Chesler Chronicles

Death By Hijab. But What’s It Got To Do With Isadora Duncan?

I was dreading Yom Hashoah/Holocaust Remembrance Day. Too much focus on the past is also a way of refusing to focus on the present. On the other hand, refusing to remember, refusing to learn the necessary lessons from the past, is suicidal. Because I have written and lectured so often about this subject, and because I needed more time than I had to say something new, I focused on another subject entirely—at least for now.

My physical therapist is an Isadora Duncan dancer. Yesterday, when she arrived for our session, she was visibly upset. And because I myself had been thinking about the poor soul who lost her life at a recreational park because her burqa got caught in the wheels of her Go-Kart, we found ourselves on a perfect wavelength. Here’s where our conversation led us. I posted this at NewsRealBlog earlier today and have somewhat expanded it for us here.

Death By Hijab. But What’s It Got To Do With Isadora Duncan?

I have gone on record, many times, about how hazardous the Islamic Veil is to women’s health in both medical and psychiatric terms. There are other kinds of health risks involved in adopting Islamically “modest” dress. For example, in England, Muslim nurses are now refusing to leave their arms uncovered below the elbow which can potentially lead to spreading hospital superbugs and to the death of patients. The British National Health Service has given in to this demand—but has prohibited short-sleeved nurses from wearing crosses.

Women wearing the Afghan burqa

Two days ago, a Muslim woman was killed when her Islamic Veil (one account describes it as her burqa) got caught up in the wheels of her go-kart at a recreational park in New South Wales, Australia. Why was she wearing a burqa in a go-kart? Let me guess: Her Wahabi-Salafi-Taliban maddened husband, father, brother, expected her to do so?

Guess what? Those who specialize in prurient interest have been making the most unsavory comparison between this poor soul, probably from Afghanistan, and the pioneering American dancer and teacher, Isadora Duncan.

Duncan defied convention—she did not dance because she was forced to do so. She danced barefoot, freely, without corsets, and she challenged the traditional world of ballet. Time after time, she brought audiences to their feet. Duncan met everyone of “consequence” in artistic and intellectual circles, stunned thousands of audiences all across Europe and America with her innovative dance—and yes, she also took many lovers. Duncan created modern dance. She did not lead her life in a burqa. She moved, both on the stage and in her life, naked faced, naked shouldered, bare legged, and was known, not anonymous.

Indeed, although Isadora loved many men, she belonged to no one man, at least to no husband. She refused to marry. She chose to have children out of wedlock, as a single mother.

Isadora Duncan

Cherlyn Smith, the current Associate Artistic director of the Isadora Duncan Dance Company is therefore puzzled and aggravated by the comparisons being made on thousands of websites between Duncan’s 1927 death and the recent death-by-hijab which took place in New South Wales. Smith has been inundated by Google alerts which send her to websites which “disappear” the meaning of both women’s deaths.

There is no comparison at all.

The great dancer Duncan was not forced to wear a veil nor was she wearing one of her many diaphanous dancing scarfs. In fact, at the suggestion of her friend, Mary Desti, Duncan only took a shawl along at the last moment because the weather was getting cold. Duncan’s shawl got caught in the wooden spokes of the low-slung convertible automobile–which was being driven by an experienced driver.

What is this almost erotic fascination with the violent death of women and this unseemly penchant to compare women of great acomplishment with unknown women? Are women really all the same? Are their violent deaths, their victimization, and tragedies of more interest to us than their achievements? Are women to blame for their own violent deaths because a) they insist on wearing “fashionable” clothing (this was Gertrude Stein’s comment on Duncan’s death); or because women foolishly obey and conform to certain cultural expectations (wear a burqa or risk death)?

Duncan should be remembered for her pioneering work as a dancer and teacher, not for the few moments in which she died. Smith says: “Ducan’s legacy is far more important than the bizarre manner in which she died. Why do people minimize this American woman’s enormous contribution and choose to continuously associate her with the scarf, the car, and the violent death?”


And, those who taught, forced, and encouraged the woman in New South Wales to wear the burqa should be tried as accomplices in her death. The recreation park should have had a sign, backed up by legislation, that prohibits face masks and any and all garments that might get caught in the machinery or wheels.