Monday, October 23, 2006

On Cosmetic Surgery and Veils

We have a great 'magazine wall' at work - like in many libraries the most recent magazines and papers are held in holders, with the back issues stored in a cupboard behind. One magazine that my institute has started subscribing to more recently is New Scientist, and whilst microwaving some cold coffee hot (taste issues aside, is this the green thing to do as opposed to making a fresh pot?) one of the titles on the front cover caught my eye: "Nip & Tuck: Cosmetic Surgery's link to Suicide". According to the article, medical interest in this subject was sparked two big studies in Canada and the US that looked at large numbers of women who had had breast implants. The idea was to see if the persistent rumours that implants can cause cancer or other diseases were true or not. They seemed not to be, but both studies showed that women with implants are more likely to kill themselves. There are many possibilities as to why this is so, and the article suggests that no one really understands why yet, but further studies in Sweden, Finland, and Denmark suggest similar. Basically a woman with implants is 2 to 3 times more likely to kill herself.

The hundreds, perhaps thousands, of fellow climbers who hang out on UKclimbing.com arguing with each other over just about everything remains my way of gauging the British zeitgeist whilst up here in more northern climes. Of course over the last few weeks, of the non-climbing matters discussed, since Jack Straw's now (in)famous comments the veil or niqab has been about the most popular topic for debate (well, "battle" more like). The issue of breast implants had, somewhat oddly, come up (thanks to Jenn for starting the ball rolling with her "research" of reading Cosmo and Marie Claire whilst ill in bed!). It might have even been me who brought up the connection between the two things first, arguing that I wish women didn't feel the need to veil themselves, but if it is their choice and not imposed it seems illiberal to me to tell them they can't - at least when it doesn't impinge on others (which is what makes the case of the teaching assistant more difficult). In the same way I also wish that women didn't feel the need to pay surgeons, and take the risks that come with surgery, to change their body shape (and lets just stick with cosmetic surgery as opposed to those who need similar procedures for reconstructive purposes), but again it seems illiberal to say that they can't.

Considering that the niqab is about taking modesty to what many see as ridiculous lengths whilst a boob-job is basically the opposite, it might seem an odd comparison. But I think it is worth considering beyond the obvious parallel that central to both issues is how women are seen by men. Much of the UK debate over veils has revolved around whether it is divisive (for what it's worth, it is in my opinion) and hampers the forming of an inclusive society (again probably yes); in other words does it have a social cost? But what the New Scientist article suggest is cosmetic surgery has social costs as well - and as anyone who has lost a friend or someone close to them by suicide knows - it could be quite a high cost in a way few had considered before this research.

Central to classical liberal thinking is the position of the individual's rights vis-a-vis the good, however measured, of the greater community. I'm not fully convinced either way on either issue, but for non-Muslims who oppose a Muslim woman's right to wear a veil, they better have their arguments in coherent logical order when it comes to the position of women in western society as well.

5 comments:

KGS said...

Toby,
Both phenomenon's are to a degree, a direct result of misogynist societal pressure upon women to conform to male expectations. One stems from religious considerations and the other secular. But while both pressures need to be repudiated as an unacceptable "norm" for women in general, the "veil issue" presents itself as the most disturbing of the two.

While it's taken for granted that a western secular woman has "the freedom to choose" (and also reverse that choice) to become subjugated to the fashionable trends currently prevailing in the West, the freedom of a Muslim woman living in the West "to decide for herself" whether or not she will wear a veil is not taken for granted. While it's true that not all (perhaps the majority) Muslim women living in the West or the Muslim world wear a veil, those who traditionally do so, are not in a position to "buck the norm" and choose otherwise. That's the difference.

One is an enforced, mandatory requirement in a portion of society that offers no other alternative but to conform, the other is the influence of a modern society through its multi media that "may or may not" indirectly induce a woman to change her appearance. The fact that breast implants transcends all political, religious and ethnic backgrounds, no one group can claim any type of victimization from this type of misogynism, all are susceptible, but not exclusive. So in my opinion the comparison between the two is not altogether a good one.

The social problems that arise when one immigrant culture (minority) clashes with the culture (majority) in which it lives, has to be understood in the following context. The main culture, while practicing tolerance towards the sensitivities of the minority viewpoint/culture, cannot be entirely expected to change its own social/political structure, values and habits to accommodate those of the immigrant minority. This is clearly what the veil issue in Britian is bringing forward. Jack Straw din't say that he objected to the wearing of a veil per say, but only when he is in private consoltation with the person in question. The same for a doctor or judge who needs to see (at least from a westerners perspective) the face as means to ascertain the information lacking. That said, the immigrant culture has to be expected to accommodate the host culture social values, such as no veils when it is deemed neccessary, and the customary shaking of hands with women ect. It would be permissable for a Muslim woman to object to a male swimming instructor for her daughter, but impermissble to demand for her to be a Muslim as well.

One could take this even further with the recent brouhaha of Muslim taxi drivers refusing fares to customers carrying alcoholic beverages. You cannot impose one's religious beliefs upon the non-believing. That this is raising the ire of the British Muslim community in general, shows just how entrenched the Islamic attitude is towards the social values of a liberal democracy. One side has to give, the question remains just which side do we wish to see prevailing?

Toby - Northern Light Blog said...

I thought you might weigh in on this! :-) The problem with your argument is that in the case of the UK (it might also be true in other European or North American countries, but I don't really know) it is often the woman's choice to wear a niqab (as opposed to a hijab), and many do this AGAINST the wishes of their parents or wider community. This is why when discussing this with others I've tried to make the point the veil has to be contextualised by the society. In Saudi Arabia it is without doubt a symbol of oppression - women have no choice as to whether to wear it. But what the UK debate has shown is that for many British muslim women, they see it as a (to me - rather bizarre) form of emacipation. Without doubt there will be cases in the UK where women are pressured in adopting Islamic dress that they might not choose themselves, but in the case of the veil it is such an extreme expression of this code, and one alien to the Islamic traditions that most British muslims have as their background (South Asian), it seems often to be a positive choice on the part of the wearer. Trying to ban it (except for in certain public spaces such as schools or with doctors etc. which is what Straw was getting at) will only turn it into a symbol of resistance.

Punk went out fashion only when it stopped shocking people.

BTW, even the issue of pressuring someone to dress in certain way is complex. I used to have long hair, and was pressured by my family to get it cut. Now I shave my hair and get pressured to not be a "skinhead look-a-like". We are all under certain pressures. But the question of when pressure becomes unreasonable or coercion is a very hard line to draw for a liberal society. Its very similar to the debate on whether smacking children should be illegal or not.

Toby - Northern Light Blog said...

BTW, if you look at the figures I think American women have a fair claim to being unduly victimised by the "misogyny" that "forces" them into having cosmetic surgery! Actually I think the private nature of the US healthcare system might have more to do with it, meaning more doctors who need use their skills to run a business, rather than working for the state in some way, rather than misogyny. Although to outsiders one of the interesting things about the US is what Americans look like in the America presented to the world by that massive US export business: television, and the America you see when you are there! I love lots of great American drama series, but even in the ones that are quite gritty and realistic, with great writing and acting, its still noticable that you don't see many over-weight or unattractive women. It is similar but slightly less so with men. I don't know if you can call that misogyny or not, but I'm sure it has some impact on the cosmetic surgery figures!

KGS said...

Hi Toby,
I believe that you're partly correct about the girls choosing to wear the veil (niqab) as a "wierd form" of emancipation. Since I don't hail from your former "neck of the woods", I will defer to your own experiences on the matter. However, seeing that we are not immune from the pressures of our families, religious leaders and other societal social structures, it's not hard to imagine an almost "inherent sense" of propriety being instilled on many levels during the formative years of a child's life till adulthood. In some cultures (many from the Middle East) the female is under the constant watch of the parents and brothers for any potential sign of embarrassing or dishonoring the family name. That some girls seemingly appear to "prefer the veil" does discount the effect of social upbringing, as well as the influence of the Islamic leaders in the local mosque.

I'm not in favor of banning something that shows little hope of being enforced, the real battle is not in the private sector, but in the work place. In a liberal western democracy, the need to view the face of a client or proprietor is paramount. All public sectors need to rigidly enforce such a practice, what one does in the privacy of a daily routing is another. I believe it is as wrong for an immigrant or a foriegn culture to impose is values and customs onto the host society, as it is wrong for a westerner in Saudi Arabia to demand that the local women lift their veils for him, or even to try and shake their hands (needless to say he would be arrested or worse). BTW, even the issue of pressuring someone to dress in certain way is complex. I used to have long hair, and was pressured by my family to get it cut. Now I shave my hair and get pressured to not be a "skinhead look-a-like". We are all under certain pressures. But the question of when pressure becomes unreasonable or coercion is a very hard line to draw for a liberal society. Its very similar to the debate on whether smacking children should be illegal or not.

Businesses demand a certain style and look from their employees, such a ban on face gear would fall into the same catagory. An airline demands its stewardesses to have a certain look, I doubt seriously that a punker with a face full of studs would ever be allowed to wear them while working, what they do in their private time is another thing altogether. A little bit of grace and tolerance on both sides of the issue will go a long way in diffusing the issue. How the Muslim leadership in Britian addresses their concerns on this issue, will show just how well they are intergrated into British society as well as their own tolerance level for others.


Toby: "BTW, if you look at the figures I think American women have a fair claim to being unduly victimised by the "misogyny" that "forces" them into having cosmetic surgery! Actually I think the private nature of the US healthcare system might have more to do with it, meaning more doctors who need use their skills to run a business, rather than working for the state in some way, rather than misogyny. Although to outsiders one of the interesting things about the US is what Americans look like in the America presented to the world by that massive US export business: television, and the America you see when you are there! I love lots of great American drama series, but even in the ones that are quite gritty and realistic, with great writing and acting, its still noticable that you don't see many over-weight or unattractive women. It is similar but slightly less so with men. I don't know if you can call that misogyny or not, but I'm sure it has some impact on the cosmetic surgery figures! "

I agree in part, that TV, Hollywood and the multi media play their role in contributing to the illusion of "what is best for a woman". That said, since its a very secular pressure, as opposed to a religious one, the role it plays is of lesser consequence if the person up and "decides otherwise". One more note, a boob implant or a tummy tuck or a nose job does not create the uncomfortable atmosphere that a simple veil does. We are a visual society, and the inability to see the face hiding behind the veil, is just too much to ask from a liberal society.

KGS said...

Here is another reason why "not to believe" the wearing of the veil is consentual. The Islamist factor cannot be overlooked nor underestimated. KGS

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2087-2426770,00.html

Veil teacher was obeying a fatwa
Abul Taher



THE Muslim teacher who insisted on wearing a veil in class has been following a fatwa issued personally to her by a Islamic cleric belonging to a hardline sect.

Aishah Azmi found herself in the middle of a national row about integration when she took her school to an employment tribunal after it suspended her for refusing to remove the veil in class.

Tony Blair joined the debate about the wearing of veils — opened by Jack Straw, the Commons leader — and supported the school’s actions.

Azmi, 24, has maintained that her decision to wear the veil was driven entirely by her personal beliefs, rather than the advice or instruction of a third party. But this weekend it emerged that she refused to take the veil off at school after receiving a fatwa, or religious ruling, from Mufti Yusuf Sacha, a Muslim cleric in West Yorkshire.

Her legal team revealed that the advice Sacha issued to Azmi ruled that it was obligatory for women to wear the niqab (face-veil) in the presence of men who were not their blood relatives.

Sacha is one of several hundred Islamic clerics in Britain with the status of mufti, entitling him to issue fatwas based on Islamic law. Although Muslims are expected to follow fatwas, they are not obliged to do so, particularly if they live in a non-Muslim state.

Nick Whittingham, manager at the Kirklees law centre, which defended Azmi, said she went to seek Sacha’s advice before starting a job as classroom assistant at Headfield Church of England junior school in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, in September 2005.

Whittingham said that Azmi, who had been wearing the niqab since the age of 15, asked Sacha whether women had a choice whether or not to wear the niqab. She was told it was obligatory, Whittingham said.

Azmi, who was employed as a bilingual support worker helping British Pakistani children learn English, was told to remove the veil because pupils found it difficult to understand her as they could not see her lips move.

In November 2005 the school sent her home on sick leave on the grounds that the strain of the dispute was causing her stress and depression. When Azmi returned to the school in February, she insisted on wearing the veil, prompting the school to suspend her on full pay.

During Azmi’s employment tribunal, Sacha was asked to give a written statement. He set out his reasons for insisting that the niqab was obligatory for women.

Whittingham said: “I know she went to Sacha for advice before starting the job. And at the tribunal Sacha also set out the religious position, which was accepted by both sides. It said that she is required to wear it in the presence of men who are not her blood relatives, or whom she can potentially marry.”

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