Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Headscarves, Crosses, Yarmulkes, etc.

Geert Wilders is making the issue of the hijab, or Islamic headscarf, a major campaign issue in the upcoming local and national elections in the Netherlands. Hostility to the headscarf as a symbol of totalitarianism in general and the oppression of women in particular is not a new phenomenon either in Europe or elsewhere. Both Turkey and Tunisia have laws against the wearing of the hijab because of it's connection to "political" Islam which seeks to establish totalitarian theocracies in those countries (and everywhere else on earth). Morroco has no such laws, but there is strong social pressure against the hijab in that country.

Some people insist that the headscarf not be singled out, in the belief that it would be more "fair" to ban all overtly religious clothing or symbolism. This would mean prohibiting the wearing of a Christian cross or a Yarmulke, as well as all other religious symbols.

But opposition to the headscarf has nothing to do with "religious symbols" in the abstract. The hijab is seen, and rightly so, as something that is imposed on women, and, thereby, on society as a whole. It is symbolic of the, at best, second class status of women in societes dominated by Islam. In many parts of the Islamic world wearing the hijab is either enforced by law, or there is intense (and often violent) social pressure applied to women to wear it.

Unfortunately, Wilders has chosen to make this a case of "our" religious traditions versus "theirs." He states that the wearing of Christian and Jewish symbols is OK "because those are symbols of religions that belong to our own culture." In the same breath Wilders says, quite rightly, "get rid of that woman-humiliating Islamic symbol," and also that the headscarf is "a sign of an oppressive totalitarian ideology."

Why is it that Wilders cannot stick to a principled position of opposing the headscarf as a symbol of oppression? Oppression is not dangerous because it is "foreign." The West also has "our own" home-grown totalitarian ideologies, such as Nazism and Communism, and these should be no more welcome to "us" than Islam. And what about other "foriegn" religions such as Hinduism, or even symbols from "indigenous", but non-"Judeo-Christian" religions, such as Thor's Hammers and Pentagrams (both of which have impeccable European pedigrees)?

The only way to make a consistent and principled argument on this issues is to scrupulously avoid even the hint of the appearance of xenophobia. Wilders proudly claims that he has nothing whatsoever to do with racists like Le Pen and the British National Party. But the fact is that he appears to be appealing to many of the same sentiments that openly xenophobic rightists have relied upon for decades in Europe.

We do not need lists of accepted versus banned religious clothing and symbols. Obviously a truly free society, or even one that honestly aspires to that, cannot engage in such an exercise. The general rule in a free society must be that people are free to wear what they want! Personally I think that the hijab is a special case, and it should be treated as such.

It should be emphasized that the "ban" that Wilders wants to impose only applies to people who are paid with public funds, while they are performing their public duties, and even that is to be left to local governments to decide on their own: "a ban on headscarves in municipal bodies and all other institutions, foundations, or associations, if they receive even one penny of subsidy from the municipality." This is similar to other "headscarf bans" either already enacted or under consideration in other places in Europe.

As a not-so-gentle reminder of why it would be better to restrict "Islamic dress" for women sooner rather than later, two people were killed and dozens were injured when riots broke out in the Indian state of Karnataka earlier this week. The cause? A local magazine published a Kannada language translation of an article by Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen, titled Let's Think Again About the Burqa. Nasreen, who describes herself as "a physician, writer, feminist, human rights activist and secular humanist", wrote the following:
The custom of purdah [literally "curtain"] is not new. It dates back to 300 BC. The women of aristocratic Assyrian families used purdah. Ordinary women and prostitutes were not allowed purdah.

In the middle ages, even Anglo-Saxon women used to cover their hair and chin and hide their faces behind a cloth or similar object. This
purdah system was obviously not religious. The religious purdah is used by Catholic nuns and Mormons, though for the latter only during religious ceremonies and rituals. For Muslim women, however, such religious purdah is not limited to specific rituals but mandatory for their daily life outside the purview of religion . . . .

If the Quran advises women to use
purdah, should they do so? My answer is, No. Irrespective of which book says it, which person advises, whoever commands, women should not have purdah. No veil, no chador, no hijab, no burqa, no headscarf. Women should not use any of these things because all these are instruments of disrespect. These are symbols of women's oppression. Through them, women are told that they are but the property of men, objects for their use. These coverings are used to keep women passive and submissive . . . .

Covering a woman's head means covering her brain and ensuring that it doesn't work. If women's brains worked properly, they'd have long ago thrown off these veils and burqas imposed on them by a religious and patriarchal regime.

What should women do? They should protest against this discrimination. They should proclaim a war against the wrongs and ill-treatment meted out to them for hundreds of years. They should snatch from the men their freedom and their rights. They should throw away this apparel of discrimination and burn their burqas.

[This image and the one at the very top of this post are both from stylecovered.com.]