this year, in an article for National Review called, "
Veil of Fears," I offered a qualified defense of the Muslim
practice of veiling. In that piece, I condemned the Taliban's imposition
of the veil on Afghan women, but also showed why Muslim women veil
in the first place, why the practice is far less onerous than the
Taliban example makes it seem, and why an aggressive effort to stamp
out veiling can only backfire on America and redound to the benefit
of Islamic radicals.
issue is anything but a sideshow. On the contrary, Middle Eastern
regimes have been toppled by disputes over veiling. More than we
realize, in fact, the stability of the region continues to turn
on this issue. So here I want to answer objections to "Veil
of Fears" raised by pundits and letter writers, and to show
in the process what's really at stake in our debates over non-Western
raise three objections to "Veil of Fears" Japan,
Turkey, and the argument that modernization can't work if it's piecemeal.
In "Veil of Fears," I claimed that even when America forcibly
reconstructed a defeated Japan after World War II, we were smart
enough not to seriously challenge the traditional Japanese family
or sexual system. Against this, some object that the constitution
General MacArthur imposed on the Japanese did indeed make revolutionary
changes in the role of women. And plenty of readers point to the
example of Turkey, where women are forbidden to wear headscarves
in many public places. Since there's no danger of a fundamentalist
regime taking over Turkey, worries about reactions against efforts
to discourage veiling seem exaggerated. Finally, a number of readers
complained that it's inconsistent and futile to modernize economically
and politically without also modernizing the role of women. How
can a society modernize when half its people remain traditional?
hardly a better example than Japan of successful economic and political
modernization which nonetheless leaves the traditional family and
sexual system relatively unchanged. So it's worth taking a look
at what really happened to Japanese women after World War II.
It's true that
on paper, immediately after the war, the United States revolutionized
the role of women in Japan. For starters, the post-war constitution
included exactly the sort of equal rights clause that even American
feminists have failed to attach to our own constitution. And after
the war, Japanese women were given the franchise and admitted to
a universal and coeducational school system. The Labor Standards
Law of 1947 contained a whole series of protections for women, including
equal pay for equal work. And revisions of the civil code swept
away the structures of the traditional Japanese household system
eliminating succession through the first born, for example.
That certainly does look like an American-imposed transformation
of the traditional Japanese way of life.
all of these changes were on paper alone. Actually, although a number
of women in America's postwar government pushed for even more radical
attacks on the traditional system, those plans were blocked for
fear of jeopardizing the occupation's key objectives. So the dangers
of a cultural counter-reaction were well understood at the time.
And except for some traditionalist protections that have actually
inhibited women's employment, the key provisions of the Labor
Standards Act of 1947 have never been enforced.
Japanese household may have been technically outlawed by the postwar
civil code, but its fundamental principles and practices live on.
It's a good thing too, since Japan's route to successful modernization
actually involves extending the principles of the traditional household
system to companies. That leaves the franchise and compulsory attendance
at coeducational schools as the living legacy of America's postwar
reforms. But while the education of Japanese women has played a
key role in modernization, it has done so in a manner that can only
disappoint American feminists.
The graph of
Japanese women's lifetime work experience looks like an "M."
Women do work usually part-time after they finish
school. But in middle age, the graph goes down, as the vast majority
of women who have children stay home. After the children leave home,
the graph goes up again, as women return to part-time work. Then
it falls again, as women return home to care for aging parents (Japan
has little in the way of public programs for elder care, which is
thought to be the responsibility of families.)
claim that the postwar laws at least succeeded in "delegitimizing"
the traditional system, but that is doubtful. On the contrary, most
Japanese women are entirely comfortable with the notion that men
and women have different roles to play. True, there are signs of
late that some of the traditionalism is fading. But Japan became
an economic giant and joined the ranks of democratic powers
all while remaining traditional in the matter of male and female
And this is
far from disastrous. Do we really think that American nursing homes
are superior to Japanese family care for elders? And in her groundbreaking
Alone America," Mary Eberstadt has shown the costs to a
generation of America's children of the entry of women into full-time
work. Clearly, there are advantages to having women serve as caretakers.
The Japanese case establishes that this social choice need not stand
in the way of modernization.
no doubt that the well-schooled Japanese mother has helped to make
her country's children among the most educationally successful in
the world. So shouldn't we at least insist that all Muslim women
be schooled in a coeducational environment, just as we did in Japan?
Maybe so, but as I pointed out in, "Veil of Fears," the
rapid spread of coeducational schooling in the Middle East is actually
one of the most important causes of the rise of Muslim fundamentalism.
As traditional women from small towns and rural areas are increasingly
drawn into coeducational schools, the calls for veiling and a return
to Islam have actually increased not as a rejection of work
or education, but as a way of assimilating these innovations without
also destroying the marriage and family system upon which a great
deal of the "work" of Muslim society still depends. So
while educating Muslim women may indeed be a wise and necessary
policy, we shouldn't be so naive as to believe that it will solve
the political problems of the region. On the contrary, for the moment,
education seems to be causing those problems.
But what about
Turkey, to which many point as the model of a successfully modernizing
Muslim country? If Turkey can take a hard line on the veil
even banning it in places and escape a fundamentalist reaction,
why can't other Muslim countries do the same? In part, the answer
has to do with something I discussed in "Veil of Fears."
A particular form of "cousin marriage" marks out the Middle
Eastern kinship system as unique in the world. While veiling and
seclusion can help to protect almost any sort of arranged marriage
system, and are not restricted to Muslim societies, cousin marriage
adds tremendously to the motivation for veiling, since it means
that in protecting their close female relatives from the gaze of
outsiders, Muslim men are in effect protecting their own future
wives. But Turkish culture is an exception to the Middle Eastern
kinship rule. While Turkey's traditional kinship system is some
respects similar to the general Middle Eastern pattern, cousin marriage
was never practiced there. That helps explain why Turkey has had
at least partial success in discouraging the headscarf.
But the belief
that Turkey's anti-veiling policies have not provoked a fundamentalist
reaction is mistaken. On the contrary, the banning of headscarfs
in Turkey's universities has stirred up a furious reaction, having
collided with the large-scale influx of women from traditional parts
of the country to the university system. With the demand to restore
the veil to universities and other public areas as perhaps its most
powerful issue, an Islamist party now threatens to take power in
the next Turkish election an outcome which could easily provoke
a coup or civil war in this critical American ally.
So, given my
"qualified defense" of Muslim veiling, would I recommend
American pressure on the Turkish government to permit the wearing
of the headscarf? Not really. In "Veil of Fears" I argued
for a "realist" policy that both acknowledges the priority
of American security interests and includes a healthy respect for
the dangers of tampering with traditional practices. Turkey is a
strategically critical country a member of NATO, and a key
ally in any future war on Saddam Hussein. I wouldn't recommend jeopardizing
our security interests in Turkey in the name of a crusade for veiling
rights, any more than I'd recommend jeopardizing our position in
other parts of the Muslim world by a crusade against veiling. And
Turkey is unique, in that Kemal Ataturk's reforms have created a
well-established secular tradition in the cities that stands against
the Muslim tradition of the rural areas and small towns. With the
country split between two warring traditions, outside interference
on the veiling issue in either direction is ill advised.
that, the coming showdown between Turkey's "Kemalist"
secularists (named after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern
Turkey) and the Islamists will be an extraordinary event
maybe even a hopeful one (although that is anything but certain).
Contrary to the rosy picture sometimes painted of Turkey's Kemalist
secular regime, the deep hostility between secularists and Islamists
has brought Turkey to a dangerous impasse. By going so far in their
opposition to religion as to ban the headscarf (something Ataturk
himself never did), the Kemalists have polarized the country, without
being able to win over the majority from its loyalty to Islam. Some
believe that, given the determination of the Islamists to establish
a theocratic state, the secularists have little choice but total
opposition. Others argue that the very toughness of Turkey's secularists
has forced the country's religious party to build a more moderate
platform than anywhere else in the Muslim world.
So there have
been calls for a kind of "grand compromise," in which
the Muslim party formally accepts the legitimacy of the secular
state, in return for which the government would grant permission
to veil in universities, offices, and government buildings. The
claim here is that, precisely because of its long secular tradition,
Turkey might be able to forge a moderate accommodation between Muslims
and democracy one that could stand as a model for the Islamic
world as a whole.
is that this could be a false promise and a dangerous one
to boot if Turkey's Islamic "moderates" are, as
many claim, merely feigning moderation in order to gain power. So
maybe the Kemalists are right to believe that no form of Islam will
ever be compatible with modernity. If so, the outlook may be bleak,
since uncompromising Turkish secularism itself seems to have led
to a cultural and political impasse, just as uncompromising Islamism
problem is that there is a profound tension between Muslim society
and modernity. We can hope for a breakthrough in a place like Turkey
(and risk getting badly burned by Muslims who may only seem more
moderate than their counterparts elsewhere in the Middle East),
or we can dig in our heels and go with the region's radical secularists,
although they are clearly losing the battle for the hearts and minds
of their Muslim countrymen. There is no easy answer here, but the
veil is serious business a question on which the fate of
governments literally hangs. And in contrast to Japan, which has
a tradition of assimilating diverse foreign religious practices,
Islamic countries have a history of rebelling against colonial powers
(in Algeria and Afghanistan) and indigenous modernizers (in Iran)
who are hostile to the veil. Given all that, we need to leave it
to the people on the ground to work this issue out among themselves,
rather than messing around in something so explosive and important,
and about which we understand so little.