Sex and the Shiite

Rima Fakih Isaac Brekken / AP

Do clothes make the Muslim?

The French cabinet approved a draft law this week that would make it illegal for women to veil their faces so that only their eyes—and sometimes not even their eyes—are visible. Wearing what are called burqas or niqabs, the women in question keep their bodies cloaked and their hands gloved even in the heat of summer. They say this is their religious duty and their civil right.

In the United States, meanwhile, controversy continues about Rima Fakih, a 24-year-old Arab-American from a Lebanese Shiite Muslim family who won the Miss USA beauty pageant on Sunday after her stellar appearance in a bikini. At least one surly blonde tried to suggest Fakih has family ties to Hizbullah terrorists in Lebanon, but the big question that briefly threatened her hold on the crown was whether she was too sexy in a pole-dancing competition she entered a couple of years ago.

Burqas in European headlines, bikinis in American ones: which one tells you more about the aspirations of Muslim women? One appears to be primitive and repressed, the other modern, cosmopolitan, and liberated. But the answer is not really so obvious at all. The real test of modernity, including our own, is tolerance. And to the extent that we see Muslim women mainly in terms of dress codes, we’re only revealing how much we in the West have let stereotypes take over our view of the vast and complicated culture in which they actually live.

Lebanon, where Fakih’s family comes from, has always been a case study in counterintuitive contrasts. In the 1980s, Americans tended to think “Shiite”—the type of Islam associated with Iran and a large part of the Lebanese population—was synonymous with wild-eyed fundamentalism and suicide bombings. A number of airplane hijackings and attacks on Americans in Lebanon reinforced that idea. Crass T shirts in the United States proclaimed, “Hey, we just stepped in some Shiite!” And all Shiite girls were thought to wear dour black chadors. American troops called them “ninja women.” Yet even as bearded radicals held Americans hostage at the Beirut airport in 1985, I met Shiite women tanning in their bikinis at a beach club just a couple of miles away.

Maybe Americans think they know a little more about Muslim cultures now—since 9/11, since Afghanistan, since Iraq—and it’s not unusual to hear talk-radio discussions alluding to the differences between Shiites and Sunnis, with maybe a few asides about Wahhabis and Salafis thrown in. The burqa and niqab, seen as retrograde symbols of Sunni fundamentalism, are linked by pundits and in the public mind to that small minority who sympathize with Osama bin Laden and his niqab-wearing harem.

But the fact is most Arab and Muslim women, like people anywhere, are basically just trying to get by in the culture that’s been handed to them, looking to make a little space for their ambitions, take advantage of opportunities, and find freedom where they can.

“There are many women like Rima Fakih in the Arab world,” says author Amal Ghandour a Stanford-educated Shiite whose family comes from near Fakih’s family’s hometown and whose personal taste in clothing runs toward hip London designers. “Fakih is typical of many Shiite women: well educated, worldly, skilled—there are plenty of them in Lebanon, in the United States, in many other parts of the world. She is not atypical; she is not one of a kind.”

Hanan al-Shaykh, a widely acclaimed novelist who also comes from a Shiite family in South Lebanon, says a lot of the talk about the burqa in France and Rima Fakih’s Lebanese background in the United States “shows prejudice and racism on both sides.” In her 2009 memoir, “The Locust and the Bird,”  al-Shaykh writes about the way her mother, who was never taught to read in her Lebanese village, rejected the man she was forced to marry when she was 14, took a lover, married him, and fought the religious courts in Lebanon for custody of her children. “My mother was born in 1925,” says al-Shaykh. “Now we are in 2010. How dare people talk about Rima Fakih as if it is amazing she comes from near Nabatiyeh [South Lebanon]; as if, because her family shares some names with people in Hizbullah this must be some conspiracy.”

Ghandour, who wouldn’t think of wearing a veil herself, says that “the very educated and professional—but veiled—woman in the southern suburbs of Beirut may have a much stronger claim on a cosmopolitan vision than the bimbos with bare stomachs, big lips, and fake eyelashes walking downtown on Rue Foche.” What’s ironic, says Ghandour, is that many of the women who wear the niqab, like some who wear bikinis, see themselves essentially as prizes in the eyes of the men they want to attract. “One decides to veil, the other decides to flaunt,” says Ghandour, “but both have internalized the idea of being sex objects as central to their identity.”

(A few years ago, I was reporting in the southern suburbs of Beirut, which are dominated by Hizbullah, when I met three sisters walking down the street. The oldest, almost 30, wore the black chador; the second sister, in her early 20s, wore a conventional western dress, while the youngest, in her teens, wore a miniskirt. None were married, all wanted to be, and each had devised her own sartorial strategy for getting a man.)

Ghandour says many of her Shiite acquaintances find the head-to-toe burqa offensive, especially when they see it in Brussels or Paris or London where, clearly, it’s not a look that fits in. Her friends think it’s right for Belgium and now France to make laws against covering the face in public. But Ghandour worries that the whole debate focuses far too much attention on a tiny minority of Muslims. “You ban the burqa and you put these people right in the middle of any discussion about Islam,” says Ghandour, “when in fact they are out on the far fringes.”

That is precisely what the government of French President Nicolas Sarkozy has done. Yes, there are a few legitimate worries about security or the oppression of women. But France is home to millions of Muslim women. There are certainly tens of thousands and maybe hundreds of thousands who wear bikinis at the beach—and, this being France, some may wear less. But nobody is counting them. On the other hand, the government has tried to estimate the number who wear niqabs or burqas, and came up with fewer than 2,000. When French Justice Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie talks about this handful as a threat to “the values of the Republic and democracy,” it’s hard to take her seriously. Most analysts see the government’s ploy as a transparent bid to shore up its right-wing anti-Arab, anti-Muslim support.

Fakih, for her part, has yet to pronounce on the idea of a burqa ban. But as she told The Detroit Free Press earlier this week, speaking in pure beauty-pageant parlance: “The fear that people had implanted since 9/11, maybe what I did can show people that, you know what, who cares what ethnicity you are.”

Maybe it’s time for Fakih to visit France as a good-will ambassador. She should bring her bikini.

Christopher Dickey is also the author most recently of  Securing the City: Inside America's Best Counterterror Force - The NYPD, chosen by the New York Times as a notable book of 2009.