I remember a while back during one of my courses, I got into a heated discussion with a professor about the wearing of the Muslim veil. Needless to say my colleagues were surprised to hear that as a former Muslim I opposed the Muslim head scarf (the burka, hijab, and niqāb).
For its entire mystique the Muslim head scarf, in all its form, is nothing more than male ownership of female sexuality. Little do western observers realize that often the choice between the wearing of the hijab and not wearing it comes down to severe physical harm. Instead, it is assumed that women who wear the veil do so of their own volition.
And while this may be true in some instances, the concept of choice can only be used as a valid reason in the context of an environment free of medieval sexual apartheid. Consider this, currently in the Islamic republic of Iran the penalty for not wearing the veil correctly is seventy-five lashes. The lashes are sometimes administered publicly for the purpose of discouraging others from following suit. Similarly In Saudi Arabia (the birth place of Islam and home to its holy shrines) the punishment can be as severe as beheading by sword.
We also hear Muslims and their defenders espouse the concept of modesty, often perversely citing examples of sexual assault on women whom dress provocatively as evidence of the hijabs necessity. But this line of argument assumes that women who dress provocatively are asking to be assaulted and further whitewashes the fact that in cases involving women that have been raped and assaulted in a Muslim country the women are sentenced to stoning while men pay a mere fine.
It is important to also consider the hijab to be more than a religious obligation. This is especially true of women who wear the head covering in western countries. Immigration is a traumatic and emotional experience. It is often the case that as immigrants we find comfort in familiar customs that not only distinguish us from the rest of society but also gives us a sense of communal solidarity.
The western observer should be weary of assumptions behind the wearing of the veil. There are many women around the world to this day that struggle against sexual oppression in places like Iran and whose rights have been ignored for sake of medieval traditions. Whatever the politically correct view may be, the Muslim head scarf is a form of sexual repression whose sole purpose is to validate male ownership (father, husband etc) of a women’s body and “honor”. There are many women around the Muslim world that would relish the opportunity to dress as they please, and would only dream of not being harassed because of the way they dress themselves. It irks me to see women in Canada “choosing” to wear this medieval costume, knowing that there are women elsewhere who are being severely harmed because they “choose” not to wear it. To me, this is akin to a freed slave wearing a slave collar proudly!
Before I begin I would like to state that the purpose of this article is not to enable people of competing belief systems (namely Christianity and Judaism) to assume that their convictions are somehow at a higher standing, vindicated of their destructive elements or otherwise victimized. This piece is not meant to score one for the good guys and lay one on the brown baddies.
Islamophobia is real and it is the byproduct of the post 9/11 world in which we live in. I recently came across this video while procrastinating on YouTube so I thought I would share with you. The clip is from the ABC show What Would You Do?
You will notice that while some of the costumers in the experiment sided with the Muslim girl the majority remained silent or even joined in the abuse. You might feel sympathetic, you might even feel angry and you have every right to. But should we react in a similar fashion when Islam as a religion is criticized by public intellectuals? Should we simply label anyone who criticizes Islam a racist Islamophobe?
Islamophobia can also be imagined and it is a byproduct of the knee-jerk politically hyper-sensitive atmosphere surrounding Islam. In this clip, famous atheist Sam Harris is speaking about the violent fundamentals of Islam.
Is Islam a religion of peace? This is not a question that should automatically result in scorn. It is a perfectly legitimate question which every single freethinking humanist should be entitled to ask. Is it racist for one to merely state the fact that the punishment for apostasy in Islam is death?
The point is that our reaction to Islamophobia should be more nuanced.
Clearly there exists a fine line between Islamophobia and critical analysis of Islam. But most often the critical analysis is lost in the language of hyper-sensitivity. For me this is a lazy reaction which scarifies critical thinking for the sanctimonious feeling one gets when proudly proclaiming support of multiculturalism. “they have their ways and I have mine” “oh don’t say that!!!! That’s Racist/Islamophobic etc.” If you fancy yourself a free and rational thinker these responses should not be convincing, you must have the courage to acknowledge the fact that much like any other religion, Islam is subject to criticism.
More importantly however there are many Muslims as well as ex-Muslim voices in the Muslim world and abroad, that wish to engage in the critique. I once asked one of my TAs who identified herself as a feminist to give me her opinion on Ayaan Hirshi Ali. She said that while she liked her works she did not particularly appreciate the” vitriolic tone” she uses to critique Islam. But how could a white middle aged feminist living in the west possibly understand the hatred that Ali feels? She has certainly not lived the life of a Muslim woman and yet she felt vindicated in her claim that Ali was not using nice words in relation to Islam. Indeed the western observer that is exposed to the Islamophobia debate must understand that Islamophobia can also work as a weapon to censor descent from within and should not be so easily accepted.
I leave you with this clip of Hirshi Ali debating Avis Lewis on the nuances of Islamophobia: