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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Lifting the Turkish Ban on Hijab: A Secularist Responds

In last week’s issue of the Mass Media, Reem Al-Zaim discussed Turkey’s landmark vote to lift the ban on Muslim women’s hijab, or headscarves, in universities and government buildings. Like Ms. Al-Zaim, I place little stock in democracies that fail to uphold basic rights of individual expression, so I took some pleasure in this news. But I dispute her representation of secularism- presumably in the United States as well as Turkey- as a bastion of one-sided propaganda whose criticisms of Islam are rooted in ignorance.

“People know the secularist perspective [on hijab,]” writes Ms. Al-Zaim. “Do they know the pro-hijab, Islamist perspective?” She declines to express that perspective, but my understanding is that Muslim women cover themselves for a variety of reasons such as obedience to god, modesty, deflecting sexual attention, and maintaining their cultural identity as Muslims in day-to-day life. One young woman writing for the web forum Islam For Today identifies hijab as a “form of liberation” from the media, the fashion industry, and male criticism.

I understand the reasoning all too well, and I heartily reject every bit of it. In this Orwellian conception of ‘freedom,’ women ‘triumph’ over sexism by playing directly into its hands until there is nothing left for a patriarchal society to attack. Rather than expecting men to come to terms with their apparent inability to relate to women in a non-sexual manner in neutral spaces like offices and schools, women wearing hijab abet and accommodate gender inequality. If the uncovered female presence really is such an earth-stopping spectacle (as I doubt), “self-respecting” women ought to cultivate defiance rather than modesty.

Furthermore, wearing hijab does not seem to succeed in fostering respect for the female body. This was comically represented in a scene from the recent film Persepolis, in which a young Marjane Satrapi is running to catch a bus, clad in the full Iranian chador, when she is stopped by the Guardians of the Revolution, the Iranian Islamic police. The Guardians chastise her for running because when she does so, her “behind makes obscene shapes.” “Then,” Satrapi retorts, “stop looking at my ass!” Far less amusing is the story of the Saudi Arabian “Girl of Qatif,” who was gang-raped in 2006 and sentenced to 200 lashes and six months in prison for appearing in a car with a man to whom she was not married. Thankfully, her sentence has been commuted by King Abdullah after heavy pressure from the international community.

Feminist critiques aside, my disregard for hijab is rooted in a larger rejection of organized religion in its entirety. As a proponent of free inquiry and liberal democracy I prize, in other human beings, certain qualities essential to those institutions; sharply critical minds, tolerance of dissent, and a commitment to basic humanitarian principles regardless of race or creed or circumstance. Sadly, religion has been and remains diametrically opposed to these principles, whatever its more moderate adherents may wish to believe.

Ms. Al-Zaim is terribly mistaken when she writes, “There is no compulsion in Islam, meaning anyone who follows or doesn’t follow Islam should not be forced into anything.” Tell that to Salman Rushdie, who was forced into exile in 1988 after then-Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran called for his execution, all for the holy crime of writing a novel critical of Islam. Tell it to the women of Afghanistan, who have been savagely abused by the Taliban under an extremist interpretation of Islam; tell it to the women of Iran and Saudi Arabia, subject to arrest and beating should they fail to comply with the Islamic dress code. Rather than drone on about the apparently endless human rights abuses in Islamic societies, I will allow the Koran to speak for itself: “And kill [the unbelievers] wherever you find them, and drive them out from whence they drove you out, and persecution is severer than slaughter, and do not fight with them at the Sacred Mosque until they fight with you in it, but if they do fight you, then slay them; such is the recompense of the unbelievers. But if they desist, then surely Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.” (2:191-92) Forgive me if I am not sated by this latter assurance.

Ms. Al-Zaim asks, “Why must religion always be seen as antagonistic of [sic] modern society?” Answers to this question are laughably abundant. We may look to the bloody riots in the Muslim world following the publication of cartoons deemed offensive to the prophet Muhammad, resulting in the burning of the Danish embassy in Syria and the deaths of at least two journalists. We may also look to the appalling ignorance of science propagated by US presidential candidate Mike Huckabee who, along with many other fundamentalist Christians, would see our children taught superstitious stone-age nonsense about the origins of the world. Religious groups often act to suppress and retard all that is precious to free societies, be it the freedom of critical expression, basic human rights, or the simple ability to differentiate between rational fact and private belief.

On a variation on the themes in Ms. Al-Zaim’s article, I am repeatedly told that I ought to ‘respect’ religious beliefs despite my own identification as a secular humanist. But as author Sam Harris points out in his book The End of Faith, all other ‘beliefs’ need to be justified by facts before they are worthy of respect; why is religion exempt? “…We cannot help but value evidence and demand that propositions about the world logically cohere…we will see that we are no more free to believe what we want about God than we are free to adopt unjustified beliefs about science or history, or free to mean whatever we want when using words like ‘poison’ or ‘north’ or ‘zero’. Anyone who would lay claim to such entitlements should not be surprised when the rest of us stop listening to him.”

I am under no obligation to respect a symbol I consider to be the acme of foolishness, any more than I am obligated to accept the bloodthirsty small-mindedness displayed by a number of its adherents, any more than I respect the complicity of those who promote the symbol but not its connotations and do not speak up. Ms. Al-Zaim has written many articles for the Mass Media promoting Islam and criticizing those who might make summary judgments regarding its message. Why, then, has she never written to condemn the abuses being perpetrated in her name- or would that “add fuel to the secularist fire?”

My value system requires only that I speak loudly in favor of what I consider to be just and right, and that I tolerate the dissenting voices of others around me. On that note, I join Ms. Al-Zaim in celebrating the end of a policy that attempted to humiliate and oppress a group of people for no greater crime than their disagreement with the state. Democracy cannot forcibly extract rationality or respect or even intelligence from its citizens, nor does it furnish them with the right not to be offended. In keeping with that philosophy, I must ardently reiterate both my right to reject Islam and other forms of organized religion, and my rationale for doing so.

(Rosie Healy is a UMB undergraudate who, obversely, refuses to take her hat off in church.)