Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The Temple of Oscar Wilde


The other night I attended the opening of McDermott & McGough’s Temple of Oscar Wilde at the Church in the Village. The installation is the realization of an idea the artists first had twenty five years ago and have spent the past few years building. 

The temple is a Catholic-style chapel, its centerpiece a four-foot carved wood sculpture of Wilde at the height of his velvet-clad long-haired fame. At the base of the statue’s plynth is a soapbox pulpit bearing a label for “fairy” brand soap. On the walls of the chapel are paintings of Wilde’s own stations of the cross, each with gilt-painted haloes and details like quatrocento icons. The scenes include Wilde’s arrest, the auction of his belongings, the cutting of his hair, and his time in Reading Gaol, among other things. 

In addition to this the chapel has a guest book, a section of line portraits of LGBT martyrs including Harvey Milk and Alan Turing, a candle-lit collection stand for homeless LGBT youth, and a book of remembrance in which guests can write the names of those who died of aids. Same-sex weddings will also be held in the temple. 

To portray Wilde as a gay icon, saint, and martyr is not uncommon. His arrest, downfall, and ignominy, coming at the end of the 19th century, set the tone for the particular style of homophobia that would dominate the 20th. Despite being a six-foot-plus bruiser of a man, Wilde’s fashion sense, delicacy of taste, refined sensibilities, and sharp wit would come to define the queer male archetype in the public consciousness, recast as vanity, effeminacy, flamboyance, and camp. 

The irony of placing Wilde at the center of a chapel isn’t lost. It was the doctrine of the Church of England, informing the law of the state regarding sexual relations, that lay at the heart of Wilde’s persecution. Wilde himself converted to Catholicism on his death bed, having always been fascinated by and attracted to the church’s iconography, sumptuousness, and sensuality, and seeing in that church’s bloody image of Christ the sufferer something of his own crucifixion. Of course, perhaps no church has burned more gay men than the Roman one while at the same time indulging in the hypocrisy of “hate the sin love the sinner,” a deeply closeted clergy, highly homoerotic imagery like the martyrdom of St. Sebastian, and of course, the unforgivable decades (centuries?) of the rape of children by those tasked with their spiritual health. 

Its perhaps the installation’s emphasis on young people that gives it its most power, as well as its inclusion of lesbian, bisexual, and transgender martyrs - as well as people of color - in its pantheon. In the past Wilde was chiefly a symbol for gay white men, but McDermott & McGough’s version of the deity is a more inclusive one. I hope that young people of all sexualities and backgrounds will gain an appreciation for Wilde’s importance and meaning by visiting the temple. 

That legacy is one not just of gay rights, but of a profound capacity for love and compassion. Wilde was “Christian” in the most generous sense of the word, capable of great understanding and empathy in a way that the chauvinistic and patriarchal christianity of the Victorian empire could only pretend to be. His deep personal knowledge and experience of suffering informed his own personal theology, and he was almost miraculously able to take from his own ordeal a greater sense of love and forgiveness. Its a nearly superhuman feat, one which organized religion stumbles over on a large scale. It is personal and generous, and it demands no superstition or obeisance to authority - its mandate is a deep love for and patience with humanity and reverence for its ability to improve. 

If only there could be more altars to secular heroes and people of great spirit like Wilde - monuments stripped of medievalism and consecrated to the humanistic spirit. We have McDermott & McGough to thank for this one. 

I’ll end with two Wilde-related poems. The first, “Narcissus” by John Betjeman, always has me weeping halfway through, mainly because it so heartbreakingly shows how the short-sightedness, hang-ups, and prejudices of adults are inflicted upon the innocence of childhood. 

Narcissus

Yes, it was Bedford Park the vision came from - 
de Morgan lustre glowing round the hearth,
And that sweet flower which self-love takes its name from
Nodding among the lilies in the garth,
And Arnold Dolmetsch touching the spinet,
And Mother, Chiswick’s earliest suffragette.

I was a delicate boy - my parents’ only - 
And highly strung. My father was in trade. 
And how I loved, when Mother left me lonely,
To watch old Martha spice the marmalade,
Or help with flower arrangements in the lobby
Before I went to find my playmate Bobby.

We’d go for walks, we bosom boyfriends would
(For Bobby’s watching sisters drove us mad),
And when we just did nothing we were good,
But when we touched each other we were bad.
I found this out when Mother said one day
She thought we were unwholesome in our play.

So Bobby and I were parted. Bobby dear,
I didn’t want my tea. I heard your sisters
Playing at hide-and-seek with you quite near
As off the garden gate I picked the blisters.
Oh tell me, Mother, what I mustn’t do - 
Then, Bobby, I can play again with you.

For I know hide-and-seek’s most secret places
More than your sisters do. And you and I
Can scramble into them and leave no traces,
Nothing above us but the twigs and sky,
Nothing below us but the leaf-mould chilly
Where we can warm and hug each other silly.

My Mother wouldn’t tell me why she hated
The things we did, and why they pained her so.
She said a fate far worse than death awaited
People who did the things we didn’t know,
And then she said I was her precious child,
And once there was a man called Oscar Wilde.

‘Open your story book and find a tale
Of ladyes fayre and deeds of derring-do,
Of good Sir Gawaine and the Holy Grail,
Mother will read her boy a page or two
Before she goes, this Women’s Suffrage Week,
To hear that clever Mrs Pankhurst Speak.

Sleep with your hands above your head. That’s right - 
And let no evil thoughts pollute the dark.’
She rose, and lowered the incandescent light.
I heard her footsteps die down Bedford Park.
Mother where are you? Bobby, Bobby, where?
I clung for safety to my teddy bear.

The second poem is A.E. Housman’s “Oh Who is that Young Sinner,” a well-known piece written after Wilde’s arrest but not released until after Housman’s death. Like most of Housman, it has a  countryside sing-song economy that bears a deceptively heavy message. 

Oh Who Is That Young Sinner

Oh who is that young sinner with the handcuffs on his wrists?
And what has he been after that they groan and shake their fists?
And wherefore is he wearing such a conscience-stricken air?
Oh they're taking him to prison for the colour of his hair.

'Tis a shame to human nature, such a head of hair as his;
In the good old time 'twas hanging for the colour that it is;
Though hanging isn't bad enough and flaying would be fair
For the nameless and abominable colour of his hair.

Oh a deal of pains he's taken and a pretty price he's paid
To hide his poll or dye it of a mentionable shade;
But they've pulled the beggar's hat off for the world to see and stare,
And they're haling him to justice for the colour of his hair.

Now 'tis oakum for his fingers and the treadmill for his feet
And the quarry-gang on Portland in the cold and in the heat,
And between his spells of labour in the time he has to spare

He can curse the God that made him for the colour of his hair.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Glenn O'Brien: King Cool

This post, our memorial to Glenn O'Brien, appears on Rose's "Dandy Portraits" blog also.

Try writing about Glenn O’Brien without using the word “cool.” Might as well describe the ocean without mentioning water. Glenn was so unassailably, impeccably, motherfuckingly cool you’d glance at the thermostat when he walked in the room. Glenn’s coolness was cosmopolitan and manifold, like the renaissance-man portfolio of jobs he juggled throughout life. He was all kinds of cool: stylish cool, cultured cool, witty cool, and just plain laid-back breezy cool. If someone were to say “don’t lose your cool,” they could just as well have said “be more like Glenn O’Brien.”

Glenn’s coolness seemed innate – one could no more imagine him getting ruffled or flustered than picture him running to catch a bus. He’d wait for the next one, no sweat. Or hail a cab. Or hitch a ride. Or steal a bicycle. Whatever way, it’d be cool.

Speaking of Glenn & transport, one of the coolest things I can recall involves Glenn and a Metrocard. Glenn wrote the introduction to my and Rose’s first book “I am Dandy.” The artist Peter McGough had put us in touch with him. Glenn was skeptical of the project at first, but he liked Rose’s photos and – much to my delight – my writing, so he agreed. He also put us in touch with Bergdorf Goodman, who ended up hosting our launch party. Glenn only showed up at the very start and only for a few minutes. There are only a couple of photos of him there, one of him gamely standing next to your truly, the beaming young author. In his left hand are both a champagne glass and a Metrocard.

Neil Rasmus/BFAnyc.com
It’s just the kind of too-perfect detail that handily affirms Glenn’s reputation as a man at home in the high and the low. Was he really just on his way out and thought it prudent to whip out his train fare before taking the elevator downstairs and walking two whole blocks to the station? Or had he just arrived and absent-mindedly neglected to put it away? Had he forgotten his wallet?
Or was it a deliberate move? I wouldn’t put it past Glenn. Perhaps a code – a subliminal signal – to the other partygoers that he couldn’t stay long: just the sort of social trigger Glenn would have noticed when nobody else had. Or could it be a clever accessory to confirm his outsider-insider aura, casually holding a proletarian artifact while surrounded by unabashed luxury, a reverse of Evelyn Waugh walking a mile to mail a letter from a fancier post code.

Glenn was in some ways like a character from one of those earlier Waugh satires. I don’t know if Tom Wolfe had much contact with Glenn, but I imagine he might have been jealous to see realized in flesh the sort of city society character he sometimes struggled to invent. Better still, the phrase “too cool for school,” didn’t apply to Glenn because he was such a valiant opponent of ignorance, anti-intellectualism, and pretense.

To a young writer with broad cosmopolitan tastes and interests, Glenn was an inspiration and refutation of the vogue for specialization. Interviewing him was daunting – as with masturbation you always got the sense the chap could have just done it better himself. Still, he smiled and thanked you when it was over. And that smile! Glenn could always deliver a devastatingly handsome look to camera with his beaming double-barreled blues sitting above his notorious cheekbones, but when he smiled the eternal teenager shone forth. Here was Tom Sawyer and Mark Twain in whole.

For a young man, Glenn’s patented aphorism-laden brand of laid-back masculinity was a breath of fresh air: unapologetic yet unburdened with musk and machismo. Glenn was a cool dude in Chuck Taylors or bespoke brogues, a t-shirt or a tuxedo, a beard or bare-faced. In the same way he was always implausibly plausible as both elder sage and puckish rapscallion. He even made a couple of passing remarks that suggested he didn’t think I was such a bad dresser, either, which is a bit like the Pope saying “Hey, nice miter.”

Whenever I saw Glenn at an event and said hello there was always a moment or two when I was struck by the fear that he didn’t recognize me. I’d feel nervous, prepared for the embarrassment accompanied by his unreadable poker-faced gaze. Then he’d always do something like turn to the person next to him – the sort of person who thinks being cool does mean not remembering young writers’ names – and say “This is Natty. He wrote a great book about dandies.”

If there were a heaven, St. Peter wouldn’t even need to check the guest list. Every bouncer knows Glenn’s invited to the party. And in the unfortunate event of Glenn’s sins tipping the scales in the other direction, hell would surely soon freeze over from all that cool.



Photographs were taken by Rose Callahan at Glenn's home in New York City on June 25, 2013


Saturday, December 17, 2016

Books by Friends

As excited as I am by the recent publication of my own book, I'm equally stoked that several of my good friends have books out this season, all of which should be read by you and your loved ones. They are, in no particular order:

Searching for John Hughes, by Jason Diamond
I grew up in Manhattan and the movies of John Hughes were farther away from my experience than Kids, but Jason's memoir is relatable, moving, and enjoyable for its wit and emotion without the necessary pop culture sympathies. 

Hot Sauce Nation, by Denver Nicks
Denver's cross-country survey of hot sauce covers history, science, and personal stories with brilliant prose. 

Stuffed Animals, by Divya Anantharaman and Katie Innamorato
My friend Divya makes incredible art from dead organisms and with her new book, you can too!

Atlas Obscura, by Ella Morton, Joshua Foer, and Dylan Thuras
Atlas Obscura is one of the best sites on the internet, chronicling the most interesting places and things in the world. Ella's labor of love is a masterpiece that should be read for decades to come, if not centuries. 

The Good Immigrant, by Coco Khan and others
I'm still waiting for this one to arrive in the mail, but it's been making waves in the UK, with Coco's essay garnering particular critical acclaim.

Amberlough, by Laura Elena Donnely
This one's not out yet, but you should pre-order it. Lara's fantasy-espionage novel, set in a kind of Weimar dystopia, is a work of unique vision and lush prose. 

Monday, November 21, 2016

We Are Dandy is here!

Dear Readers,

The moment is finally upon us to celebrate “We Are Dandy,” our second survey on international dandyism, this time adding two continents and ten countries to this mighty project. As the world seems increasingly fractious and unmoored, eminent photographer Rose Callahan and I are pleased to report that dandyism not only perseveres but does indeed flourish, even in unlikely and infertile soils.

We spent several months canvassing North America, Europe, Japan, and South Africa for elegant gentlemen, and found ourselves saddled with a surfeit of rakish toffs and sporty knaves all eager to preen and proclaim for our camera and pen. We also somehow managed to convince elegant icon and legendary smokeshow Dita von Teese to write the book’s preface.

I’ll take this opportunity to share a couple of my favorites with you, but I urge you to purchase the book when it goes on sale in the US very soon, ideally from our publisher Gestalten or at your local bookstore. (Although you could also have some company send it to your door via flying robot, I hear.)

Ever yours,
Nathaniel “Natty” Adams


This is the cover, featuring Tokyo's dandy barber Yoshio Suyama

 George Skeggs, the dandy of Soho, London

 "Fresh" & Ntabiso Sojane in Johannesburg, South Africa

 Mark Haldeman and James Aguiar in Brooklyn, New York

 Baron Ambrosia in the Bronx, New York

 Poggy in Tokyo, Japan

 Makoto Iida in Tokyo, Japan

Loux the Vintage Guru and crew in Johannesburg, South Africa


Monday, June 13, 2016

On Islam and Orlando


Updated: See below

More than 50 civilians are dead and dozens more have been wounded in the worst mass shooting in modern American history. The perpetrator, a familiarly pious fanatic, targeted these men and women for the crimes of loving whom they please, expressing themselves, living freely, and enjoying their lives, because in his petty, pathetic, filthy, narrow-minded religion, these people are less than human and their rights as such are forfeit. This is not only because of their sexuality, but for their rejection of his particular brand of his faith.

There are some clear failures on the part of our security. This man was investigated twice by the FBI but still had a security guard license and was still able to get an AR-15 assault rifle and other firearms legally in the county where he committed the crime. This is a scandal. It’s obvious that we need stronger gun control in this country. And perhaps the murderer was mentally ill, and we do need strong services for the mentally ill. But it is suicidal madness to ignore the deeply-held religious beliefs of the killer as the main motive for this attack.

I brace myself for the all-too-familiar bile drip I feel after these events when people inevitably swear this has nothing to do with religion or ideology, and instead seek to blame anything else - usually American foreign policy or Western institutions or even feelings of marginalization among Muslims in the West - for the murder of dozens of gay men and women by a devout religious ideologue. Instead we are all too often told that it is in fact the religious who deserve protection from our criticisms, our cartoons, our words.

The global enemy’s targets include novelists, artists, journalists, bloggers, cartoonists, filmmakers, secularists, Jews, Christians, Baha’is, Yazidis, Kurds, gays, women, human rights lawyers, progressive politicians, even the wrong kind of Muslims. What will it take for liberals around the world to unite against such a naked and self-declared threat to the institutions of democracy, pluralism, free expression, and liberty that we know to be necessary to a fair and functioning society? What will it take to even have an honest examination of the belief systems espoused by the killers? When will we stop playing nice with the medieval and prehistoric dogmas which lead grown men to murder, rape, enslave, and indoctrinate their own children in hatred?

I’ve already a few articles of the kind which always pop up after these events when they occur in non-Muslim majority countries: “Muslims fear backlash.” This seems to occur whether the attacks were in New York, Bali, Boston, Madrid, London (during the bombings, beheading of drummer Rigby, and recent stabbing,) Paris (after Charlie Hebdo and November,) Ottowa, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, San Bernardino, Los Angeles, Glasgow, Kampala, Stockholm, Frankfurt, Cologne, Toulouse, Dijon, Lyon, Chattanooga, Berlin, and Brussels (both the Jewish Museum attack and the recent airport attack.) I include this extensive a list so people don’t forget how widespread the problem is. This obviously doesn’t include the mayhem, slaughter, and oppression being carried out in the name of Islam across Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. I’m not sure what the exact nature of this greatly-feared “backlash” might be, but so far it seems to mainly be a rhetorical one. It’s true that anti-Muslim rhetoric is something to be worried about (and something to recognize as different from criticism of both Islam and Islamism,) and there are always reports of spikes in anti-Muslim hate crimes - often vandalism and some assaults - after episodes of Islamic terror, but pogroms against Muslims have not broken out in the capitols of the Western world, and - Donald Trump notwithstanding - most politicians go well out of their way to stress that not all Muslims are terrorists (as if anyone deserving of being taken seriously has ever claimed that they are.) Muslims are well within their right and reason to be worried about their frightened neighbors’ reactive attitudes toward them when a member of their faith commits an atrocity while invoking Islamic teachings. But I always can’t help but being insulted by the implicit suggestion that the vast majority of citizens of liberal democracies around the world are violent bigots foaming at the mouth to kill muslims given the slightest excuse. If that didn’t happen after 9/11 it won’t happen now. The reaction of most of our fellow citizens has almost invariably been support, outreach, and concern. No embassies have been burned, no hostages have been taken, and no citizens have been set upon by baying lynch mobs. After all, its not like someone drew a cartoon or something.

In global terms Islam is not an oppressed minority religion. There are approximately a billion and a half Muslims worldwide. There are more than two dozen majority Muslim countries with immense power as a voting bloc in the UN (they do, significantly, repeatedly object to any gay rights declarations or legislation.) Muslims living in the West are generally afforded more freedom to practice their religion as they personally see fit than they would be in many officially Islamic countries which seek to regulate and police the faith of their citizens. And nobody is more oppressed by Islamic fundamentalism than Muslims around the world. It shouldn’t be wrong to ask that members of a faith take the lead in getting their own house in order. Indeed, one would think that a far more courteous and kind proposition than offering to do it for them. There should be no shame in insisting that people take an unequivocal stand not just against terrorism (that’s the absolute least they could do,) but against the most outdated and intolerant dogmas and doctrines in their religions - the elements which have no place in a modern society. If coexistence is our goal then honest and open reform shouldn’t be too much to ask in its pursuit. Yet thousands of young Muslims flock to the most unimaginably horrific terror groups around the world while comparatively few seem to be interested in - for example - taking up arms in foreign lands to defend their faith from the extremists whom we are repeatedly told have hijacked something great and good. Instead they insist that “Islamophobia” is a more pressing concern than the droves of their co-religionists seduced by their faith’s most backward, stupid, and outmoded tenets. Reflexively shouting “not all Muslims,” is about as helpful as those who yell “not all men” when confronted with issues of the rape or sexual assault of women. Of course not all of them - but who bears some of the responsibility of preventing this from continuing to happen? Who is in the best position to fight this evil?

Barney Frank, the openly gay former Representative from Massachussetts has no illusions about all of this and generally agrees with my assessment: “There is an Islamic element here. Yes, the overwhelming majority of Muslims don’t do this, but there is clearly, sadly, an element in the interpretation of Islam that has some currency, some interpretation in the Middle East that encourages killing people — and L.G.B.T. people are on that list. And I think it is fair to ask leaders of the Islamic community, religious and otherwise, to spend some time combatting this.’’

Religious fundamentalism - currently most virulent and dangerous worldwide in its Islamic form - is and always has been the enemy of progress and a poor substitute for an informed and reason-based humanistic moral system (when it hasn’t been hostile to such an idea outright.) Religious freedom needs to be protected and defended, but religious beliefs do not, and - especially when they conflict with human decency, peace, and freedom - should be criticized, debated, mocked, satirized, and ridiculed. Whatever warm and fuzzy feelings of personal communion with the godhead or sense of belonging to an in-group or community of the chosen faithful or appeals to charity that religions may provide simply do not outweigh the division, suffering, violence, intolerance, hatred, exclusion, and oppression preached by almost all of their foundational texts and practiced by all too many of their adherents.

In this case, one of the first people to say “this had nothing to do with religion” was the killer’s father. He also said “I don’t know what caused this. I did not know and did not understand that he has anger in his heart.” It would seem that he did in fact know what caused this and that it does in fact have something to do with religion: in the same interview he said “only God can punish homosexuality. This is not an issue for humans to punish.” In a Facebook video he published after the attack, he reiterated: “God will punish those involved in homosexuality," saying it's, "not an issue that humans should deal with."

Human kind has little hope so long as we remain too afraid to question and ultimately outgrow these ancient and wicked beliefs, rooted in superstitious nonsense. Anybody who cares about liberal and progressive values should be firmly on the side of secularism and against religious fundamentalism no matter what religion it happens to be. The international left should revisit its anticlerical roots and extend the same degree of criticism and antagonism to the conservative Islamic right as it does to its Christian counterpart. We can and should rail against the bigoted, homophobic and transphobic American demagogues who want to stop gay and trans people from getting married and using whatever bathrooms they choose, but we should never lose sight of the countless ones in positions of power and influence across the Muslim world who openly want to stop them from breathing. When a Christian fundamentalist attacks an abortion clinic, a chorus doesn’t bleat out “this has nothing to do with his religion.” And yet…

Update: It seems - surprise, surprise - that the murderer may have been a closeted homosexual himself, having visited the club and possibly several others, maybe having asked out a male friend once, and having profiles on several gay dating apps. He was also said to have drunk heavily at the club, something forbidden in Islam. Far from shifting the motive away from religion, this kind of behavior only speaks to the kind of psychological torture religion can impose on people whose identities conflict with the teaching of their faith. Far be it from me to pity a killer, any more than I pity the Catholic priests who rape children. But I can't help but think if it weren't for religion's twisted relationship to human sexuality and the proscriptions and regulations of sexual relationships found in nearly all major religions, we'd see a lot less of this kind of thing. Religion is, historically speaking, the single greatest enemy of sexual liberation and homosexuality in particular. Nothing has persecuted, demonized, or tormented gay men and women than religion and religious institutions. 

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

More Thoughts About Dress Codes and Headscarves

Last week I wrote about sartorial liberty and the controversy in the West over Islamic dress codes for women (my TEDx talk will be posted soon.) My position - that dress codes are inherently illiberal, especially when applied only to a specific segment of the population or community, regardless of whether the source is secular or religious - remains the same. But, faced with the perverse idea of “World Hijab Day,” in which non-Muslim women are encouraged to wear a headscarf in “solidarity” with Muslim women, there’s one particular question which bears asking and needs honest answers. 

The New York Times has published one of its “Room for Debate” series on the topic, and I unsurprisingly agree with those who argue that hijab is a conservative and superficial symbol of religion and identity, rather than a true indicator of someone’s faith, and that women who choose not to wear the hijab need just as much support (if not more,) than those who do. World Hijab Day legitimizes one particular conservative religious practice and expression over others and risks disempowering, delegitimizing, and undermining the religious credibility and identity of those Muslim women who choose not to practice hijab. 

I believe that those in the most danger deserve the most support. This brings me to my question: is it more dangerous for a Muslim woman living in a conservative Islamic country or community to resist hijab or for a Muslim woman in a liberal society to wear it? I think it’s obvious that the former is much more dangerous, especially when taken on a global scale. Reports of fathers and brothers killing their own daughters, sisters, and wives because of perceived affronts to family honor by even appearing to be insufficiently modest are heard all too often, to say nothing of harsh official punishments in places like Iran and Saudi Arabia. Reports of women in hijab being harassed on the streets in Western cities are also heard, but with nothing like the scale or nature of the threat as the former. It seems obvious that a woman going without a headscarf in Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and many Muslim communities in the West would run a greater risk of harassment (if not arrest, corporal, or even capital punishment,) than a Muslim woman living in a liberal, secular country who decides to wear one. 

This begs a larger question: which is a bigger problem in the world today - Islamism or “Islamophobia” (although I prefer Maajid Nawaz’s more accurate and helpful phrase “anti-Muslim bigotry.”) I tend to think the former is a bigger problem than the latter. It isn’t just that women, gays, and religious minorities are safer and better off in liberal democracies than they are in Islamist countries - Muslims themselves enjoy more rights and freedoms in secular countries than they do in theocratic ones. Anti-Muslim bigotry in the West is indeed a problem and it needs to be fought against. But Muslims in liberal societies tend to be legally far freer to worship, dress, and live as they choose than Muslims in theocratic societies.  So who is really in peril and more in need of support and solidarity: the woman who dares to wear a headscarf in New York or the woman who dares to uncover her hair in Tehran?


The only World Hijab Day that would approach fairness or justice would be one in which Muslim women who do choose hijab remove it for a day in solidarity with their Muslim sisters who choose not to follow a dress code. Short of that, a day in which Muslim men are encouraged to try a headscarf for a day to support their sisters who wear one - either by choice or by force - might make for an interesting change. 

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Freeing the Nipple, Banning the Burqa: On Sartorial Liberty

I have consistently seen that, when faced with the twin demons of Islamist theocracy and anti-Muslim bigotry, some of my friends on the left will side with the former rather than being accused of the latter.

I recently had the honor, privilege, and pleasure of giving a TEDx talk in Jersey City on the topic of dress codes and sartorial freedom (I'll post a video as soon as its up.) One dress code I discussed was hijab, or the varied practice across many Muslim communities of either requiring or recommending that women cover themselves up in some particular way. Recently, in one of the usual shows of supposed solidarity that some on the left like to make after a terrorist attack over a not-unfounded fear of a backlash against Muslims, some non-Muslim women are donning hijab. This is a very misguided way to show support for Muslims who face bigotry because by implicitly endorsing the hijab as a symbol of Islam and Muslim womanhood it undermines the claims of validity and piety of Muslim women who choose not to cover themselves and, more importantly, those who are fighting for their right not to cover themselves in places where it is mandatory. Asra Q. Nomani and Hala Arafa wrote an excellent op-Ed piece in the Washington Post about this a week ago and today the always-incisive Maajid Nawaz wrote a column for the Daily Beast on the same subject.

Some might assume that someone as passionate about dressing up as I am would be in favor of dress codes that call for greater formality, but the main point of my talk was that the clothes a person wears are robbed of all meaning and power and neutered as personal expression if they become mandatory - a uniform. As it is, I'm against all dress odes but the narrowest ones regarding safety, just as I'm against all speech codes apart from those proscribing actual immediate threats.

When I say all dress codes I mean all dress codes, no matter what the authority. I think a government telling you what to wear is just as wrong as a holy book telling you what to wear. I think a cop telling women they shouldn't dress like sluts in order not to get raped (the inspiration for the "Slutwalk" marches,) is no more offensive than an Imam telling a girl that modesty is her duty so that she might be protected from the supposedly uncontrollable lusts of men.

As a secularist, freedom of religion is very important to me, as is the freedom to criticize religion. This position, which may seem contradictory is central to the very idea of secularism, and it's been highlighted nowhere more clearly in recent days than in the controversy over Islamic clothing in Western societies. In the most recent Canadian election, the question of women wearing the full face covering at citizenship ceremonies became a campaign issue. Raheel Raza wrote a passionate article in the Huffington Post explaining that by allowing or defending the burqa or niqab, well-meaning liberals were in fact defending a backward, repressive, and extremist version of their religion and validating a cultural practice they themselves see as illegitimate and non-obligatory. Salman Rushdie has in the past talked about the generations of Muslim women in his Kashmiri family who would have fought and died rather than be forced to wear a veil.

Where I disagree with Raza is in her call to ban the burqa and niqab in Canada. I think this is a big mistake. Aside from the fact that it may further alienate Muslims and play into a grievance narrative about Muslims being persecuted in the West, I don't believe that its the government's place to tell people what they can and can't wear. It's a clear violation of freedom of expression, which I believe should be nearly absolute. (I should note that in some instances and places, such as government buildings, hospitals, and schools, prohibiting face coverings and masks make perfect sense to me as security measures.)

This isn't to say that I approve of the burqa or even the hijab. Quite the opposite. I find them unfair, ugly, and inherently sexist, simply because girls are made to wear them but their brothers aren't. A rule applied unevenly to women and men should be the very definition of sexism, to say nothing of the fact that the reason often given for such dress codes is the notion of modesty being a woman's duty. Making female sexual purity a focal point of morality, aloingside poisonous notions of familial honor is terrible. Reducing a woman's piety to her outward performance of chastity is a shallow spirituality. And any god who would demand that half his creation cover themselves would necessarily be a small and petty one. This doesn't strike me as the basis for any noble or grand theology.

Western feminists don't seem to be lining up to denounce Islamic dress codes imposed on women as vocally as they denounce other authorities telling them that they should or shouldn't dress a certain way. They seem uncharacteristically quiet when their sisters in countries with mandatory modesty laws bravely resist them - at risk of great, even corporal, punishment - and ask for solidarity. I can only suppose that this is out of some kind of cultural sensitivity - that it is not their place to criticize another culture. This sort of relativism is a betrayal of internationalism, cosmopolitanism, and universal human solidarity. And it does little good to remain silent on the question of dress codes in a secular society - especially in cases when they overwhelmingly affect the lives of women. The most perverse pretzel-like twisting of this accommodation to extremism is the sight of self-proclaimed feminists donning hijab in "solidarity."

An argument can be made that items like the hijab are important symbols of identity to some Muslim women. Aside from the implication that women who don't cover themselves or who resist dress codes aren't somehow authentically Muslim, the argument that an item of clothing is central to someone's cultural identity doesn't automatically make it a good thing. If it did, we'd be much more accepting of idiots with Confederate Battle Flag patches on their jean jackets blathering on about their heritage and Southern way of life. And, to follow on from an earlier point, dress codes (rather than just dress,) tend to express group identity rather than individual identity, and if the expression is mandatory it cease to be an expression of personal value (i.e. if someone or some authority is telling you have no choice in the matter that also means you have no voice in the matter.) As a result, the hijab is only a meaningful personal expression of piety, identity, spirituality, religion, and community, in circumstances where there is no law or pressure on the woman wearing it, whether from her family, community, state, or clergy.

Again, I don't think banning burqas or hijab is the answer to sexist religious dress codes any more than banning the rebel flag is the answer to racism. I think that Muslim women in the west should be completely free to follow any dress codes their conscience demands of them (provided it is of their free choice and not coerced or pressures,) but people should recognize that that same freedom means that their expression and practice must be open to examination and criticism, and a frank discussion of the value of a female-only religious dress code shouldn't be dismissed, derailed, or silenced by bogus charges of racism, bigotry, or Islamophobia. We must defend peoples freedom to wear what they choose while exercising our freedom to speak out against all dress codes.

For those of us who don't follow religious or clerically-demanded dress codes, we should lead by example, not by making laws limiting how others can dress and express their religion, but by demonstrating to young generations of women of all cultures that a woman's value and worth isn't tied to her wardrobe, and that the right to dress as one chooses is universally empowering, whether you choose to follow a dress code or not.