When I see a girl or woman walking down the street with a headscarf and bent shoulders, a bit sad from afar, I wonder if her troubles come from cultural oppression. I want to ask her but don’t, politely.
Some bragging: in 1987, I had an Arab year.
After eight months of intensive self-study, in between a part-time job as an occupational physician, I was able to read the Quran in beautiful vowel Arabic, and I attended the last year of Arabic evening school at the university level. As a counterbalance to the bragging: after four months, I was tired of it. Anyway, during that same period, I also digested everything Arabic I could find: Mahfouz, Al Saadawi, Warda, and so on. Pearls, all of them. I still carry much affinity.
At its core, Islam is ultimately too beautiful and too pure a religion for many people. They do their best. I was only allowed to taste it a bit. It is heaven on earth, but the earth does not tolerate it just like that.
Whizz, now I catapult us to Casablanca 2014.
A straight street facing the sea, on my way to a nearby mosque. Imagine a lean, entirely burqa-clad beauty strolling right in front of me. Jesus! A beautiful woman can also be beautiful without showing a tad of skin. I still remember the color of her burqa. I remember which side of the street she was walking on.
In the mosque, my little residual Arabic and my knowledge of mosque customs came in handy. It is a fantastic environment to meditate. My meditation went very well. The beautiful memory helped as an exercise to deal with that too. Such can be and is even very interesting. The sensitive reader notes that, of course, this also contributes to keeping in memory the beauty till now.
Oh my, all the forbidding
Here they forbid a woman to wear a headscarf; there to wear none; over there perhaps to imagine something in this regard. As to the latter, everything must be neutral, and in the neutral, one loses everything that is outside the neutral. And that is a lot.
It’s a pity. I love to see a beautiful headscarf now and then, worn by a beautiful woman, being just a woman who can find herself beautiful and of any age. As a man, you can help her with that, and vice versa. Ethics of beauty!
Fortunately, there is Antwerp Cathedral, for example. Enough Maria’s with headscarves if allowed to say so. Coincidentally, the most beautiful is a Maria (Holy Mary) statue of the 14th century with a cloth on her hair – in stone! – that falls as elegantly as her clothes. It’s a miracle almost right around the corner from my apartment.
Around 1990, I was a general practitioner
on the border between the Jewish and Muslim neighborhoods of Antwerp. There they sat nicely next to each other in my waiting room, papillote and headscarf, between socialists (lefties) and liberals (righties). Material for many pleasant conversations and also some medicine. By the way, I started thinking there and then about placebo and medicine, which resulted in a Ph.D. years later. In the meantime: everyone was welcome; they for me and I for them. Jews sometimes still had numbers on their arms. One of my friend patients took me to the Romy Goldmuntz synagogue for beautiful Jewish hymns during worship. Fantastic. I was a naive guy who thought that this was all openly the future, really, until 1993.
I don’t know if you’re equally naive, but I got a bang on black (ultra-right) Sunday in Antwerp that year. I haven’t wept from sadness since, until now with COVID in the air. Please let people be themselves. Tolerance is a beautiful Western virtue, profoundly part of our culture. Do we let it be taken away? If we become intolerant, we have already lost this crucial part of culture anyway.
And I still believe in an open future
without forbidding anything except the forbidding itself unless it really, really, really cannot be otherwise. Religious symbols are meant to be enjoyed and not just as a tourist. I mean: enjoyed deeply, something like what you can remember years later, and it still touches you. We should not lose those moments, not even for the sake of neutrality. If the latter serves to honor those moments, then I’m all for it.
If a woman has to wear a veil or scarf or burqa for any other reason, then I am against it. If she doesn’t like it, then I’m against it. But if anything is because of beauty, then I’m always completely for it. In the meantime, we naturally have to keep a society going. This was just a reverie about the future, a dream with strong appeal.