Time to Ban the Veil: The Chilling Lesson from the Elizabeth Smart Case

Hidden in plain sight/Phyllis Chesler

He hid her in plain sight.

Her face was on posters plastered all over Utah, her kidnapping had launched one of the greatest manhunts in American history. Nevertheless, Brian Mitchell, the man who kidnapped 14 year-old Elizabeth Smart at knife-point in her bedroom actually got away with it for nine months. He kept Elizabeth as his sex slave and “second wife” for that long.

Only now, is he finally standing trial for his crimes; rather, only now is Mitchell’s “competency” to stand trial being legally tested.

This past week, in a hushed courtroom, Elizabeth took the stand.

She explained: Only weeks after her kidnapping, a long-bearded Mitchell and his small hostage were in a Salt Lake City library. A detective–one among many—who were searching for Smart stopped them and asked Elizabeth to lift her veil. However, Mitchell told the police officer that no man other than her husband had the “religious right” to see his “wife’s” face.

Yes: Brian Crazy-as-a-fox Mitchell had insisted that Smart, like his 57-year-old wife Wanda Barzee, wear face veils. Both women remained silent and veiled, dressed in disturbingly outlandish white “Biblical” robes just as Mitchell did. In the library, Mitchell remained obstinate. The detective was the one who finally backed down.

The moment the police officer walked away was the moment when Elizabeth gave up all hope. Mitchell had already threatened to kill her and her parents if she ever revealed her identity.

Mitchell is finally, at long last, on trial for his crimes. Elizabeth is now 23 years old and this poignant and terrible detail is part of her testimony.

Eight years ago in America, a detective could be shamed by a homeless street preacher into not lifting an all-too-silent missing girl’s face veil. Why? Was the Utah and Mormon tradition of leniency towards underground child and plural marriage to blame? Mitchell had once been active in the Mormon Church, had married three times, and was a self-proclaimed polygamist. But Mormons do not wear long flowing white robes and Mormon women are not veiled.

Was it an overwhelming respect for “religion” in general, for “religious misogyny” or for “religious” men that had led this detective to back down? Were people in three states: Utah, Nevada and San Diego, California (where Mitchell had even been arrested for a petty burglary) so accustomed to veiled women?

In a 2003 New York Times article, reporter Timothy Egan quoted a clerk in a Wrigley’s supermarket near San Diego where Mitchell had often shopped or begged for food.  ”He was the one in charge,” said Widad Dermody. “I’d ask (the women) how you doing? And only he would answer.” Customers in several health food stores frequented by Mitchell, said that they were used to “hippies and vegans” and that the long robes, while unusual, were simply accepted.

But the veils? Hippy and vegan women do not veil themselves. Is this a case of tolerance, permissiveness, live-and-let-live run amok? Or, is this a classic case of the bystander phenomenon, of people not allowing themselves to think the worst, not wanting to put themselves in the line of fire if it is the worst?

Or, was the fact that another, older woman was with Mitchell and Elizabeth, probably day and night and certainly during public outings, the mitigating factor? Mitchell’s first “wife,” 57-year-old Wanda Barzee, collaborated with Mitchell. Thus, when the trio ate in diners, often free meals, witnesses said that Elizabeth could have run away or asked someone for help but instead she remained mute, faceless, brainwashed, perhaps terrified. She had a new “mother-wife” now, another female of the species who went along with the kidnapping. If another woman is involved, it had to be all right, yes? Women are kind to each other and to children, yes? Surely, Elizabeth was perceived as their child and what parents, especially religious parents, would harm their own child?

Sometimes, male sex fiends, maniacs, sociopaths, are helped by female accomplices. Some women actually marry men who have been convicted and imprisoned for life for having murdered their wives or for having sexually tortured and murdered many women. Ted Bundy found a wife and also managed to father a daughter before he was executed in Florida. The scenarios are often quite terrible. For example, in 1977 Colleen Stan was kidnapped while hitchhiking from Oregon to California by Cameron Hooker and his wife Janice. Colleen was kept as a sex slave for seven years and forced to stay in a coffin-like box under the marital bed. Christine McGuire, who eventually prosecuted Hooker, and Carla Norton, wrote about this chilling case in Perfect Victim. The Hookers raised two children and frequently entertained guests in their home—none of whom suspected anything.

But back to Elizabeth Smart and the precise way in which her kidnapper was able to keep her hidden in full view. He veiled her. It was as simple as that. And absolutely no one thought a veiled girl or woman was that unusual or that the state, or private individuals, had the right to question a man whose women are veiled.

Recall, the Smart kidnapping took place eight years ago. Only now, is Smart currently testifying against her kidnapper in court. Mitchell has been charged with child abduction, abuse, and rape.  He was not in the courtroom because he had been ejected for “singing.”

It boggles the mind. Step back for a moment.

Think about how non-religious men of evil—Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot–have gotten away with mass murdering millions of human beings, think about their willing accomplices, both male and female. Think about the mass murder of humanity carried out by religious madmen, who believe that God is ordering them to kill, think about all their willing accomplices. Think about what politically powerless high functioning male sociopaths do to their victims before they finally murder them? Think about the homosexual pedophile and cannibal, Jeffrey Dahmer, about Jack the Ripper and the Green River killer who preyed on prostituted women, presumably human “throwaways.”

Now, given the evil that exists among human beings and given our American and Western traditions of tolerance and privacy, our fearfulness of “getting involved,” of coming between a man and his female “property,” a man and a child in flight from him, or between anyone and their religion, what can we do when we might find ourselves up against such unfathomable evil?

At the very least, based on the Smart case alone, we should not allow women to be veiled in public. That much—that little—we can do.

I would also like to point out that I am not singling out any one religion for Mitchell’s crimes, not Mormonism, not Christianity, but am, rather, taking an approach very similar to the approach taken by the French law which banned the burqa, an approach which was religion-neutral and did not mention any particular religion, including Islam which is the only religion that face veils its women

I would very much like to thank Beth Gilinsky for reminding me of the Smart case and its relevance to my own work about the burqa.

One thought on “Time to Ban the Veil: The Chilling Lesson from the Elizabeth Smart Case”

  1. It is clear that veiling of women cannot be allowed for any reason – especially if the pro argument is based on religion and even more so when their and our security is threatened. Women are NOT second class citizens. They are the equal of men, and if the muslim male loosers out in the big bad world don’t like it they can always post themselves to mohammed and his 72 used camels. It is still amazing that the words of a violent 7th century arab thug are held as those of God by a massively ignorant muslim ummah.

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