Burkha Wearers at My Son’s School

We live in student housing in an area that is home to a lot of foreign students and foreign workers.  The elementary school my son goes to has students from all over.  Something like half were not born in America.  It’s an incredible mix of kids and I really like that he can learn about other cultures.


Parts of some other cultures I don’t agree with.  I know, I’m supposed to be tolerant of other cultures, and I try to be.  But I have beliefs too, and they wouldn’t mean a whole lot if I just chucked them anytime I met someone who had different beliefs because of their upbringing.

To give an example, there are a handful of mothers at my sons school that wear Burkhas.  The full body ones that you see in news reports about Afghanistan.  I know it sounds provincial, but the first time I saw a woman wearing one I was standing in the school office and I kind of jumped.  I startled a bit.  I couldn’t help it, I live in San Diego and seeing someone completely covered in clothes is jarring.

I mentioned this to my wife and she said “you know, they get upset if you say you feel pity for them.”  But pity isn’t the word I’m looking for.

I know that to some this will make me a bad person.  But I can’t help it.  When I see men dressed in jeans and a t-shirt walking along his fully covered wife, I get irritated.    It’s the same feeling I get when I hear someone telling a racist joke.    It’s an injustice and I can’t stand it.

The problem for about accepting that “it’s another culture and we shouldn’t judge” is that we have these people in our own culture.  We have fundamentalist Christians, Mormons and Jews that espouse mostly the same view of women as fundamentalist Muslims do.  They used to be in the majority in our country.  It took centuries to get to where we are today.

American culture still puts all kinds of negative pressures on women.  We’re not perfect, but our society as whole does better than those among us who would have them marry their cousins at age 14 or restrict bike lanes through orthodox neighborhoods or compare women to livestock:

“Life gives us many experiences,” he explained. “I’ve had the experience of delivering calves, dead and alive — delivering pigs, dead and alive. … It breaks our hearts to see those animals not make it.”

So we still have a long way to go, but we should at least be happy that we’re better than we were.

Also, I’m not critiquing their fashion sense.  There are people dressed up in all manner of clothing dropping off their kids- a Chinese man who always proudly wears the same set of super shiny pearl pajamas, women in saris, rich ladies who look like their on their way to a cocktail party at 7 am, frumpy American dads, etc.  It’s all there.  It’s cool.

As parent I feel like I should comment on the unfairness of a man getting to wear whatever he wants while forcing a woman to wear something restrictive and smothering.  My son might have questions.  And while I don’t like that part of the their culture that forces women to dress in burkas, there’s the fact that these parents have kids who dress more or less like all the other kids.  They’re also very much in the minority at my son’s school.  I don’t want their kids to get singled out and/or picked on because their parents have beliefs I disagree with.   My son doesn’t seem like the type to pick on other kids, but I wouldn’t want to send him to school with the idea that treating these children differently is the right thing to do.

The question hasn’t come up yet, but I feel like I should address it at some point.  I hope I have a good answer, because I’m trying to thread the needle here and it still doesn’t sound right to me.


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