Purdah and Veiling

Notes and Comment: Headscarves – Oppression or Freedom of Choice?

A person’s religious beliefs and customs should be given priority over secularism and false prejudice.

Many people have preconceived ideas about religion which can affect and colour behaviour and understanding. One often hears rather sweeping and general statements, for example, that science is in conflict with religion or that religion is always associated with wars and strife. Further enquiry about the evidence for these statements may reveal a lack of understanding about complex issues. Sometimes those who make such statements have made very little effort to analyse the problems. They are probably aware, at some level, that they do have certain preconceptions which might not be based on sound arguments but, nevertheless, may not readily acknowledge that they should review their position. Rather than re- examining the issues in any detail they continue to carry around those ideas, perhaps due to inertia or perhaps because such ideas may be continually reinforced from the media or from others. In this issue there is an article entitled ‘Islam – A Religion of Peace’. It states: ‘For the last one thousand years, the Western world, has nurtured a false image of Islam that has no relationship with reality’. This article addresses some of these misconceptions concerning, for example, jihad, freedom of conscience and religious tolerance. It shows that the ingredients for peace at both the individual and collective levels are to be found within Islam – ‘religion is about winning the hearts and minds of the people rather than enslaving them by force’. Examples are given from the life of the Holy Prophet of Islam ( s a ) and from the principles adopted by the Muslims in Spain. The article states ‘The Islamic concept of peace means adjustment and orientation of the individual with and towards, on the one side with his Creator and, on the other side his fellow human beings. This applies to the entire relationship between individual and individual, individual and community, community and community, between nation and nation ..’. In a world where people’s impression and perception of religion may be based on solely the soundbites or the occasional newspaper headline, it is important to recognise the need to explore questions in detail. The existence of such misconceptions about religion empha-sise the importance of careful examination of the original teachings and of historical evidence – and some may be surprised at what then emerges. Mansoor Saqi – UK 2 The Review of Religions – September 2003 Editorial 3The Review of Religions – September 2003 Headscarves – Oppression or freedom of choice? In September of this year, a German court ruled that a school in the southern state of Baden Wu e r t t e m b e rg was wrong under current legislation to exclude a female teacher for insisting on wearing a headscarf to work. The teacher in question is a Muslim. The school had argued that wearing the headscarf violated the state’s neutral stance in matters of religion. The teacher argued that the school was violating her freedom of religion. The debate is not confined to Germany. In Turkey, Muslims are in the majority and the headscarf, is worn by more than half of Turkey’s women, Yet it is seen as a symbol of Islamic fundamentalism by the defenders of Turkey’s secularist state and is banned in government institutions and schools. In France, secularity has been enshrined in the constitution since 1905. So one’s national identity has precedence over o n e ’s religious belief. However in 1989, the then left-wing government declared that the wearing of scarves was not necessarily incompatible with France being a secular state. The decision on whether to allow pupils to wear them or not had been left up to the discretion of head teachers. The new centre-right government, however, has said that it is prepared to pass a law banning all religious effects from the classroom. The issue of the wearing of scarves by Muslim women is a controversial one. The way that we dress and the symbols we use to express ourselves can evoke powerful emotions in others. Some German feminists are arguing that the scarf is a symbol of women’s oppression. They point to regimes like the Taliban who insisted that women cover from head to toe in the name of Islam. However what these critics forget is that the headscarf is not itself an Islamic device to repress women. Certainly some regimes have used it to segregate and isolate women. However the Qur’anic commandment to women to dress modestly is for the protection of women, and to prevent them from being exploited by men. Women are not objects to be viewed and exploited for their beauty. Let us also remember that in the name of Islam, the Taliban also committed a number of un-Islamic acts, such as preventing women and girls from getting an education. The scarf may have become an icon of Islamic practice, but as we know icons can be distorted from their original Notes & Comments