The Burqa Incident

How I was expelled from the Libertarian Party convention and (allegedly) narrowly escaped spending the night in jail being interrogated by the FBI

Sarah Fitz-Claridge

[Closeup of face of burqa]

Published in the The Laissez Faire Electronic Times, Vol 1, No 23, July 22, 2002.

It all began when I came up with what I thought was a fun idea for a speech to give at the US Libertarian Party National Convention, to be held in Indianapolis, Indiana, between 3rd and 7th July, 2002. I would take a provocative peek at authoritarianism lurking in Libertarian homes, arguing that it isn't just state authority that should be of concern, but all authority. I'd point out that, contrary to what some of my fellow libertarians appear to think, not all problems are caused by government, just as not all can be solved by government. I had the perfect title: Is that a burqa on the bedroom floor?

For anyone who has been holidaying in a far-flung corner of the universe for the last ten months without any access to TV, a burqa is that form of all-covering women's dress which is compulsory in certain Islamic cultures. The most extreme form, which does not even show the eyes, is that worn by women in Afghanistan under the Taliban. I would wear that sort of burqa when addressing the Libertarian Party National Convention. I might be the first person ever to give a speech wearing such a burqa.

This raised the problem, how does one find such a burqa? Marks and Spencer's didn't have any, I couldn't bring myself to try Harrods, and even searching the internet yielded no positive results. I asked around. Eventually, one contact led to another, and Adil Farooq, of muslimpundit.com, was kind enough to import from Pakistan for me the all-important burqa.[1]

Once in possession of the burqa, I had a strong desire to try it out. What would it be like to be completely covered from head to toe? Would it be claustrophobic? Would I be able to breathe properly? Would it get caught in a shopping mall escalator and strangle me? Would it pose any problem when dining at Le Manoir Aux Quat' Saisons? How would it affect my ability to drive? How would people in the street react if I were to wear it in England? Would I attract the sort of attention that would leave me paralysed from the neck down – if I was lucky – as one friend suggested? Or, as I guessed, would I attract little or no attention, just like the actors whom a newspaper paid to dress as German storm troopers and goosestep down Whitehall in London in 1940?[2] Well this is England after all, the land of eccentrics, and the English are nothing if not tolerant.

[Me in a burqa at the convention]

A Belgian libertarian friend to whom I mentioned this idea was concerned about my welfare. He thought I was planning this as a form of civil disobedience. He assumed that it is illegal in England to wear a mask on the street, just as it is in Belgium. But I'm not quite that daring. I don't even lie in my tax returns! In England I am perfectly free to wear a mask on the street. I assumed that the same would be true in America. In fact, it did not even occur to me that it might not be. To me, America is not just the land of the free; America is freedom. And where in America might one find more freedom than at a US Libertarian Party National Convention?

Everyone I conversed with at the convention in the days before my speech was very friendly and fun, but not all knew the meaning of the word “burqa”, and many asked about it. So I came up with the idea of wandering around the convention for a short while, wearing my burqa, to pique delegates' interest and thus avoid the sorry fate of finding myself the next morning speaking to an audience of one. I knew I could count on there being one person in the audience, because I had persuaded my friend Sue to be my introducer. Now I also persuaded her to join me in this bit of fun, giving her a backup burqa a friend had made for me the night before I flew to America.

All went swimmingly (in more ways than one – wearing a burqa does terrible things to one's vision and sense of balance) from the moment we donned our burqas in our hotel room, to the moment when, having successfully negotiated five corridors, two escalators and one Assembly of God indoor market packed with gospel singers and happy shoppers, we entered the Libertarian Party Convention room.

At that point, we were accosted in a most alarming manner by a member of the Libertarian Party staff, and a security guard from the convention centre.

“Can I help you?” enquired the LP staffer icily.

Thinking that she wanted to see our convention ID and anxious to set her mind at rest that we were legitimate conference-goers, I showed her my “VIP SPEAKER” pass. That did not seem to help. She exuded more hostility as she snapped at Sue: “Do you have one of these as well?” Even when she had seen both our passes (mine twice!) she still seemed just as angry as she had when she first caught sight of us.

Attempting to jolly her out of this disagreeableness, I explained brightly the purpose of this bit of fun.

“Oh you've certainly attracted attention here all right,” she said. It felt like being back at school, when I, innocent of any wrong, was reprimanded by my teacher and sent to see the headmaster[3].

But that was not the end of the matter. At that point, the security guard said something, and he said it forcefully, indicating that he would brook no dissent. Unfortunately, I could not discern a word he said – nothing to do with the burqa, it was just that he had a very strong American accent. This did not improve matters.

Eventually, it became clear that what he was saying was, “If it is not part of your religion to wear that, take it off or leave.”

I was completely astounded! Flabbergasted! Here we were, two harmless Western women having a bit of fun in a Libertarian Party convention, on the day many Americans dress up and celebrate freedom – and we were being thrown out, and without even the usual friendly courtesy one expects from Americans. This could not be happening!

But it was. They were not taking no for an answer.

So, feeling physically sick and considerably less jolly than I had felt at the start of our little excursion, I agreed to leave. As Sue and I made our way to the ladies' lavatory to remove our burqas (upon reflection, perhaps I should have changed right there instead), the LP staffer turned to the security guard and apologised to him for our behaviour in a very loud voice. Ouch! Clearly, she had me marked as a troublemaker in need of punishment, and punished, I felt!

When we emerged from the lavatory, another security guard was waiting for us, and followed us until we left his turf, then radioed on to the next security guard to continue following us, and so on, until we entered the lift to take us up to our room in our hotel.

Safely in our room, Sue and I discussed our experience, mystified by so many aspects of it that we resolved to try to talk to the Libertarian Party staffer the following day. What could be the meaning of all this, we wondered. We considered a number of possible explanations in turn.

My first guess was that we had run up against the taboo against criticising religion. Perhaps they thought that Afghans in the building might be offended that we, two atheistic Westerners, were dressed according to their custom. But of course given that we were completely covered from head to toe and were walking silently, even in the unlikely event that there were any non-Westernised Afghans in the convention centre, how would they know we were atheist Westerners? But has it really come to this? Is one really not free, in the land of the free, to dress up in the clothing of another culture?

Another possibility we considered was that we had offended some of the hundreds of Assembly of God people we had passed en route to the Libertarian Convention room. Some of them had indeed stared at us, but I don't think they complained. And again, even if they had, how would that justify throwing us out of the Libertarian Party Convention room?

Was it that they thought we were Islamists staging a terrorist attack on the Libertarian Party Convention? Presumably not, because otherwise, the demand the security guard made when throwing us out makes no sense at all. Recall that at no point did he search us, or ask to search us. Recall that if it was part of our religion to wear the burqas, then, as far as he was concerned, we were perfectly free to go about our business. He was effectively saying, If you might actually be an Islamist terrorist, I wouldn't dream of searching you. Go and kill people in peace! But if you are a law-abiding Westerner who is a legitimate participant at the convention, either take that off or leave the building. It does not exactly inspire confidence in the convention centre security, does it?

Whatever the truth of the matter, I was struck by the stark fact that I was not free to wear my burqa – at least, not in this bit of America. I thought of alluding to this in my speech the following morning. Perhaps I could make a bit of an apology, mentioning my apparent troublemaker status. Then I could say that if I had been informed that there was a dress code for the convention, I could have made a decision in advance whether to attend or not, and in either case I could have saved myself, and my friend, this unpleasant experience.

Everyone we talked to at the convention was as baffled and shocked as we had been. No one seemed to have any idea why we had been treated like that. “We're living in a police state!” said one libertarian. “Trust government to take away all our civil liberties,” said another. Everyone was disgusted by our expulsion from the convention room – until I pointed out that it was not a policeman who had thrown us out, but a private security guard together with a member of their very own Libertarian Party! “Don't property owners have a right to throw people out if they want to?” I teased, interested to see how many people would then have no criticism of the action. Reactions varied. Not everyone took the view that private authoritarianism is perfectly fine. I was encouraged.

“This is supposed to be the party of freedom-lovers, not fascists!” said one incensed Libertarian Party candidate, as he apologised to me for the behaviour of the Libertarian Party representative who had accosted us.

“No wonder the Libertarian Party is doing so badly: they are too fearful of innovation and fun,” judged another libertarian. “Anti-entrepreneurial authoritarianism! You shouldn't let these people get away with it!” he fumed.

Libertarian radio personality, Neal Boortz, who was also speaking at the convention, quipped that when the security guard had demanded, “If that's not part of your religion, take it off or leave the property!” I should have pointed at his trousers and replied: “If they're not part of your religion, take them off or leave the property!”

The next morning, before my speech, Sue talked to the Libertarian Party staffer who had accosted us, and apologised to her. The gracious acceptance I had expected was not forthcoming. The woman merely said that our bit of fun had caused a major security scare, because on that day, 4th July, the convention centre we were in had been the subject of a terrorist threat. Hadn't we seen the news or read the papers, she asked? Well, no, actually. I had no idea that I was expected to read the Indianapolis papers before deciding what to wear of an evening. And anyway, we had been too busy enjoying ourselves with all the friendly libertarians at the convention. She said that she had had to file an FBI report on us, and the place had been swarming with FBI officers. Interesting, I couldn't help musing, that none of those agents of the Dead Hand of the State saw anything amiss with our costumes.

Later, I received an apology from Libertarian Party Executive Director, Steve Dasbash. Apparently, the news of our little adventure had spread throughout the convention. Complete strangers were coming up to me and asking me to relate the story of The Burqa Incident. An office holder in the Libertarian Party informed me that there had been no terrorist threat on the convention centre. What had happened, he said, was that a local paper had run a piece speculating about what kind of building terrorists might choose to attack there. Its conclusion was that it would be somewhere large with lots of people – like the convention centre we were in. That, it appears, was the event that caused people to panic.[4]

While I was waiting to give my speech, Sue informed me that two security guards had come into the room and were standing at the back of the room.

“Well I wasn't nervous before!” I said, alarmed by this unexpected turn of events. What was I to do? The beginning of my speech involved me wearing the burqa. It would be ruined without that. Fearing that I might be thrown out in an even more embarrassing way than before (this time with an audience watching) I considered my options. Should I forget the idea of wearing the burqa and instead, carry it on in a black bag, opening it gingerly to show the audience and explain how I would have made my point?

I really didn't want to do that. So Sue very kindly went to talk to the security guards and explain the situation to them. The one she spoke to was not the one who had accosted us the day before, but he knew all about us anyway. “Oh yes, we came very close to calling in the FBI to deal with you,” he said darkly, “and if we had, you wouldn't be here now!”

When Sue told me the story, I slightly regretted that they hadn't called in the FBI. It might have been quite exciting, I thought. I could see it now: “Sarah Fitz-Claridge was scheduled to speak to you now, but we regret to inform you that she can't be with us, as she is currently in jail being interrogated by the FBI for violating the Federal Dress Code.” Or I might have been deported.

But on serious reflection, if my 4th July experience had been traumatic in itself, how much more traumatic might it have been to be interrogated by the FBI as well? Even though Sue had taken the trouble to ensure that the nearest security guard knew about my plan to wear the burqa, I still felt quite nervous as I stood in my burqa outside the door, waiting to enter to give my speech.

As Sue introduced me, I made my way to the lectern. Having managed to negotiate the steps onto the podium without falling flat on my face, I said from under my burqa: “On balance, I'd rather not have to wear a burqa. Whilst it might have some advantages when you've suffered a complete catastrophe at the hairdresser's, it's a severe nuisance in situations like this.” Then in a single motion I took the burqa off and threw it onto the floor next to the podium. The audience applauded and cheered. Things were looking up.

Footnotes
1. I'd like to thank Adil Farooq of muslimpundit.com very much for his extreme kindness in ordering me the all-important burqa from Pakistan, at no charge to me. And I'd like to thank Perry de Havilland, of the Libertarian Samizdata weblog, for putting me in touch with Adil Farooq.
2. According to author and physicist, Professor David Deutsch.
3. The American equivalent of the word “headmaster” is “principal”.
4. See this article in The Indianapolis Star, by Mike Ellis: “NO IMMINENT OR CREDIBLE THREAT BUT . . . City landmarks potential targets”

To Sue Cvach's article, What I learned about liberty on July 4, 2002

To photographs taken at the US Libertarian Party 2002 National Convention

Speech transcript: Is that a burqa on the bedroom floor?

For further information about the US Libertarian Party, visit the Libertarian Party web site.

What people are saying about The Burqa Incident

Don't miss Brian Micklethwait's highly amusing commentary: “You're only allowed to come in dressed as a terrorist if you are a terrorist!”

There is a lot of discussion of The Burqa Incident here.

Danny O'Brien (danny@spesh.com) of www.NTK.net started it by posting the following: “British freethinker Sarah [Fitz-Claridge] dresses in a burqa to make a point at the US Libertarian Party Conference, and causes a hotel-wide security alert. Looks like one of those systemic sense-of-humour failures that conspire to spiral out of control these days. But isn't it a bit worrying when even Libertarian Party officials start threatening to report their own conference speakers to the FBI for suspicious dress sense?”

Sheauga wrote: “The libertarian who was challenged regarding her right to wear a burqa had a very simple answer that she didn't use: ‘Yes, it's my religious belief to wear this burqa. I'm a libertarian, and I believe in freedom. Don't you?’”

Andrew Losowsky's commentary in The Prandial Post: FBI with your burqa?

See the links provided by this blogdex search.

Here are some of the comments received:

“Sarah, I suggest you stay on your own side of the pond, at least until you become a mature adult.”

“As for [the above] comment, what he really means is that you haven't become a shrivelled, joyless, intolerant intellectual pigmy like him...”

“Sarah [Fitz-Claridge] is as dumb as a rock, and insensitive to boot. [...] [I]f she had half a brain she'd realize the [terrorist] situation isn't much better in England... cry-baby arguments... Had she tried to enter the SuperBowl dressed like that then she would very likely have found herself actually being detained by the authorities for questioning.”

“Her motive was to illustrate that some American and European men (including, if not especially, Libertarian men) can be as oppressive in their attitudes toward women and children as Islamic fundamentalists. How is that “jerking people around for [her] own amusement”? Her motive is legitimate. [...] As a libertarian, you should be supporting her right to freedom of expression...”

“[D]istasteful, disrespectful, and disruptive.”

“The LP... has a right protect the professionalism of its conventions from such pranksters. It also has every right to protect the convention from perceived terrorist threats. Sarah [Fitz-Claridge] threatened the convention in both ways simultaneously.”

“You must have known that entering a convention dressed like that would create controversy and confusion and possibly fear and outright panic (that is, unless you really are as dumb as a rock). [...] No no doubt the guard was confused and fearful and not quite sure how to handle the situation: he was confronted with women dressed similarly to Taliban women, and where there are Taliban women there are likely also to be Taliban men. Taliban men were our sworn enemies in a war that has only barely ended. [...] At the same time, despite his confusion, he was still mindful of the fact that you might actually be peaceful Muslim women, and in that case he wanted to be sure he was not discriminating on the basis of religion. He was willing to accept the risks of panic in the crowd in the name of defending your rights as genuine Muslim women. However you turned this fact against him in your article, which I believe proves your true intent.”

“Most thinking persons would associate a burka with oppression and not terrorism especially given the title of your speech. A terrorist seeks to blend in not stand out!!”

“Strange that someone would give you such a difficult time at the convention for your outfit since I carried a S&W .38 special on an ankle holster the entire time at the convention, even when I met Representative Ron Paul in the Hotel lobby and walked him to the convention center, and when I spent time talking to Governor Gary Johnson.”

“By all means wear whatever you feel like when at the Florida Convention.”

“I'm sorry and very surprised that you had this unpleasant experience at the LP convention. I'm also puzzled why once you identified yourself as a speaker at the convention that the LP staffer didn't call in Steve Dasbash right away to straighten things out.”

“You won't be kicked out of any of our events for wearing a burka: www.subgenius.com
PS: the main thing to remember about security guards is that they are people who failed the police entry exam.”

“Loved your Burqa talk. What delicious irony that ‘libertarians’ should react to you in such a jackbooted fashion...”

Jim “Suldog” Sullivan (Suldog@aol.com) writes:

As a former state chair for the Libertarian Party in Massachusetts, I read with great interest your very amusing, yet higly alarming, article concerning our national convention.

I thank you for keeping your marvelous sense of humor in writing about the events. It would have been very easy to go off on a scathing rant about us, and justified in many ways as well.

It appears from your writings that you have been apologised to at length already, but please allow me to speak for most of us again (I suppose I mean both Libertarians AND Americans in general...) when I say “Sorry!”

Marla Tarpo (mtarpo@hotmail.com) writes:

I just read your speech from the LP National Convention.

You were right on target! Two points are my points too.

I recently read the oath that we as dues paying members sign, the last time I had read it was before I had kids. But now I have kids & read it again. I immediatly had the realization that I needed to stop threatening my kids with a spanking unless they did what I told them. Note: Usually the threat works & I don't have a habit of spanking my kids. BUT a threat is using FORCE. A mentor of mine who had 10 kids told me that she told her kids “never to obey her out of fear, if they couldn't obey her out of love then don't”. I thought that was incredible.

The other point is freedom of religion. When I was 14 my dad forced me to go to his place of worship after I had studied it & decided it wasn't for me. It was very traumatic.

Thank you for being out there, making these points heard. You're speaking for me too.

Tim Sauer, from Colorado, writes:

So sorry to hear about how you were treated. Your idea sounded very creative to me. But, I am happy to hear that some did indeed stand up for you. [...]

For what it's worth, from one American Libertarian... I wish your visit had been free of such troubles. And it is true fascism is running rampant here, thankfully in a smaller degree in the LP. I'm glad you exposed that to those in attendance at the Convention, and to those who couldn't be there like myself. [...]

Dane Carlson's weblog, 22nd July, 2002

End the war on freedom, Saturday, July 20, 2002

Strike the Root, July 22, 2002

Burqa

It shows you how much many Americans have been affected by fear. Many people fear what they do not understand. Just because you wear a burqa dosen't make you a terrorist.

Good or Bad?

Your article is disturbing and piques my interest. As some comments have been said, your idea was quite creative and should be recognized as a very useful tool with which to think critically about "freedom" in the United States, or in the west for that matter. However, I shall point out the criticism that I have of your experience and attitude.

Understandably you are an atheist and have no wish to be converted to anything with a higher being. However, to mock religious or other "cultural" artifacts is also not quite the way to make an impression. Had you gone into the experiement not thinking about negative things and really with an open mind your experience under the burqa might be different. (I am not talking about others' reactions to you, but your own physical being.) You should understand that women who choose to wear the burqa are accostumed to it and can function quite well with it. Similar to the western dress of constricting ones bodily excess fat with the use of undergarments. If one were not used to it, one would think that it was quite disgusting to play around in one's bodily fats.

The second and probably most disturbing part of your experience is the proof that people who are feared in the United States are continually treated in the manner that you have been and more if not worst. The fear and stereotypes are so strong here that I fear it is only a matter of time before insanity gets out of hand. To call the FBI for a piece of clothing is very significant. It shows that the ways in which representations of certain kinds of people are marked and oppressed.

It is not the women wearing the burqa that you should be worried about, it is the government that oppresses the woman wearing the burqa that is a bigger worry.

Something that you could learn is that you escaped the experience with minor inconveniences to your "fun", however, people who live with reactions that you have experienced everyday do not have your freedom to have "fun" in their situations. You would do well to think harder and deeper about your experience.

P.S. How did the speech go. It seemed to have gone quite smoothly. Maybe your speech was a success at the expence of burqa wearing women?