Watch what you wave

Last year, a friend and I were returning home after an afternoon out, and decided to take a longer route than usual. On the way, we passed a Jewish temple. We quickly noticed the prominence of the building, but more so we noticed the prominence of the flag waving above it.

The Israeli flag was striking for one reason: while the building itself was certainly impressive, the stature of the building seemed almost an afterthought beneath the flag itself. A shadow, almost. But how could an enormous building be a mere shadow of cloth?

We noted how odd it must have looked to passersby: a hijab-clad woman pondering the facade of a Jewish temple in the middle of the quite secular city. I’ll admit – we even shared a laugh about how strange it must have looked.

As we stood there, someone was making their way to the entrance for a service that evening. The person smiled and — what? Held the door open for us, thinking we were actually on our way inside.

Talk about crumbling walls. No, this didn’t break down the checkpoints, stop rocket fire, or bring down the firing posts looming from atop the wall tragically marking the Middle Eastern skyline. But it certainly threw me for a loop. I was being invited in, hijab and all. There was absolutely no animosity, fear, or hesitation in this stranger’s eyes. I declined the invitation, but was left with something to reflect on for the evening.

No image is simple.

Just before leaving the premises, my friend snapped a picture of me. Quickly. It was a picture of my face and the Israeli flag blowing above me. I was neither saluting nor cursing it. I wasn’t looking at it, either – I was looking ahead, even away from it. 

It was, at the time, simple: a snapshot of seemingly irreconcilable imagery. On a more analytical level, perhaps it was me looking toward a future where being invited inside wouldn’t have struck me as odd at all.

 Of course, nothing is simple. Flags are not simple, garments are not simple. People get seriously wound up about flags, about who they represent – and who they fail to represent.

Once the photograph was released, the lesson about flags was drilled into my conscience.  People made all kinds of assumptions about what the photo signified. They assumed – without bothering to ask.

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Banning headscarves = democracy?

Aksine, I say. (That’s Turkish for “on the contrary“).

                                    

This week, Turkey’s parliament revived its ban on wearing headscarves on university campuses.

The hijab ban is nothing new. Shortly after a military coup in 1980, the hijab was banned in public buildings, universities, schools and government buildings.

The reasoning for banning the hijab is simple. Some factions of the secularist movement feel that public wearing of the hijab undermines the separation of religion and state. Some secularists fear that a visibile symbol of religiosity could lead to a rise in fundamentalism.

In February of this year, the ban on the hijab was lifted . The event was met with both celebration and protest. Only three months later, however, and the ban has been reinstated.

Turkey is an overwhelmingly Muslim country. It is also a democracy. Restricting freedom of religious observation and expression, then, seems wrong – doesn’t it? After all, hijab-wearing women aren’t demanding that public institutions stop activity during the five daily prayers (though interestingly, the call to prayer is still heard throughout the country) or asking that all women wear the headscarf.

Some of the ban’s supporters make an argument I’d like to find valid. They assert that for women otherwise forced to wear the hijab by their families or husbands, the ban provides a space – be it on the workforce or in the university – where they will be not just able, but required, to go without a headscarf. In short, women who don’t want to wear the hijab would be protected by the law.

In theory, this makes some sense. However, to believe that legislation like this would protect women from unreasonable family members is, I believe, profoundly naïve. 

Do the ban’s supporters really think that a woman returning home to an illogical family or spouse will be well received without her hijab? Do truly oppressive, dogmatic families care that the law requires the women in their lives to violate what they view to be a religious obligation? Certainly not. The very nature of such mentalities is that they are beyond reason. I’m not endorsing the behavior of those who would mistreat the women in their lives. I’m simply acknowledging that they exist. I’m being realistic in a way that I wish the ban’s supporters would be. Women must follow this law – and thus it is women who will be directly impacted by the reactions it sturs.

I’d argue that women aren’t at all protected here. In fact, legislating women’s self-presentation is the oldest and most repressive game in history. Women’s bodies have always been used as a measure of a community or nation’s purity – be it racial, cultural, religious or secular. Rather than protecting women, then, the state sacrifices them to protect itself. It is women who will have to live with the spiritual, familial and other struggles of this legislation.

If Turkey is serious about democracy, and serious about the separation of religion and state, it would not restrict the choices women can make about their self-presentation and religious expression.

Turkey has good reason to be concerned about fundamentalism. The country must work to protect its democratic system. However, it needn’t borrow from fundamentalists by telling women how to dress.

A much more democratic approach would be to enhance education and vocational training for women – in a way that would reach both more conservative and more secular communities. It would also challenge those men (and women!) who would mistreat a non-hijabi woman. Further, resisting censorship (did you know that all of WordPress is banned in Turkey? All in an effort to silence a secular-minded Muslim!) doesn’t send the message  of democracy. Reforming the Muslim mindset – including focusing on the education of both male and female children – establishes a robust, dynamic society.  Legislating what women put on or take off, however, is the same tactic used by the enemies of democracy.

Why must women prove Turkey’s democratic success with their bodies rather than with their minds and their votes? Ultimately, the hijab ban tells us that the government can’t prove its own legitimacy as a democracy that protects women, their voices, and their bodies.

Interesting, isn’t it, that the United States presents Muslim women with more opportunities to express “traditional” Islam than a country that is, in fact, 98% Muslim?