Headscarves and Hymens: Book Review


By David Michael Newstead.

Mona Eltahawy’s book, Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution, is part biography, part history, and it reflects on what’s happened since the Arab Spring in 2010. The book describes a double revolution taking place during that time, the revolution we know and the one for women’s rights across the region.

This includes examinations focused on sexual harassment, violence against women, misogyny, the complexities of the hijab, and wide-ranging systems of control against women as well as the guilt-inducing socialization of girls. The author resists the notion that these issues should be sidelined by the term “identity politics”. And throughout her own personal journey, she is both deeply connected to and sometimes separated from events going on in the Middle East as she moves between countries and cultures.

Most notably, Eltahawy recites numerous examples of homegrown advocates of women’s rights in the Middle East over the last century that defy attempts to label these activities as Western. Along those same lines, the book doesn’t request outside assistance, only that people pay attention. In light of that, below I include some passages from the book that were especially interesting to me.

  • I insist on the right to critique both my culture and my faith in ways that I would reject from an outsider.
  • When I write or give lectures about gender inequality in the Middle East and North Africa, I understand I am walking into a minefield. On one side stands a bigoted and racist Western right wing that is all too eager to hear critiques of the region and of Islam that it can use against us. I would like to remind these conservatives that no country is free of misogyny, and that their efforts to reverse hard-earned women’s reproductive rights makes them brothers-in-hatred to our Islamists. On the other side stand those Western liberals who rightly condemn imperialism and yet are blind to the cultural imperialism they are performing when they silence critiques of misogyny. They behave as if they want to save my culture and faith from me, and forget that they are immune to the violations about which I speak. Blind to the privilege and the paternalism that drive them, they give themselves the right to determine what is “authentic” to my culture and faith. If the right wing is driven by a covert racism, the left sometimes suffers an implicit racism through which it usurps my right to determine what I can and cannot say.
  • When I travel and give lectures abroad and I’m asked how best to help women in my part of the world, I say, help your own community’s women fight misogyny. By doing so, you help the global struggle against the hatred of women.
  • Some men were still struggling with the chains it had taken me so long to unclasp, and I found myself moved by their personal revolutions. I would remind myself that men also struggled against sexual guilt and a socialization that produced a warped and unhealthy attitude toward women and sex. I believe – and my experience reaffirmed that belief – that girls and women bear the greater burden of this socialization. But in getting to know Egyptian men better, and in sharing my frustrations with the way our culture and practice of religion had filled us with guilt and stripped us of understanding for each other, I learned that our best allies are those men determined to free themselves of sexual guilt and refuse the false ease of gender double standards.

Read Headscarves and Hymens

Superman: America’s Jewish Superhero and an Immigrant Icon


By David Michael Newstead.

The greatest comic book hero of all time was created in the 1930s by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. And a large part of Superman’s mythology actually comes from the creators’ own experience as the children of Jewish immigrants from Europe. On one level, the story of an infant escaping danger, being rescued by adoptive parents, and destined for great things has clear similarities to Moses. Beyond that though, there’s a duality to the Man of Steel that’s reflective of the immigrant experience. He has two names, two homes, and an affinity for his culture of birth (Krypton) as well as his adoptive culture (America).

The massive franchise that followed has endured for decades in the form of books, movies, and merchandise. But at its core, Superman is grounded in the imaginings of two young science fiction fans from Cleveland who grew up during the Great Depression. Truth, justice, and the American way were ideals that made their parents cross an ocean. And no matter how elaborate the storylines became, it is essentially rooted in an immigrant’s dream of someone who will right society’s wrongs and stand up for the oppressed.

Someone who is both distinct from and the very embodiment of their new home.

From the NYT: Sikh Soldier Allowed to Keep Beard in Rare Army Exception

By Dave Philipps.

On his first day at the United States Military Academy at West Point, Simratpal Singh sat in a barber chair where new cadets get their hair buzzed short, forced to choose between showing his faith and living it.

Cadet Singh had grown up a Sikh. As part of his faith, he had never cut his hair or beard. But his faith also encouraged protection of the oppressed, which inspired him to join the Army.

The Army would not allow a soldier with long hair or a beard, so that day he watched his locks drop to the floor.

“Your self-image, what you believe in, is cut away,” he said in an interview. For a long time after, he would shave without looking in the mirror.

That was almost 10 years ago. The cadet graduated, led a platoon of combat engineers who cleared roadside bombs in Afghanistan and was awarded the Bronze Star.

Last week, the Army finally granted now Captain Singh, 27, a religious accommodation that allows him to grow his beard and wrap his hair in a turban.

“It is wonderful. I had been living a double life, wearing a turban only at home,” he said. “My two worlds have finally come back together.”

It is the first time in decades that the military has granted a religious accommodation for a beard to an active-duty combat soldier — a move that observers say could open the door for Muslims and other troops seeking to display their faith. But it is only temporary, lasting for a month while the Army decides whether to give permanent status to Captain Singh’s exception.

If it decides not to, the captain could be confronted with the decision of whether to cut his hair or leave the Army. He has said he is prepared to sue if the accommodation is not made permanent.

“This is a precedent-setting case,” said Eric Baxter, senior counsel at the Becket Fund, a nonprofit public interest law firm that specializes in religious liberty. “A beard is a beard is a beard. If you let one religious individual grow it, you will need to do it for all religions.”

Read the Full Article

From NPR: Only Three Observant Sikh Men Serving In The U.S. Military

By Tom Gjelten.

If a Muslim woman may wear a headscarf at work, as the U.S. Supreme Court has now affirmed, perhaps a Sikh man should be able to wear a turban while serving in the U.S. military.

So argues the Sikh Coalition, an advocacy organization that has long opposed a Pentagon ban on facial hair and religious headgear among service members. That campaign got at least a moral boost with this week’s court decision.

“What I’m anticipating with this decision is that we will have a move in this country to recognize the right of individuals from different religious backgrounds to live in an America that does not discriminate against them on the basis of how they appear,” says Simran Jeet Singh, the senior religion fellow for the Sikh Coalition.

As a general rule, the Department of Defense prohibits facial hair and the wearing of religious headgear among service members, though it offers “accommodation” on a case-by-case basis in recognition of “sincerely held beliefs.”

Such waivers, however, are given only when they would not undermine “military readiness, unit cohesion, good order, discipline, health and safety, or any other military requirement.”

In practice, those considerations can present major obstacles. Currently, just three observant Sikh men serve in the U.S. military, all in the Army, and all are in noncombat positions. That’s out of an active-duty military force of 1.4 million.

Read the Full Article

Sikhs in December

By David Michael Newstead.

The Christmas season is here and it is omnipresent – on TV, in decorations, and the music playing in almost every store.

Overwhelming even at its best, I thought December would actually be a perfect time to take a break from the typical holiday activities, instead focusing on Sikh culture and trying to learn more about the Sikh experience in America. To do so, I reached out to the local Sikh temple and paid them a visit recently. Leading up to that, I realized that I knew some things about Sikhism in an abstract sort of way, but when I really thought about it, I hadn’t had much exposure to the Sikh community at all. Disappointed by this lack of interaction, I decided that this was all the more reason to check out the Sikh Gurdwara in Washington, D.C. and to endeavor to gain a better understanding.

When I arrived at the temple, the people I met there were instantly welcoming and happy to explains things and answer my questions. I was asked to remove my shoes. Then, I was fitted with a head covering and went on to enjoy an afternoon of music, prayer, and Indian food (I love Palak Paneer). The congregation was made up of young families, a few small children, and grandfathers with the long beards characteristic of a religion that views natural uncut hair as a symbol of respect for God’s creation.

Later in the service, ceremony gave way to announcements about upcoming events and a brief talk on the important, on-going efforts of the American Sikh Congressional Caucasus, formed 2 years old and consisting of 42 members in the House of Representatives.

It’s this last point that informed the conversations I had over lunch as I tried to understand the distinctiveness of Sikh culture in relation to a larger American context. Since the 19th Century, Sikhs have made diverse contributions to the United States, particularly to the medical profession, to agriculture, and the development of fiber optics. Their long military tradition includes distinguished service in both world wars, while also preserving Sikh cultural practices at the same time. But despite the significant accomplishments of the Sikh community, their appearance has been a focal point for ignorant stereotypes and baseless suspicion over the years. A majority of Sikh students report being bullied or harassed. Airport security often views Sikhs as a threat. And today, news about Sikhs in the military most likely debates their facial hair and not their heroism.

Unfortunately, the Sikh experience in America has been marred by discrimination and violence, especially in the wake of the September 11th attacks. Often mistaken for Muslims because of their beards and turbans, there have been hundreds of documented assaults against Sikhs from 2001 to the present. The most well-known case is the murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi, a gas station owner in Arizona, on September 15, 2001. But even years after 9/11, Sikhs have continued to be targeted in senseless acts of violence across the United States. In 2012, a White Supremacist attacked a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, fatally shooting 6 people. On a Sunday morning in 2013, an 81-year old Sikh man was beaten with a steel pipe in Fresno, California. And in New York City the same year, 30 men attacked a Columbia professor named Dr. Prabhjot Singh, fracturing his jaw and calling him a “terrorist” and “Osama Bin Laden”.

As we ate lunch, I spoke to a retired postal worker who described Sikhs as a peaceful, loving people that wanted to be represented within communities and not apart from them. He explained that preserving their identity and the visibility that’s associated with it is essential to Sikhs, even as they integrate into American culture. In fact, it’s a remarkable testament to the Sikh community and their closely held beliefs that they always seem to rise above the hate crimes and harassment that’s directed towards them – through their ability to forgive, to build understanding, and to continually welcome outsiders in with open arms.

Later in the afternoon, I asked a college student whether he thought things were improving for Sikhs in the United States and I got a two part answer. He was skeptical about certain regulations changing for the better, describing how uncomfortable he feels at airports. But in society at large? He said things were improving little by little.

There’s still a long way to go. That said, it’s a great reminder about the importance of peace on Earth and good will toward men, year-round.

Happy Holidays!


Is Facial Hair Professional?

By David Michael Newstead.

In America, the conventional answer to this question has been NO for a long time. But that’s changed in recent years, at least to some degree. Today, the professionalism of facial hair is open to a little more debate as our society is inundated with stubble-faced celebrities and hipster moustaches. As a result, razor sales have actually declined and work policies (depending on where you work) are more relaxed than during the Mad Men era. If facial hair is clean, trimmed, and well maintained, then it’s doubtful that anyone at the office would notice or care. But the fact that there is no consistent answer fuels further debate.

For example, having a neatly trimmed beard for a job interview seems fine.

Having a three-day shadow does not.

When you look at men in positions of leadership in America, they are almost exclusively clean-shaven in business and politics. There are notable exceptions to this rule, of course, but those are in the minority. Billionaire Richard Branson has a beard and Mark Zuckerberg might wear a hoodie to work every day, but most of us will be held to different standards, even if those standards are sometimes arbitrary.

In general, how you choose to present yourself and the impressions you make definitely influence the direction of your career overtime. That could include your facial hair or your wardrobe, personal hygiene, how attractive you are, or your overall attitude and demeanor towards others, etc., etc., etc.

But likeliest of all, these things really hinge on the whims of your employer.

But if there’s one case to be made in support of facial hair in the workplace, it has to do with fully accepting and promoting members of religious groups that value their moustaches and beards. Sikhs, Muslims, Orthodox Jews, and the Amish are some examples and to make a blanket statement that facial hair is unprofessional is biased and exclusionary rather than just being an opinion about men’s style.

Fortunately for everyone, times are already changing.

NYT: Facial Hair is Back in Style in Business Settings