral, overly so.  Philosophy is no more conducive to good story telling than physics

I'm not saying that a well-told novel about the history of philosophy is splitting the atom; but it's probably close.      

The politically incorrect imagination

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Occasionally, I stumble across a quote that sums up my thoughts exactly.  At such moments, I'm startled at the connection that I share with this other person, typically someone I've never met, maybe even a person from another age.  I had such an experience when I read this NYT review of two of Amos Oz's recent publications.  At the end of the article, Oz says, "I believe that imagining the other is a powerful antidote to fanaticism and hatred.  It is, in my view, also a major moral imperative."

I've written before about the importance of imagining the perspectives of "the other" as a basis for compassion, which is incompatible with fanatical hatred.  But the intense identification I felt with Oz's quote related not to these musings, but to my reaction to Adam Hochschild's book, King Leopold's Ghost.

In his thorough research and quoting from primary sources, Hochschild deserves much praise for King Leopold's Ghost.  Nonetheless, Hochschild's story-telling annoyed me.  In presenting his data, Hochschild chose to inhabit the mind of King Leopold, but refused to inhabit the minds of the Congolese living under his oppressive regime.  Hochschild repeatedly offers subjective opinions about Leopold's character, thoughts, morality and conduct, portraying these assumptions as conclusions drawn from evidence.  In reality, they are PC condemnations of a man whose time, thinking, and morality are alien to Hochschild.

Hochschild doesn't make the same mistake with the Congolese.  To the contrary, he refuses to offer any speculation about how they might feel.  The Congolese were routinely flogged to death and forced to walk hundreds of miles over rocky terrain infested with insects that burrowed into their feet, all the while lugging obscenely heavy cargo.  How might they have felt about those circumstances?  According to Hochschild, we have no idea because of the lack of primary sources written by Congolese.

Hochschild's approach is, to my way of thinking, PC nonsense.  In reality, we have no more primary source about King Leopold's mind than we do about the inner thinking of the Congolese who suffered for Leopold's pleasure.  The concept of "primary sources" begins to break down when the "facts" we are hoping the source will "establish" are thoughts, mindsets and moral constructs.  Yes, it's true that people can leave written records of their thoughts.  But most people are inarticulate, and even the articulate among us very often have only an imperfect grasp of the operation of their own minds.  We can never truly know the mind of another to the standard of historical fact.  We can only ever conjecture.

My criticism is not that Hocschild was, of necessity, required to offer conjectures.  My concern is that he doesn't seem to realize that he's offering conjectures about King Leopold, while refusing to do so for the Congolese.  Hochschild, a white man, seems to feel comfortable inhabiting the perspective another white man for purposes of condemning (what appears to our eyes today as) his racism and immorality; but Hochschild doesn't seem to feel qualified to imagine how it felt to be a Congolese person under King Leopold's rule.  Although Hochschild purportedly supports the Congolese against King Leopold, the Congolese remain to him an "other" beyond his imagination. 

Is it really so impossible to imagine the Congolese perspective?  A man is forced, on pain of death, to march three hundred miles across land that razors his feet.  He's carrying an 80 pound load.  He's not fed enough.  Knowing these facts (which are confirmable through primary sources), is it possible that he's pleased about the situation?

I reject the idea that it's wrong for me to ask these questions because I am a white, American woman living in the 21st century, and the Congolese who lived and died under King Leopold were black tribal people living in the 19th and 20th centuries.  I cannot, of course, know comprehensively or viscerally what the experience of their lives was like, but mental connections (whether imaginative, cognitive or both) between me and the Congolese are as possible as they are between me and Amos Oz.  Indeed, they are not merely possible but, according to Oz, morally necessary.

Oz's assertion that imagining the other is a moral imperative stands as a severe condemnation of Hochschild's political correctness (however well-intentioned).  Isolating another group as being beyond the imagination, whether out of respect or out of maliciousness, forecloses meaningful comprehension and compassion. 

Far from demonstrating his sensitivity, Hochschild has undermined his credibility with his PC crutch.  By constructing King Leopold's Congolese subjects as unimaginable others, he has telegraphed one indelible impression: fear of criticism.

The rejuvenating power of browsing

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I've had a stressful day.  I'm in Pune, India, consulting for a humanitarian aid NGO and training to be a water purification specialist for refugee camps.  I've been up since 5:30 a.m., I'm adjusting to a new place, new food, people staring at me all the time like I'm a freak; I'm disciplining myself to smile back warmly, learning new information, lining up the next job, planning research for the next novel, studying French, managing the sublet of my house in another country; by 8 p.m., I was stressed.  I needed a drink, but -- because I'm going to Chiplune, in rural Maharashtra, tomorrow to document disaster risk reduction programming in a landslide zone; departure time: 5:00 a.m. -- I needed first to buy a small duffel bag and a notebook and pen.  (Somehow I have two mobile phones, two laptops, a camera, a camcorder, an iPod, an mp3 player, a flash drive and an external hard drive with me, but no notebook.)

On my way down Paud Road in Kothrud, Pune, in search of a notebook, I passed a sheet spread out on the rubble at the side of the road (what passes for sidewalk).  On the sheet were copies of books, mostly used.  I began scanning the titles.  A man, the bookseller, heaved himself towards me, and I waved my hands to indicate that I didn't want any intrusion on my browsing.  Jeffrey Archer, P.G. Wodehouse, John Grisham.  Blink.  Think and Grow Rich, by Napoleon Hill, a book that'd been on my father's bookshelf my entire childhood.  The Warren Buffet Way.  Four copies of The Earth Is Flat.  The Greatness Guide by Robin Sharma.  Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul I, II AND III.  A wide assortment of Paulo Coelho:  The Alchemist, Brida, The Witch of Portobello, Like the Flowing River, The Zahir.  The Harry Potter series, including Tales of the Beetle Bard.  White Tiger, Inheritance of Loss; How Opal Metha Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life.

A slim volume caught my attention: The Reluctant Fundamentalist.  Short-listed for the Booker.  I'd heard of it.  I hadn't seriously considered reading it until it was in my hands.  I approached the bookseller and negotiated, ultimately paying less than two dollars.

As I slipped the book in my bag and headed off in search of my notebook, I noticed that my mood was perceptibly lightened.  I felt positively buoyant.  I had no doubt that my levity was thanks to browsing.  In glancing over unrelated titles and drawing connections between them ("So this is how Indians see the U.S.," "So these are the titles that transcend the preference of regional and natonal markets"), in giving time to titles that I wouldn't have chosen (circumstances being conducive) to mull, I'd dislodged the neurotic miasma that'd been souring my evening.

My newfound cheeriness wasn't impaired by the discovery that I'd purchased a counterfeit book -- decent cover but poorly bound and with wobbly centering of the printing on the page -- or the follow-on conclusion that I'd way overpaid. 

Brooklyn -- and Beijing

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"Is it surprising if a seed grows where it lands, once it's been scattered? Can it be helped? In 'Brooklyn,' Colm Toibin quietly, modestly shows how place can assert itself, enfolding the visitor, staking its claim."  This passage in Liesl Schillinger's NYT review of Colm Toibin's novel Brooklyn made me thoughtful because the question of how "place can assert itself" is the subject of two of my novels, The Swing of Beijing and Waiting for Love Child.

In both books, the "place" at issue is Beijing.  In The Swing of Beijing, Beijing is asserts itself in anything but a quiet, modest way.  Rather, the city is a constant challenge to its expatriate residents, an obstacle to their goals, a menace to their souls. 

In Waiting for Love Child, Beijing is more seductive and less aggressive.  The city still crushes Dean Cannon, the expatriate protagonist of Love Child, but the city isn't confrontational; rather, it lures Dean into burrowing into its trap.

In my real life, having been an expatriate in Beijing for more than four years now, the ways in which extpatriates grow in relation to, and in resistance of, Beijing has been consistently fascinating because of the unique landscape of the city.  It's generally welcoming to foreigners (as long as you're not a democracy or Tibet protestor, or Falun Gong supporter), but it's also isolating of outsiders.  You can't join Beijing society; as an expat, you'll never be Chinese.  (Even if you marry a Chinese person, you can't get citizenship).

Outsiders are allowed to form their own enclaves in Beijing, enclaves that are free from the social regulation of both Chinese society and the societies from which the expatriates hail.  Up until recently, expatriates were virtually above the law, as well.  In this context, free from constraints that keep seedlings growing ever "up" in the U.S., seeds can grow in truly warped and delightful directions in Beijing.
 
Liesl Schillinger's two questions, "Is it surprising?" and "Can it be helped?" are also interesting.  I haven't yet read Brooklyn, but from Schillinger's review, the circumstance that prompts her questions is that Eilis, the protagonist, falls in love with an Italian, rather than holding her life in stasis, waiting to return to Ireland.  Should it be surprising that Eilis falls in love with an "outsider" in this strange land?  Can it be helped?

Having lived in Beijing and responded to its rhythm, and watched others do the same, I'm not surprised.   When people are ready to get married, they fall in love with whoever's around them, whether at home or in a far-away place. 

But I do think it "can be helped."  Occasionally, I see an expatriate in Beijing holding themselves back from the city, refusing its provocations and temptations, treading water until they can return again to the open-seas-like-pond of the U.S.  And, although I empathisize with their fear of how Beijing will change them, and although I recognize in their self-control and defendedness a kind of strength, I'm not really interested in these people. 

Not interested enough to write two novels about them.
If you're like me, committing to the first page of a book is committing to the last page as well: there's no putting a book down mid-way.  And therefore, if you're like me, a book like A House for Mr. Biswas is a period of incarceration with a cellmate so annoying that you'd be willing to trade for a rapist: at least then something would happen.

The most fascinating aspect of Mr. Biswas, from my perspective, is the question of why V.S. Naipaul would write a book about his protagonist, Mohun Biswas, in the first place.  Mr. Biswas is passive, immature, asexual and whiny.  Two behavior patterns prevail throughout his life: when confronted with an unlucky circumstance, he complains in a manner intended -- without succeeding -- to be funny; and, on the rare occasion when he rouses himself to action, disaster ensues (e.g., when Mr. Biswas almost burns down his house in Shorthills after unsuccessfully attempting to "fire the land" with a ritual bonfire earlier in the evening).

Unsurprisingly, with such a character at the helm, the book has no discernible plot.

Its meandering course follows Mr. Biswas's habitation of successive homes offered to him by his wife's family, a cloying, manipulative, repellent clan.  Mercifully, V.S. Naipaul kills Mr. Biswas at forty-six (and a painful 623 pages -- had the man lived a normal lifespan, into his sixties, say, the book could've rambled on for another four hundred pages). 

Without question, Mr. Biswas contains detailed and thoughtful passages about the human and geographic environment in which Mr. Biswas exists, and Naipaul has a sharp eye for the decrepit state in which much of the human population lives.  The topic, also, is promising: exploration of the relationship between home and identity is powerful material.  Finally, I don't doubt that Mr. Biswas is a faithful, realistic portrayal of a near destitute man in a developing country.

But none of this adds up to "page turner."  Nor, I should add (since being a "page turner" is not my sole criteria for an entertaining book), does Mr. Biswas amount to a pleasant occupation of one's mental energies. 

Finishing Mr. Biswas, I thought longingly of Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, another book that explores the topic of home and identity, in the context of an impoverished household, and that -- thanks in part to its extended passages on theology -- moves slowly.  I didn't read Gilead quickly, but I loved reading it and looked forward to the time I'd spend each day with it.  Mr. Biswas, on the other hand, was a chore to finish.

The difference between the two is in the character of their protagonists.  John Ames is a sympathetic character, a man who waits and seeks -- just like Mr. Biswas -- but whose personality was so compelling that I found it a pleasure to sit down and wait with him.  Mr. Biswas (even the fact that Naipaul insists on using the distancing "Mr." in his address of the character) had no such charm: time spent in his presence was time spent wishing I was elsewhere. 

Plot or character appeal: a novel has to have one or the other (and preferably both).  Otherwise, I'm committing to doing time.  
Primastuti Handayani.jpgIn my previous blog post about a French court case denying a Muslim woman citizenship on the basis that her burqa prevented her from adequately assimilating in France, I wrote, "in its drawing a connection between burqas and female submission, the holding also seems ignorant of the plurality of Islamic women's attitudes about being veiled."  When I wrote that sentence, I was thinking of Primastuti Handayani ("Yani"), the managing editor of The Jakarta Post, pictured left.  She and I had met at a recent conference on HIV and AIDS, and we'd chatted about the headscarf she was wearing.  At the time, she'd articulated a rationale for her headscarf that was both nuanced and empowering.  Appropos of my previous blog post, I wrote to her, asking for elaboration.  Her responses (edited slightly to adjust for the format) are below.   

1.  How many women in your family wear headscarves?
Only my younger sister and I wear headscarves in my family (my parents have three daughters), but my mother-in-law and my sister-in-law also wear headscarves.

2.  When did they start wearing them?  Did you grow up with women wearing headscarves in your family or in your neighborhood?
My sister began wearing a headscarf about a year earlier than I did.  I began in December 2005, so basically it's still a new thing for me.  I didn't really grow up in a "devoted" Muslim family because, although most of my family are from Javanese ethnic group, we have different religions.  My grandmother (on my mother's side) was a Buddhist, my paternal grandfather was agnostic, my other grandparents followed "Kejawen" beliefs, which are not really a religion.  My sisters and I went to Catholic schools until we graduated from junior high (except the youngest who continued going to Catholic high school and unversity).  And in my neighborhood, most of my neighbors are from Chinese descents and most of them are Christians. So my environment growing up was a bit of mixing this and that.

3.  Why did you personally decide to wear a headscarf?
It is written in the Koran, and I thought I would be ready to wear one.  But it took me three months to think about it, asking my seniors and colleagues and a few ullemas about my wish and most of them left my decision to me.  So I was fully aware of the consequences when I decided to wear headscarves.

4.  Do you consider your headscarf an expression of religious belief, Indonesia culture or both?
I think it is more on a religious belief.  In my culture (Javanese), the traditional costume called kebaya shows a bit of our body although it has long sleeves and long dresses and you have to style your hair in a bun --  although today many of us prefer not to wear those except at wedding ceremonies (hahahaha).  Also, I think for many Muslim women in Indonesia, the way we dress is more fashionable and more up-to-date compared to, let say, the Middle East. We can still wear jeans, suits (like for office workers), long-sleeves T-shirts and tunics. Indonesian Muslim women's attire is really beautiful, with embroideries, beads and other accessories.

5.  Do you feel differently about a headscarf and a burqa?  For example, do you findi t difficult to communicate with or relate to women whose faces are covered by veils?
Personally I don't really think it's necessary to cover our face by veils.  First, I'm a journalist, and it'd be impossible for me to work wearing a burqa because my newsources wouldn't recognize me.  Second, my teacher told me that a burqa is more of an Arabic costume than what Islam teaches us to wear.  (Hopefully, my opinion won't spark protest hahahaha.)

6.  Do you think there are some instances where headscarves are oppressive to women?
I don't think the headscarves are oppressive to women, they're just fabrics.  I think people's stigma and discrimination to women wearing headscarves matter more. Also, what's beneath the headscarf is more important than the headscarves themselves.  I believe Muslim women could stand out and do something for their family, their country and their religion.  In most families, especially in Indonesia's big cities, women are more dominant than men, in the sense that they do more multi tasking -- they handle family issues, workplaces and social lives.  But there is still a sad phenomenon especially in villages where women, not only Muslims, don't really have the chance to voice their concerns on numerous issues.  They are still treated as properties instead of individuals.  In this case, the oppression is not about religion, but more about gender issues.

7.  Now that you wear a headscarf, are there any things that are harder to do than when you didn't wear a headscarf?  Easier?
No more hangouts hahahaha ... well, not really because I never enjoyed hangout at clubs before wearing the headscarves.  The hardest thing is actually going abroad and facing immigration officers in different countries. They often looked at me with suspicion -- I can deal with it -- and I couldn't blame them especially after the 9/11 tragedy.  Some friends still feel uncomfortable if they want to drink alcohol or talk dirty in front of me, but I actually don't care if they do.  Things are getting easier in terms of no men on the streets screaming at me, calling me "fatty" or other rude words.  Maybe they think I'm a very nice lady and don't deserve to be mistreated hahahaha.

8.  What's the rationale for the requirement in the Koran that women be covered?
  The Koran says it is better for women to cover their whole body to protect themselves because centuries ago women were treated badly.  And I think it's still relevant to today's situation, although today is much much better than before.

9.  What have you told your daughter about wearing a headscarf?  Do you encourage her to wear one?
I never encourage her to wear headscarves although she really looks beautiful wearing it.  I just teach her how to pray, tell her stories from Koran (those which can be understood by a 6-year-old girl) and tell her values, both Islamic and Javanese values, that she must obey.  If one day she wants to wear headscarves too, that will be her choice and not my order. Life is full of choices anyway.

(Photo courtesy of LG Sangnam Press Foundation.)

Who's afraid of a head scarf?

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Recently, I consulted at a seminar about how to use the media to reduce stigma and discrimination relating to HIV and AIDS.  Nine Asian countries participated in the seminar, including Malaysia and Indonesia, both of which sent representatives wearing headscarves.  These two women were journalists, and they were among the most open-minded and enthusiastic of the conference's attendees.

They sprang to mind when I read Robert O. Paxton's New York Review of Books article, "Can You Really Become French?"  In it, he refers to a French immigration case, denying a Muslim woman French citizenship on the ground that her burqa precluded her from assimilating adequately into French culture.  The Conseil d'état ruled that the woman had "adopted a radical practice of her religion incompatible with the essential values of the French community and notably with the principle of equality between the sexes."

The holding seems a bit rich in a country where women didn't vote until 1945.  Moreover, in its drawing a connection between burqas and female submission, the holding also seems ignorant of the plurality of Islamic women's attitudes about being veiled.  In this particular woman's case, she wore the burqa at her husband's request; would the case have come out differently had she chosen to wear it herself?

The court's linkage of the burqa and female submission prompted law professor Danièl Lochak to comment, "if you follow that to its logical conclusion, it means that women whose partners beat them are also not worthy of being French," a thought that highlights other uncomfortable questions about the court's conception of "equality between the sexes":  Is equality between the sexes promoted by denying the benefits of citizenship to the most vulnerable women in society?  Is equality between the sexes promoted by allowing men, but not women, to adhere to conservative Islamic practices?  For that matter, is equality between the sexes promoted by a policy that taken to another -- equally absurd, though equally logical -- extreme requires a woman's mode of dress to be more stylish than a burqa in order for her to be worthy of being French?

I thought back to a conversation I'd had with one of the veiled journalists at the seminar.  "Americans always assume that a woman in a headscarf is being oppressed," I'd said.  "Really?" she asked.  "We thought Americans thought all women in headscarves are terrorists."  Plainly, there's room for more curiosity and less knee-jerk responses on both sides.

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