I dislike the veil. But last year, when I spent a month reporting from all over Afghanistan, I wore one the entire time — because Afghan society cannot yet tolerate unveiled women, and I wanted to connect with people and do my job effectively. I could have gone bare-headed, but it would have sent the hostile message that I didn’t care about integrating with the society around me. Did I enjoy having to reconsider my anti-veil stance? Of course not. I detested how wobbly the veil made my beliefs feel, and I trashed it on my flight out of Kabul. But I was the one who had gone to Afghanistan; Afghanistan had not come to me. That made it my responsibility to deal with how my presence affected those around me.
I’ve thought about this constantly since the debate erupted in Britain over whether Muslim women should wear full-face veils. Prime Minister Tony Blair has backed calls by his party’s parliamentary leader, Jack Straw, that Muslim women in Britain should refrain from covering their full faces, particularly when dealing with the wider society. The indignation of British Muslims — their refusal, really, to even have a conversation about the issue — strikes me as particularly delusional, given the climate of post-9/11 Europe. It would be like me traipsing as an American into hostile, post-Taliban Afghanistan, imagining I could bare my hair without alienating those around me. To expect this would involve an unhealthy relationship with reality.