I got a right to be wrong…sartorially, at least.

In Opinion on May 12, 2011 at 3:51 PM

Again the inspiration for my writing, browsing Facebook, I saw a friend post a link to an article on BBC News. (I like to pretend that my rather zealous eye on Facebook is concerned with keeping abreast of current affairs. In reality, it is as much if not more to do with pure nosiness more becoming of the stereotypical teenage girl). Anyway, the story was entitled ‘France issues first fine for woman in Islamic veil’. And, no, this is not a story about Lady Gaga, or one of her legion (I presume) of lookalikes, being fined for going one up on even herself by dressing entirely in one particular meat, namely ‘veal’ permitted by Halal food laws.

No, it is the news that at a shopping centre recently, French police issued their first ever penalty for a woman wearing hijab, in line with the law dictating that they should do so introduced on the same day (04/04/11). N.B. Unless otherwise stated, I talk of ‘hijab’ as the state of conservative dress, rather than the particular noun for the headscarf for which it is also often used, but for which I will use ‘niqab’. The 27-year-old woman in question was issued with a ticket which required her to register for citizenship classes within a month or face a fine of 150 Euros (about £133). The reasoning behind this new law which prohibits the wearing of face coverings of all sorts (except in exceptional circumstances such as motorcycle helmets) is that the ‘face-covering veil undermines the basic standards required for living in a shared society and also relegates its wearers to an inferior status incompatible with French notions of equality’. And the little man himself (Sarkozy) pulled no punches in declaring his reasoning for the ban: “we cannot have in our country women who are prisoners behind netting cut off from all social life, deprived of identity. That is not the idea that the French public has of women’s dignity.”

First things first, I do not see the need for dressing in hijab. I understand there are powerful arguments for its use, at least in the wearer’s opinion, such as the empowerment it offers in being judged on merits other than ‘mere hotness’, the powerful outward expression of profoundly held faith and the security felt in avoiding potentially lecherous gazes. However, I just do not think these arguments necessitate its usage in a largely civilized, lawful and, I would argue, moral (or at least ‘not entirely amoral’) 21st century world.

The Qur’an certainly does call for modesty in dress (interestingly though, not the niqab or the burka specifically) and no doubt one is going to take notice of this if one believes The Qur’an to be the word of an omnipotent, omnibenevolent, universe-creating deity, Allah. However, the Qur’an was written in a very, very different context to the 21st century World, especially the Western one, chronologically and culturally. A patriarchal time in which polygamy (with the males, in a very Sheen-esque way, winning) was not just accepted but, by most accounts, actively encouraged by both sexes. Also, we hadn’t got to where we are now with science to have discovered contraception, both the ‘unnatural’ and ‘natural’ types. In such a context, it is easy to see the need for women to ‘cover up their beauty’ to all but their husbands so that, to put it bluntly, the other males don’t get any salacious ideas. Lest they be getting knocked up every other time they have intercourse when not pregnant and just to rub salt in the wound, are condemned to spend the eternal afterlife in misery for doing so, all whilst their husband is off gallivanting with other wives. Alas, I generalise…a little.

In our current society (as much of the rest of the developed world), we thankfully have legislation which affords women equal if not greater rights in the fields of marriage, childcare and divorce and a competent judiciary system which enforces this effectively, bar the odd feminist’s shouting. Also, thankfully we have contraception which allows man and woman to go around bonking to their hearts’ content unburdened (about 98% of the time) by fear of the potential repercussions. And I for one see absolutely nothing wrong with this. This applies to men and women. In the end, my opinion of being a ‘free spirit’ will generally be ‘fair play to him/her’ or ‘whatever floats your boat’. Admittedly, this is not true of all and I think it’s fair to say that gender stereotypes are still are not quite concurrent with the equality of the laws themselves (slags versus lads), but considerable progress has been made in the last two centuries.

There is some logical reasoning behind this. If I had to describe my perception of my moral compass in a sentence if would probably be: ‘utilitarianism’ cooked with a sprinkling of ‘relativism’, ideally avoiding traces of ‘offence’, but definitely those of ‘physical harm’ (as a Philosophy and R.S. graduate I have pondered these positions pretentiously, hence the isms). There are few, if any, pleasures greater than sex, so it definitely hits the utilitarian’s bill. Furthermore, with consenting adults, it definitely avoids physical harm and, almost exclusively, avoids offence too. It seems in Britain we have a semi-embarrassed attitude towards sex, possibly as a hangover from our waning Christian roots. As a largely secular society, there’s absolute no reason to consider sex a slightly ‘lower’ pleasure and thus taboo subject. The Ancient Greeks – by all accounts a dynamic, progressive, enlightenment society – had the right idea; apparently, they loved that shit… free love, bi-sexuality and everything.

And I also think if there does happen to be some transcendent fella (lass or asexual whatever) up there, would they not want humanity to use the reasoning and ‘conscience’ which they granted them to come to their own moral decisions, instead of blindly following his own? Indeed, this is a problem I have with Islam. Undoubtedly, it is a force for innumerable good in the world, but also some bad (as is true for all faiths, just think of the crusades etc.). However, what worries me is that in some branches and denominations, I get the impression using reason and asking challenging questions is actively discouraged. Indeed, one needs look no further than the name itself ‘Islam’ which roughly translates as ‘submission’ – the idea that man is infinitely inferior to Allah and thus should more or less obey and not question Him. Take, for example, one loony called Zakir Naik who absolutely believes that both 9/11 and the Theory of Evolution are mere conspiracies. Although I again acknowledge this isn’t endemic to Islam.

Obviously, I could be accused of being biased in this argument because, as you have probably guessed, I am more than a little sceptical of the existence of a deity, not least the existence of one as described by any of the three Abrahamic religions. Even if, however, we assume a deity’s existence for the purposes of this argument, I still arrive at the same viewpoint. Many religious people say contraception isn’t natural, but surely if we made it from materials he put on the Earth it is natural and he’d know that because he’s omniscient- I mean, no-one says giving ‘unnatural’ water purifiers to the third world is bad. Besides, the Euthyphro dilemma clearly shows the inherent contradiction in God’s goodness; if he made things good, then he is merely arbitrarily choosing good, yet if he chose good then he is not absolutely powerful and thus need not be obeyed. So, all in all, I think God, or at least a deity I wouldn’t mind believing in, would want us to fill our proverbial boots.

So, in our Western World I see no need for women to wear hijab as they no longer have the cultural necessity and do have the legal protection, a little bit flesh is nothing to be ashamed of, personal commitment to a religion shouldn’t necessarily need any outward manifestation to validate it and the practical reasons of sometimes being hot and/or uncomfortable.

BUT, if there’s one thing I do believe in, almost whole-heartedly, it is freedom of expression! A concept enshrined in that rightly hallowed touchstone of Western liberalism – The U.N. declaration of Human Rights: Article 17 – ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance’. Article 18 – ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers’.

Of course, adherence to this idea can prove very troublesome when people use (‘abuse’?) this privilege to act in ways which conflict with other fundamental human rights such as life, liberty, security of person and equal dignity. I believe a way this can be partially resolved is by declaring that citizens of democratic societies must be prepared to be offended but not physically harmed. So, for example, I was of the opinion that Nick Griffin should have been allowed on Newsnight because he has a right to set up a political party and express his views, however ‘repugnant’, in a considered manner and, though what he said may well have offended many (rightly so, in my opinion), it did not cause any direct physical harm. If his and other such people’s opinions are thought to be ‘racist’, then it is only right in a democracy that this idea is revealed by the wider public’s reaction to such ideas (which I believe it was), not by a small group of politicians and T.V. execs acting on what they believe and what they believe the public believe.

I believe this to be true for hijab too. A piece which really ground my gears in The Telegraph (which, I hasten to add, was not bought but left on the train) was Allison Pearson saying we should ban the burka too, mostly because of the way it painted Muslim women as complete victims with no absolutely no choice in their burka-caused ‘victimhood’. In it she describes the, vicarious I may add, ‘alien(ation) and intimidat(ion) of her poor daughter leaving school and seeing the pupils of a Muslim faith school next to hers as a ‘flack of crows in the sunshine’. Well, cry me a river, Allison, and ponder the fact that the same principle that rightly allowed her to attack a whole culture is the one which allowed the women to wear hijab in the first place. One lives by the sword, one has to be prepared to pretty much proverbially die by it too; not just whine and call for censure every time one gets upset.

As explained, I no longer think there is any need for hijab, even that it can be counter-productive, and believe it is representative of the far inferior legal and societal status of women prevalent in much of Islam/the Muslim world. However, hijab-wearing does not cause any physical harm and indeed I feel, unlike Sarkozy, it is more an effect than a cause of the aforementioned patriarchy. So, we should afford those who wear it some semblance of free-thought and intelligence and not abandon one of if not the main principle upon which this country has grown. After all, if Lady Gaga has the right to dress herself in all manner of ridiculous get ups including veal, who’s to say that people shouldn’t dress themselves in veils.

Joel Durston

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: