Sunday, June 28, 2009

Why shouldn't women wear the veil? A rant about religious expression.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I don't have much time for organised religion, nor can I get my head round the idea that there's a god. I used to, but I don't any more. My view of religion is that it's a means of exercising social control. End of. I think we're more than capable of controlling ourselves without the outside interference of a vengeful deity.

However, I do appreciate and respect that others, from all faiths, have a different view. I know people who receive great peace and comfort from their religion and that's fine by me. The world is big enough for us all to live together in tolerance and harmony.

A few hundred years ago, anyone with my heretical beliefs would have been taken and burnt at the stake or drowned - my sister-in-law used to say that she felt that my fear of water in this life was because I was no stranger to the ducking stool in a previous life. She felt that my task for this life was to be more conventional. Hmmm. I've been a fairly spectacular failure there, then.

I really appreciate my liberty to express views that may at times be on the fringe of what is considered socially acceptable. How can I then deprive others of that similar right of expression of themselves?

Right now my blood is curdling as I watch The Big Questions on BBC1. Any programme that has Peter Hitchens on it is going to make me angry on principle. There is a woman, Um Hamza, who is wearing a full veil, and arguing her case quite well. She did stumble a bit when confronted with the inequality of the cultural traditions on this one - a question which it was quite legitimate to ask. However, I was shocked as this woman was shouted at in an intimidating and aggressive manner by members of the audience. How on earth is her choice harming them? And, worse, there was a Labour PPC on there basically saying that this woman was a traitor to womanhood and her subjugation flew in the face of feminism and undermined all the hard earned rights we've won in terms of employment law, maternity leave and contraception. Why is it always women that get it? From "witches" who in the end of the day were just women whose beliefs strayed from the "norm", to women who wear Islamic dress, we are considered fair game in a way that men aren't. Why is it ok that Jack Straw and Nicolas Sarkozy should be able to tell women how to dress? Why can't they just make up their own minds?

I find it hard to reconcile a world where women who choose to wear a veil are subjugated and women who come under pressure to be thin, cellulite free, perfectly groomed and available for sex at all times aren't. Just look at any magazine marketed to women and you'll see what I mean. Yes, progress has been made, but the world, all of it, is still very much run for men by men.

And then you have this story about doctors wanting an assurance that health workers will be free from action if they offer to pray for patients. I think it's pretty ridiculous that people have been suspended for what was most likely a thoughtful gesture on their part. Yes, if I was vulnerable and in pain the last thing I'd want is someone throwing religion down my neck or suggesting that I might go to hell because of my life choices. That would be inappropriate. However, if someone offered to pray for me, from whatever religion, I'd probably say thanks.

Part of the problem is that we are such fearties - and I have to publicly thank Doctorvee for reminding me that the word feartie existed in a post that is nothing to do with this - about discussing politics, religion and sex. Why? I think debate is much healthier than suppression, yet the mention of god in a conversation can chill the spine - actually, at times mine included. Why are we not secure enough in our own skins to say "Actually, I disagree with you because....." and have a reasoned debate without it all getting heated and out of control?

All of us have something to learn from different points of view and we shouldn't feel threatened by opposing arguments. One of my favourite blogs in the whole world is written by not just a religious person, but a representative of organised religion itself! Kelvin is one of the most tolerant people I know and what he says is always worth reading, whether you agree with it or not.

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Laurence Boyce said...

"The world is big enough for us all to live together in tolerance and harmony."

And yet to judge by the endless religious conflict we endure, this is not actually the case. At some point, we are going to have to start talking about the phenomenon of religion as it is, not as we would oh so much like it to be.

On the veil, it is simply unacceptable for either men or women to go around dressed like bandits. Sorry.

Norman said...

Good post! Nonetheless we have a problem.

It is clear that women under Islam have a very restricted formal role in society, well behind what Western society regards as normal or desirable. To what extent are Muslim women being forced to cover up in British Islamic society today and does that mean the veil is a symbol of male oppression? Or does wearing the veil symbolise a voluntary commitment to Islam by the woman herself? I think there are a number of different answers to that question. Some Islamic women do feel the veil is a symbol of servitude, others do not.

What is also clear is that many British people who dislike or fear Islam have fastened on women's dress as a stick to beat Muslims with.

The place we want to be is where Muslim women can wear what they want, free from oppression by males from either camp. How we get there I do not know.

Laurence Boyce said...

But what about the big invisible alpha male in the sky? Listen again to what the lady on The Big Questions actually said. She is clearly brave enough and independent-minded enough to appear on a programme like that. And she says:

"I cover my face out of my own choice. I choose to cover it, partly because I am a Muslim and being a Muslim, our Creator in the Koran does say to cover yourselves in a modest way."

Hello? Am I the only one to spot a contradiction here? I choose of my own free will to submit my will to Allah, the Prophet, and the Koran. What sort of freedom is that? The answer is that it is not freedom at all, even for those Muslim women who appear to be fiercely independent.

If we want to argue this freedom of choice line, then all I ask is this. Find me an out-and-out atheist who freely chooses to dress in black from head to toe in the high heat of summer. Then, and not till then, I may concede this point. Happy hunting.

Being coerced to act in a certain way on account of one's own religious belief is not freedom. We can either tackle this problem head on, or we can duck out of it for an easy life.

Caron said...

Laurence, by the sound of it you want to ban people from following any religion.

Just cos I don't get religious faith, why should I have the right to ban other people from following it?

People who hate will often find something, whether that be race, religion, disability, or sexuality to justify their words and actions. Truth is that these cannot be justified. Whatever your colour, creed, sexuality you should be able to go about your daily business without fear of attack.

The comment you made to another post, which I rejected (and, believe me, I don't often do that), rather undermines the points you are trying to make about religion.

Laurence Boyce said...

"Laurence, by the sound of it you want to ban people from following any religion."

No, not at all. You should go by what I actually say, not by the "sound of it." I'm a liberal. What does that mean? It means empowerment of the individual. But there's no point empowering individuals if individuals are ill-informed. That is why every good liberal is - must be - passionate about education. Only when fully equipped, can we make what might reasonably be termed free choices. The alternative is a bit like to trying to service a car without the proper tools - a total nightmare in other words.

How well-informed do you think is the following assertion: "I must go around in thirty degree heat dressed in a black pepper-pot because God told some guy I should do this in the 7th century"? That is what the lady said in effect. Suppose we were to begin to teach our kids that these ancient texts need have no conceivable hold over us today? Instead of which, we (Lib Dems) basically endorsed the betrayal of "faith schools" at spring conference - schools which are going to convey a very different message, not out of the goodness of their hearts, but on account of a deeply vested corporate interest.

Your approach, Caron, is always going to fall short. You will never cross the line into saying whether you think Islamic beliefs are good or bad or downright evil- merely that you don't believe them yourself. This might be the way to go, or it might simply amount to a betrayal of millions of women - prisoners of their religion, their men, and their own tragically uneducated minds. There's a choice to be made here - one you haven't even addressed. You've just taken the easy road, and persuaded yourself that it happens to be morally superior too. It isn't.

Religion is merely codified ignorance. Go on. Try saying it out loud a few times. Alternatively, just carry on being "nice."

Caron said...

I've already made clear that I don't follow organised religion which means that I have rejected the idea of a deity and anything that comes from that.

Of course I agree with you that education is important. You are assuming that people who do what we might consider bizarre things in the name of religion must be uneducated which is quite insulting. You're saying that if they were educated they would have to reach a different conclusion.

You would not get me wearing a veil for love nor money nor religious belief.

I don't think for a minute that every woman who wears a islamic dress of whatever sort is doing so because she has made a free choice to do so. However, I don't think banning it is the way to make progress. As Norman said when he commented to this on Facebook, "banning choice to end oppression is contradictory".

The veil is a symptom, not a cause of oppression and not the most serious problem women face. In fact I once heard an account of how a woman had been forced into marriage at no age with a geriatric who, to put it mildly, wasn't nice to her. She took some wry pleasure in going past where he worked in her burqa to meet her lover without him noticing. The instrument of oppression in that instance became an anonymising liberator.

This is like anything else - we can either continue with the same pattern of conflict or meet these women where they are and where they feel comfortable. If that means them wearing the veil, although it's not my cup of tea, so be it.

Laurence Boyce said...

"You are assuming that people who do what we might consider bizarre things in the name of religion must be uneducated which is quite insulting."

I would never say that as a blanket statement, but consider the following. A few years ago, a poll taken among America's National Science Academy revealed that 95% considered themselves to be atheist. This is an elite group of scientists equivalent to the Royal Society over here. Compare that to the background figure in the US where around 80% are religious. That is a dramatic reversal of opinion which ought to pose serious questions to anyone who would maintain that religion is perfectly compatible with science and reason.

There's another point worth making from first principles, which is that where a religion depends upon an initial divine revelation, perfect in all its parts (as most do), then that religion is inevitably going to be hostile to other sources of knowledge, and hostile to progress. That is clearly the case with the lady on The Big Questions, for whom the Koran is pretty much the last word on the subject never mind centuries of intervening progress, including the more recent progress in women's emancipation.

So what I say could just be more true than insulting.

By the way, banning the veil would not be my first choice. I would favour ridiculing it out of existence. But if it's only going to be me and a couple of other guys doing the ridiculing, while the entire feminist sisterhood retains a strict radio silence, then maybe we will need to consider a ban.


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