By Frank Wessling
A woman in a swimming pool is expected to show some skin, with at least her arms and legs uncovered. The sight of one in a black full body suit with a snugly fitted hood is a real head-turner.
She’s not a scuba diver, she’s a Muslim woman getting her exercise.
But fully covered? In Davenport, Iowa? Isn’t that old-fashioned modesty? How quaint.
What does it say about us that a Muslim woman in an American swimming pool looks so odd. Some people think she’s even out of place. She’s an embarrassment to our normal pool or beach scenery, with young women exposing as much skin as they can manage without getting ejected or arrested.
In France, where Muslims are a much larger presence, women appearing at pools in full-body garments sometimes called a burqini have been refused entry. They are too much of a challenge to . . . what?
The observant Muslim woman in the swimming pool represents in a small way the “clash of civilizations” that political scientist Samuel Huntington saw where Islam meets the secular/Christian West. With her obvious seriousness about religious faith, she rebukes us for the straddles we make in trying to have the free-wheeling pleasures of modern liberty along with the spiritual consolation of faith.
Since she probably knows more about our faith than we know about hers, she would be aware that Jesus had a word about people who are lukewarm or easily distracted. Under much of any unease we may feel at her presence is this tinge of shame over our spiritual weakness in comparison with hers.
It would be more comfortable for us if she went back to Iran or Saudi Arabia where Islam is dominant.
Moralizers may use this woman as a model of how to dress modestly in public and avoid being a temptation to men. But there is more value in dialogue with her presence as a full human person. She does represent religious faith, certainly, but hers does not yet carry the air of freedom that we have known and struggled with for generations.
Women in most of the Western world have had to make their way for a long time without strict direction by men. Christian women have been on their own in a way the Islamic woman has barely imagined. She still has the cocoon of her tight-knit faith community and its web of strictures woven and interpreted by men.
She represents a faith admirable in its care for family and community — even its attention to the ultimate destiny we would call the kingdom of God. Our Christian faith contains the same values, but they are exercised with much greater freedom. The individual person has a dignity with us that may not be squashed. No authority may violate that personal conscience. Faith and its works are only valuable when adopted in full freedom, without either physical or moral coercion.
This is our history, marred certainly by the Inquisition but still a history that shaped the civilization of the West.It has required us to practice the art of balance: balancing the individual and the common good, balancing tradition and history, balancing the good of women and the good of men. We know how hard it is to find balance, and to keep refinding and refining it in shifting circumstances.
The Muslim woman in her burqini is a good reminder that we sometimes lose our balance. There is a difference between public and private. There is a difference between women and men. Respect those differences and don’t tease at the margins. She in her obvious and mandated modesty shows one way to do that. We have to be thoughtful in finding our own way.
If she — and the Islamic world — are to grow in trust that we have something of value for them, we do need to be much more thoughtful in the way we exercise our freedom. In a small way, a young Iowa woman’s attire in the pool or at the beach does its part to turn a clash of civilizations into a dialogue.