Of beards and burqas: Cultural norms in- and outside the United States

Returning to the United States from Winter Break in Pakistan was tough. The freezing temperatures coupled with rigorous border control procedures made the task a harrowing affair. However, the reason for the unusual treatment at O’Hare International Airport was not lost on me. I had extended my No-shave-November facial hair well beyond the penultimate month, my principal reason being to observe whether having this untidy excuse for a beard would cause U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers to react any differently that they usually do.

And react differently they did. However, the discrimination began before I even landed on American soil. In Pakistan, I was asked to step outside the line for inspection of my suitcase. After multiple attempts to stare into my soul and many questions later, the customs officer let me go without touching my luggage.

Four hours and 1,451 miles later, I was transferring in Doha, Qatar when I was asked once again to step away from the line. An official from U.S. Homeland Security courteously interrogated me and we chatted about subjects ranging from my siblings’ nationalities to his sole experience in Appleton and drinking beer at a football game. I was pleasantly surprised by the lack of time and hassle involved with this interrogation and I was directed towards security, but it was only upon reaching the checkpoint that I discovered the ordeal wasn’t over. I was asked to go through the regular process of stripping myself of my jacket, shoes, belt and wallet and then asked to empty out my backpack by a grumpy security official.

My time at O’Hare was yet another episode, but I have discussed the racial discrimination at American airports already and will not dwell on it here. Worth mentioning, though, is the border control official’s surprise at military training not being mandatory in Pakistan and her assumption that Pakistan did not have higher educational institutions, given the large amount of students traveling to the U.S.

This lengthy narrative was not a flawed attempt to prove some form of causality between beard growth and border control rigor. It was simply an example of a much larger issue—that of being suspicious of unfamiliar objects and of being stereotypical towards potential threats. Be it beards or burqas, there is a tendency to confuse aesthetic choices as religious decisions and to then categorize these decisions as potential threats. The fact that my beard or my fellow passenger’s burqa is a red flag is reminiscent of horrific instances like the McCarthy-era communist witch-hunt or practices of segregation across various former colonies.

As the world continues to globalize, it is crucial that societies open themselves to various cultures and that individuals familiarize themselves with the customs of their global cohabitants. Take, for instance, the varying degrees of head-covering employed by some Muslim women.  There have been heated debates about the alleged oppression faced by these women as they have to ‘cage’ themselves in extra layers of clothing.

A similar debate was conducted on campus this past Tuesday, Feb. 18. Amnesty International hosted two panelists who answered questions and cleared misconceptions concerning the various forms of head-covering among Muslim women. Although the panelists covered various topics, including the pre-Islamic origins of the veil and the lack of evidence concerning a binding Islamic obligation to wear it, perhaps the most crucial part of the discussion was the assertion that Muslim women who wear the veil are more likely to do so by choice rather than force.

I would like to take this assertion a step further and argue that the assumption that veiled women are oppressed stems from an ingrained fear of the unfamiliar. Those who have not been exposed to alien customs cannot understand that cultural activities differ from region to region. Individuals from countries where wearing a veil is the norm may not necessarily view this activity as oppressive, but rather may be simply adapting to their cultural norms as a part of daily routine. It’s like wearing  jeans.

Let me provide another example. Imagine a situation where a nudist questions your habit of wearing clothes everyday. You may or may not be comfortable with being told that wearing clothes is oppressive and that to be truly liberated, you must strip bare. Even if you personally have no problem with that option, not all individuals may be comfortable with it. Apply that same logic to someone who wears the veil voluntarily as a routine. Telling them that a regular article of clothing is oppressive and that they must remove it to be free is not just unfair to them, but is clearly an undue invasion of their privacy. Even if you are not used to it, they are, and they should have the right to choose how they dress.

The bottom line is that veiled women do not necessarily need saving and can be fully independent individuals despite a covered head. It is not your right to dictate how they may or may not dress.

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