A Burqa at the Beach

Not too long ago, I spent a few days at an oceanfront resort hotel.  While I was there, an Islamic group of about a hundred people checked in for a few days.

My stay at the beach provided an unforeseen opportunity to observe their psychosocial process.  I got to watch a group of jeans-clad teenagers plot to escape their parents.  I watched a father grab and swat his son, who was running up and down a broad, carpeted staircase (good luck keeping that one down on the farm).

One evening, a woman in a full black burqa walked into the lobby.  At first, I felt a shiver of horror in reaction to her macabre attire.  This was followed by a sense of pity that she is forced to dress in such a manner, her skin deprived of the evening breeze, her eyes directed away from the moon over the ocean.  But as I sat there watching this apparently young woman for about half an hour, questions came to my mind.

Psychologists are like shepherd dogs.  We have an almost instinctual response to outlier behavior and start running along the boundary called "normal," trying to guide the nonconformist back into the flock.  But this reaction is often based on erroneous assumptions about the motivation of the exceptional behavior.  It hypothesizes that dissocial behavior is a reaction to a history of victimization, a maladjustment caused by prior mistreatment.  But clearly the woman in the burqa was not following a religious requirement.  And as I watched her take command of the center of the lobby, and saw the psychological moat she created around herself, it became clear she was not the victim, but the victimizer in the situation.

I reflected on the women of Judeo-Christian heritage in the lobby.  They offered her so much information about themselves: their faces and forms, their styles, their smiles.  She offered them nothing in return.  When American women come together in public places, they chat about their lives almost immediately.  She would have none of the pleasantries and good spirits that make life in America feel worth living.

But I suspect that her behavior reflects an even deeper anti-Americanism.  The American character was formed in reaction to a stratified society in which people of different social levels were not allowed to speak to one another without an introduction, even in public places.  The right that Americans maintain to speak up to anyone we choose is an indispensable working of our God-given equality and important to our mental health.  An American can bring a troubled heart to a room full of strangers and is almost as likely to find friendly conversation as to find oxygen in the air.  It won't save his marriage or get his job back, but someone will probably buy him a coffee or a drink and say, "I went through the same thing; you'll get through it, too."  Words of anonymous consolation have probably saved more lives than all the psychiatric hospitals combined.  But the woman in the burqa chose to set herself apart from the ordinary workings of social equality and the kindness of strangers.

As I was going to my room, I saw some Islamic women standing in the hall, and my musings got the better of me.  I said, "Do you mind if I ask you a question?  Did you see the woman in the burqa?  Why was she dressed like that?"  They told me it was cultural, not religious.  One said, "She came from a culture where they dress like that."  Another added, "Or she took the burqa when she came to America."  I asked them how they felt about her wearing the burqa.  Was she pressured by her husband?  Their responses had a flavor of being both protective and proud of her.  The hidden lady was her own woman.  "She drives herself around."  Another added, "She drives a $50,000 Mercedes."

People who are troubled by the behaviors of others ask, "Why does he do that to me?"  The answer: "Because he can."  There is that in human nature which naturally depreciates into taking advantage of others.  In the religious model, the tendency is called sinfulness.  The question Why? is often a cover for the question Why doesn't he love me?  Why doesn't she care?  A more useful way to understand negative behavior is to pose the question, "What purpose does this behavior serve?"

One psychodynamic model posits that dissocial behavior serves at least one of four purposes: 1) to get attention; 2) to have power over others; 3) to exact revenge; 4) because of an assumption of inferiority, which is masked by bad behavior.  The first three of these purposes pertain to observable social dynamics; the fourth is largely intrapsychic. 

Attention.  The black burqa is an attention-grabber.  This particular lady was also attracting special attention within her own religious group.

Power.  Knowledge is power.  The burqa withholds knowledge about its tenant while allowing her to collect knowledge about others.  The cues that maintain social reciprocity and direct choices are a one-way street, giving more power to the concealed individual.

Revenge.  America has gone down a suicidal path of admitting millions of illegal and legal immigrants who hold attitudes of resentment, entitlement, and even hatred against this nation.  The burqa attacks the political ideal of freedom and the social values of individuality and unity.  In the fullness of time, it could be used for more nefarious purposes.

Assumption of inferiority.  Does the woman behind the burqa have no sense of the inherent beauty of her unique face?  Where does she believe Allah shines forth, if not through her?

The Islamic distaff is the left's new poster child for their post-American vision.  Their purpose is to impose a new moral order and government-based economy.  They are threatened by traditional values, Christianity, and the Constitution.  When progressives see a woman in a burqa, they unconsciously identify with her against America.

America is the place where oppression comes to die.  At least 'til now.  Our nation has overcome the worst evils that the co-religionists of the shrouded lady in the lobby still practice.  During the colonial period, men and women were tortured and burned alive under the guise of Christianity.  A foremost protection of the Constitution was to bar religious authority from the public punishment of crime.  Psychologically, it is a short step from the facelessness and deindividuation of the burqa to public beheadings and stonings.

In perhaps America's finest hour, hundreds of thousands of people who would never be slaves themselves laid down their lives to rid America of the practice of slavery.  Will Islamism reinstitute legal slavery?  In the twentieth century, America dedicated itself to the proposition that violence against women and abuse of children must end.  The field of psychology gets some credit for this fortification of self-evident truth.  Will the influx of Islamic immigrants turn back these great achievements?