Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Offensive Headscarf

I am walking down a tree lined Berlin street on a hot August day with my friend Hannelore. A couple is coming toward us. The man is dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, his wife is wearing a headscarf and a black long sleeve dress over her pants. “Don’t you just hate this,” Hannelore says.
“Hate what?” I answer.
“This backwardness, this oppression of women.”
While I ponder her comment, she launches an all out attack against Muslim male chauvinists. “These men, they keep their women locked up at home. They won’t let them leave the house alone. They don’t allow them to work outside the home.”
“Are you sure all Muslim men are that way?” I ask
She doesn’t hear me; she’s worked herself into a rage. I learn that she’s for the ban of headscarves for teachers and all public employees, that she is convinced that women are second class citizens in Muslim society, and that men have no right to impose their “misogynist” patriarchal values on women. “Even Turkey, a secular Islamic nation, bans the headscarf,” she fumes.
I can’t get a word in. “Why is this such an issue for her?” I think. “Why are so many progressive left wing Germans like Hannelore so intolerant?” In the New York subways, I’m exposed to commuters of different religions every day, some wearing chains bearing a crucifix and others the Star of David. Observant Jewish men wear yarmulkes while Orthodox Jewish women don wigs. I see Muslim women in headscarves and Sikhs in their turbans. If Berliners experienced this diversity every day, would Hannelore be more open-minded?
I think of a former colleague, a mathematician from Yemen, who dressed modestly and always covered her head. She didn’t appear oppressed to me. I think of the many Muslim students in my classes at City College. I think of Mawara who came to class in a Persian Gulf niqab, with only a slit for the eyes; none of her classmates found it strange or objectionable. I think of Ziram and her latest essay assignment. She wrote about her parents, liberal Egyptian Muslims, who allowed her all the freedom of an American teenager. Ziram danced, she flirted and dated. She came to her high school prom in a sexy slinky gown. Then she had a religious awakening. She prayed more, dressed modestly, and began wearing a headscarf. Her parents failed to understand. “I prefer to dress like this now,” she wrote. “It protects me from guys and their lewd stares.”
“Isn’t it possible that some women choose to wear headscarves, that they decide for themselves how they want to present themselves in public?” I ask.
“No way,” Hannelore replies.
Another fifteen minutes of heated debate follow. Hannelore paints a gruesome picture of honor killings that have taken place in Germany. She reminds me of the Taliban’s moral police. They don’t allow little girls to attend school. “Not every Muslim forces his wife to stay home or to wear a burqa when she has to leave the house,” I say. “Most want their daughters to become educated.”
She doesn’t hear me. I can’t help feeling that Hannelore’s stance reflects an anti-Islamic sentiment. Progressive Germans would never think of forbidding a Sikh to wear a turban or a Jew a yarmulke. Maybe Hannelore’s attack on the backwardness of Islam is a sign of her own prejudice and intolerance. I recall an interview with Hayrünissa Gül, the wife of Turkey’s president, reported in the news. A journalist questioned her about her fight for the right of Turkish female students to wear headscarves at universities if they so choose. “Isn’t that going backwards?” he had asked, to which she replied:
“The headscarf covers my head, not my brain.”
Copyright © 2009 by Anna Steegmann

Monday, September 7, 2009

Politically Correct Language?

Having returned from a two months stay in Europe, I recall warring letters to editors and heated debates in the Austrian press. An advertisement campaign by an ice cream company caused a ruckus. “I will mohr! “ (I want moor) the posters said referring to the desert “Mohr im Hemd" (moor in a shirt). Similar to the English Christmas pudding, this mix of chocolate, sugar, egg yolks, almonds, and red wine is cooked in hot water, and then covered with hot chocolate sauce. Cream (the shirt) is squeezed through a pastry bag around the Guglhupf-shaped desert (the moor). How could such a delicious innocent desert cause such a controversy?
The name for this desert, beloved by generations of Austrians, insults members of the Austrian black community. They perceive Mohr as a colonial racist term alluding to African nudity. Blacks in Austria have been fighting for more than a decade to eliminate discriminatory names of foods, streets, and other things. They have succeeded with the Negerbrot(Negro bread), a chocolate with peanuts. Very few Viennese pastry shops still sell it under its original name. They want the street names for Kleine und Grosse Mohrenstrasse (Little and Big Moor Streets) changed. One reader commented in his letter to Der Standard; why not rename the streets Cassius Clay and Barack Obama Street? Another reader suggested the Zigeunerschnitzel be renamed Sinti-und Romaschnitzel.
In Germany the pastry Negerkuss (Negro kiss) was replaced by Schokokuss ten years ago. The classic children’s book Zehn kleine Negerlein (Ten Little Negroes) now comes in a second, politically correct version Zehn kleine Kinderlein (Ten Little Children) although it does not sell as well as the original.
This discussion about inoffensive language took place in the US much earlier. Negroes are now African-Americans, while mongoloid children are children with Downs Syndrome. While this may satisfy some groups, I doubt that it eliminates real discrimination. Do we need to change our existing terminology?
In James Baldwin’s novels, African-Americans are called Negroes or colored people because that was the common name at the time. Shakespeare gave us “The Moor in Venice” and no one takes offence. What do we gain when we rename Negerbier black beer? Often language, literary style suffers. The original terms in the language hold more meaning. Rape is stronger than sexual assault. Negerbier makes a certain time and place come alive. Modern politically correct language is often lifeless and cumbersome. See the German StudentInnen to include females in the plural version of students. In the old usage, ninety-nine female students (Studentinnen) and one male student would have become Studenten (students); in the new, StudentInnen with the capital I in the middle, ninety-nine male students and one female all become female students.
Have we gained anything or is it a mere quibble? Why can’t a beloved desert keep its name? Maybe we should inject a little more humor into the debate and not take ourselves so seriously. The German band Tote Hosen is on to something when they said: Auch lesbische schwarze Behinderte koennen aetzzend sein. “Even disabled black Lesbians can be a pain.”