06 April 2007

Headscarves and Nancy Pelosi

So, there's been some uproar over Nancy Pelosi covering her head on a recent trip to the Middle East. I either have no problem with this or a very big problem with this since it all depends on where she wore the headscarves. I can't find any real confirmation that she wore a headscarf in an inappropriate place.

Of course she should cover her head in a mosque if she is asked to. We have plenty of pictures of male presidents donning certain attire to enter religious sites. And I am glad she was smart enough to bring a few scarves of her own along. I was always a lot more comfortable when I could wear my own scarf that I had chosen (and that I knew was clean). I also at times wore a headscarf on the streets of Cairo because harassment is a problem there and I was far less harassed with a headscarf on. But if I had been traveling in an official entourage as Pelosi was, I doubt I would have worn one on the street. This letter from little green footballs is the closest thing I can find to a confirmation that she wore a scarf on the streets. Bad idea, Ms. Pelosi. You can go too far in cultural understanding.

But what she didn't do was wear a scarf when she met with any heads of state. If she had, all the uproar would have been worth it.

(I do have some other concerns regarding Pelosi's visit to the Middle East. You can make a good case for foreign policy not being entirely the realm of the executive, but if it isn't, this isn't the best way for Congress to go about asserting its role. There are some good reasons why foreign policy is traditionally in the hands of the president. Of course, when the president has made such a mess of it as Bush has, there are good reasons for someone else to step in.)


  1. Love your analysis of Pelosi. What the heck was she doing??

  2. Amira,

    Don't trust Little Green Footballs to tell you the truth. Let me give you some sources and let you decide for yourself. But what you will see is that LGF is not telling you the truth, as usual.

    Pelosi visits marketplace and mosque:

    Wearing a flowered head scarf and a black abaya robe, Pelosi visited the 8th-century Omayyad Mosque, shaking hands with Syrian women inside and watching men in a religion class sitting cross-legged on the floor.

    The Carpetbagger Report states it like this:

    That Pelosi would wear a head scarf was deemed so outrageous by her conservative critics, you’d think she’d burned an American flag on the steps of a Syrian mosque. Drudge got the ball rolling with a big photo of Pelosi’s attire, and the rest of the right pounced.

    One wrote, “The Speaker of the House is not only going out of her way to defund America’s troops in Iraq and shake hands with leaders of terrorist states like Syria, but is now donning the garb of America’s enemies…. What’s next — a suicide bomber belt?” Another argued, “The anti-American propaganda this woman has given the very people who want to totally destroy us is immense.” Yet another said, “This picture disgusts me. What message is Nancy Pelosi trying to send?” Many of the right’s leading sites had similar comments and criticism, most suggesting that Islam is misguided for requiring women to cover their hair in a mosque.

    Oh, conservatives, what are we going to do with you.

    When Laura Bush visited the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, she wore — you guessed it — a head scarf. She did the same at the Dome of the Rock mosque. Was she “donning the garb of America’s enemies”? Did she “disgust” the president’s allies?

    When the First Lady visited the Vatican, she wore — wait for it — a head scarf. Apparently, it’s still required of women visitors to the Vatican. Is the right prepared to bash Roman Catholicism for having the same traditional rules as mosques in the Middle East?

    For that matter, Steve M. notes that “Pelosi’s own faith, Roman Catholicism, required women to wear veils in church until Vatican II — which took place when she was in her mid-twenties.” Barbara O’Brien added that she’s “seen photographs of Karen Hughes and Condi Rice with scarves wrapped around their heads hijab-style while visiting the Middle East.”

    Look, this need not be complicated. When U.S. diplomats travel overseas, they’re careful to honor local traditions. Male diplomats know not to show Muslims the bottoms of their shoes. They know not to eat with their left hand. They don’t give unwelcome backrubs to foreign heads of state (well, most of them know this). Yesterday was no different.

    Pelosi was a guest in Syria, she was visiting a mosque, so she honored and respected the practices of her hosts, just as other women representing the Bush administration have done under similar circumstances. So what, exactly, is the right so worked up about?

    One wonders whether these guys ever get tired of being so wrong, so often.

  3. Amira, thanks for explaining it, thanks for posting on this.

  4. Good heavens, Dan, do you think I actually read, much less believe, little green footballs? I was just searching for some confirmation that she wore a headscarf outside a mosque or religious situation, and I said lgf was the closest I could find that she wore a scarf on the streets, although the title of the article you link to also seems to confirm it. I don't care what else lgf has to say.

    I will criticize her for wearing a headscarf in a marketplace. It is not necessary and sends the wrong message. I will praise her for wearing one in a mosque and being prepared to do so.

  5. Just curious: why would you have a problem with her wearing a headscarf on the street? When I was in Syria, I was touring the sights, going in and out of mosques, and sometimes I left on the scarf in between because it's annoying to take it on and off. It didn't feel strange at all, because at least in Damascus, all the women outside the Christian quarter were covered. If she drew any attention on the street it would have been because of her entourage, not her scarf. Are you saying it's a problem because it is offensive to Muslims, or because its offensive to myopic liberals who see scarves as necessarily a symbol of women's oppression?

  6. There are a lot of reasons why I am concerned about that. The first and foremost is that headscarves and veiling in general have significant political implications. Both men and women have used various head coverings for their own political purposes and when a government figure from the US wears a scarf, she is playing into those political issues, whether she means to or not.

    Second is that it is completely unnecessary for an American woman to cover her head on the streets of Damascus, particularly a woman in an offical entourage. Yes, it's fine for a tourist to do it (as I did in Cairo and Jerusalem at times). But Nancy Pelosi's visit was broadcast all over the Muslim world. Might it not appear that she, an American leader, was wearing a scarf because of cultural pressure and that other Syrian women should do so also?

    Third, there is no religious requirement in the Qur'an that women have to cover their heads at all. Pelosi was inadvertently playing into that debate by wearing a scarf on the streets.

    Even though I would prefer that a woman could cover or not cover her head as she pleases, that's not the case. There's too much cultural and political baggage tied up with veiling for an American woman to even go there (except in a place like a mosque or during a religious ceremony).

  7. I agree with you to a certain extent... I just feel that with the climate of hostility towards Islam it might not be that bad to have a gesture of acceptance go a little too far...

  8. I completely agree about the hostile climate and I can see your point. The trouble is that headscarves are more about politics than culture or religion. Pelosi dressed modestly and appropriately in every way, and that was the best thing she could do to respect both the religion and the culture. Even the type of head covering a man or woman wears can have some political implications. Again, I think it's fine when tourists do it. But not someone as official as Pelosi.