I don’t like burqas.
Burqas freak me out. When I see a woman in a burqa—as I do often enough, in the grocery store or on the street—it startles me. And I mean that biologically. It evokes a momentary startle or fight-or-flight reaction.
I’m not talking about culture or morality here. Of course, like (probably) most Americans, I don’t like the idea that a culture would ask a woman to cover up her entire body and face in a shroud, with only a slit for her eyes, even if the woman accepts it. It demeans both sexes. Its underlying assumption is that men are beasts who can’t be trusted to control their sexual impulses if they’re allowed to see a bit of female skin. That, in turn, demeans women by hiding them from sight as if there were something shameful about them.
But here I’m talking about my instinctive reaction, not my cultural opinions. The startle reaction comes from the hiding of the face. We are supposed to communicate and relate through our faces. We have evolved very specialized brain circuitry to interpret others’ facial expressions. The natural state of society is for people to have their faces uncovered. If we can’t see a face, we are naturally suspicious and afraid. Suspicion and fear are the enemies of civilization.
Of course, in those Islamic areas where the burqa is everywhere, people have adjusted. Accustomed to fully enshrouded women, they don’t have this reaction. But that doesn’t negate the fact that it says something fundamental about the wrongness of the burqa.
I’ll leave the detailed analysis to those more legally trained, like Piper Hoffman who wrote sensitively on the subject recently, and close by restating my initial point with a little more specificity:
My cerebral cortex doesn’t like burqas. And neither does my lizard brain.