Tracy Fessenden gives us her impression of what it actually means when someone suggests that you might look great in a burqa. Tracy, though a new poster, has been mentioned previously on the blog for her new (and wonderfully clever) book, Culture and Redemption: Religion, the Secular and American Literature, which tackles how the notion of the secular in American culture has been created by the religious rather than in opposition to religious ideas and peoples. She is currently an Associate Professor at Arizona State University in the Department of Religious Studies. For those of you who did not attend AAR, Tracy also provided an eloquent response to Catherine Albanese's A Republic of Mind and Spirit, which brought forth the issue of overlooked violence and tragedy in the study of American Religious History. Welcome aboard, Tracy!
On Looking Great in a Burqa
BY TRACY FESSENDEN
Somewhere on the Protestant side of the Protestant side of my family was a distant uncle who became mentally ill in his first year at Harvard and, this being the1940s, was removed to an institution far from the ivy leagues. There, incapacitated, he ended his days, but not before outliving every member of his more immediate family. By this accident of biography I grew up in the house to which every piece of this unknown uncle’s scant mail was redirected, including his Harvard alumni magazine, and, in consequence, the 1970s-era L.L. Bean catalog. From the time I was 9 or 10 I would spend long hours caught up in its pages, a travelogue from a mysterious world. It was a game I played: Were I somehow made to suffer a great deprivation, and allowed only to dress from the L.L. Bean catalog, could I pull something together from among these flocked corduroy slacks, these boxy blazers with their heraldic crests, these duck shoes and sensible bags? Could I accept such arbitrary restriction on my wardrobe and still manage to look kind of cool? A variation of the game lightened my days at Catholic school, where some of the nuns retained their habits and others were beginning to dress in the standard-issue separates that marked them almost as insistently. If I were a nun, this version of the game ran, what would I wear? Almost always I decide to keep the habit, the flowing veil. I would do something with them. On me, I decide, they’d look good.
So the first time someone told me I’d look great in a burqa, my impulse was to say, why thank you. But now I hear it more and more! And not just me. Hillary Clinton would look great in a burqa! Naomi Wolf would look great in burqa! Diane Rehm would look great in a burqa! Michelle Obama, Elizabeth Edwards, great in their burqas! And Katie Couric and so many other women in a position to ask hard questions: they don’t, because they might be told they’d look great in a you-know-what.
Seriously, folks, how did we get here? How is it that the opening or closing gambit in so much of what passes for argument—about politics, on the right, or about religion, from bestselling atheists and Christianists alike—is to invoke (there but for the grace of God, Jesus, or the Enlightenment) the woman in a burqa? And how is it that no one on the left seems even to know how to respond to the you’d-look-great-in-a-burqa charge without appearing to give credence to the view that the “burqa” condenses everything the free world has to fear?