Monday, August 26, 2013

On imposing "secularism": headscarves and hijabs

Al Jazeera asks, "What’s behind the fixation on women who wear Muslim headscarves?" Good question. They say,
While some claim governments have the right to uphold secularism by outlawing religious symbols and apparel in public spaces, critics believe these restrictions are mainly targeting Muslims and a result of growing anti-immigrant sentiment.
I've never believed that it makes any sense to prohibit the wearing of religious symbols in public, under the pretext of "upholding secularism", apart from a requirement to be able to see someone's face in places where security is a consideration. If full-face motorcycle helmets aren't allowed, neither should the niqāb or burqa, in places like banks. What is the difference between, say, an English countrywoman wearing a headscarf (though they're less fashionable than they were) and a Muslim woman wearing a hijab? An alien from another planet would fail to see any.

A secular state is one where religion and the state are separate. The NSS explains,
Secularism is a principle that involves two basic propositions. The first is the strict separation of the state from religious institutions. The second is that people of different religions and beliefs are equal before the law.
There have been a few cases of aggrieved religionists claiming discrimination, for example over disputed work or school uniforms. If they've lost their legal actions, it's been because there have been valid reasons why they should have expected to adhere to a dress code. But walking down the street in a hijab threatens no one, any more than any other form of dress might threaten you - unless you happen to be carrying a machine gun while wearing military fatigues. I used to live in Oxford, where many of its residents liked to wear eccentric outfits, including the man whose pet rat adorned his wide-brimmed hat. Academic gowns, as worn on graduation day, might appear eccentric to someone from another culture.

You cannot assume that a woman in a hijab is being forced to wear it by a domineering husband, and even if she is, banning it won't make her situation any better. At a sixth-form conference on faith issues, I shared a platform with a Muslim woman in a hijab, while another Muslim woman, who chose not to wear one, facilitated the discussion. The students, mainly from a rural Suffolk area where they normally don't meet any Muslims, were keen to know why the hijab-wearer had made her choice. Both women were British-born. Essentially, it was about how they interpreted Islam and its teaching on "modesty". The hijab-wearer regarded hers as a statement, which was partially an expression of her identity, while the non-hijab-wearer didn't feel the need for any such form of self-expression, though she felt that her faith was just as important to her. There are many ignorant Islamophobes here in the UK and elsewhere who know very little about Islam, but tend to regard all Muslims as one homogenous mass. In their minds, Muslim women are all subjected to misogynist male domination, and by making Muslim dress illegal, they'd be free of all that. Utter nonsense. As for Muslim passivity; try telling Yasmin Alibhai-Brown how she's expected to behave. She's an opinionated, independent Muslim woman, and she's not that unusual. The difference between her and the anonymous, powerless women in burqas that you see in newsreel films from Islamic states is cultural and political.

In Sweden, non-Muslims have been wearing the hijab to express their feelings about the assault of a pregnant Muslim woman in a hijab, the subject of the story above. It's believed to be a faith-based hate crime. This has nothing to do with secularism, but if anyone thinks it is, they don't understand what secularism means.

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