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Tuesday, February 01, 2005

A Cynic In the Briar Patch

Ok, I really, really don't want to be the skunk at the garden party. And I am as happy as anybody else that the voting went relatively well in Iraq. I would love to see a genuine democracy there, or anywhere. I feel it's the best form of government. Or, as was observed by Winston Churchill, the worst form of government - except for everything else.

However, in today's Washington Post several columnists, notably Richard Cohen and E.J. Dionne, made the point that our joy at the elections should be moderated by caution. As many others have also pointed out, the rule of the majority is only half of what it takes to be a modern constitutional and representative democracy. The other half, no less important, is respect for the rights of the minority. Even we still have occasional trouble with that one. And, so, we do have to wait to see how the Shiite majority treats the Sunni minority.

But there's another group whose rights need protecting. And something else the jubiliant photos are showing that, so far, no other pundit has picked up on. That's the women in veils. All the women in black veils. Long lines of them queued up to vote.

It's great that they're voting. But I remember long before America invaded Iraq, most of the photos of the women in the newspapers showed secular, westernized women with their hair nicely coiffed and wearing modest and fashionable dresses and pantsuits. In interviews many women, who were in business and active in their communities, expressed fear that an American invasion, if it unleashed chaos, would leave a vaccum that religious factions would fill. These women expressed no desire to give up western clothes, put on a veil, or lose their freedom to move around their country. In fact, one of those interviewed owned a beauty shop. So, no I don't think she'd voluntarily don a veil. But I bet she's wearing one now. I'd make that guess because that's all I ever see in the newspapers. How about you?

Look, there's nothing wrong with devout Muslim women wearing veils. In fact, I think that the French law forbidding it in French schools was just plain wrong. But what I think I'm seeing here is women who have put on the veil because that's the only safe way they can leave their homes.

I am heartened that twenty-five women seem to have been elected to public office in Iraq; so they're not exactly the Taliban over there. Still, I wonder about all those women who used to go to hairdressers, wear nice dresses and lipstick, and who even served in the Iraqi army once. And is the black veil there really their choice? Freedom, after all, frequently boils down to the facts and small change of daily life.

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