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

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Posted on November 15 2010 3:10 pm
Phyllis Chesler is an Emerita Professor of Psychology and Women's Studies at City University of New York. For extended biography visit The Phyllis Chesler Organization.

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Elizabeth Smart, hidden in plain sight.

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?

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