Freedom to Dress

It’s a sad day when you read stories like this from the city where the renowned Library of Alexandria once stood:

Along the miles of crowded beachfront in Egypt’s second city, women in bathing suits are nowhere in sight.

On Alexandria’s breeze-blown shores, they all wear long-sleeve shirts and ankle-length black caftans topped by head scarves. Awkwardly afloat in the rough seas, the bathers look like wads of kelp loosened from the sandy bottom.

In Alexandria, a city once renowned for its culture and its cosmopolitanism, those secular values are having to contend with a rigid and increasingly aggressive strain of Islam exported from Saudi Arabia, here constituted by a political party called the Muslim Brotherhood. As is always the case, this movement takes no heed of the city’s rich and diverse history:

“At the end of the day, that’s all history,” said Sobhi Saleh, a Brotherhood member of Parliament.

…Even the library — with its museum that includes pharaonic, Greek, Roman, Coptic and Islamic relics — is misguided, Mr. Saleh said.

“There, Islam is just one topic among many. We don’t like those naked Greek statues. Anyway, that’s over. Islam should have a special status at the library,” he said. “This is a Muslim city in a Muslim country; that is our identity.”

As the article notes, the Muslim Brotherhood has won support by handing out food and social services to Egypt’s millions of poor. But in exchange for that help, it’s seeking – and winning – more and more restrictions on people’s freedom: enforced Islamic attire for women, the disappearance of alcohol from restaurants, and growing tension and violence with Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority. This is a point worth remembering when people praise religion for the good it’s done for the world’s poor and needy. Too often, the price of that help is much steeper than it first appears.

But while the spread of Islamic fundamentalism is worrying, there are good ways and bad ways to oppose it. France hasn’t chosen a good way:

France’s struggle with Islamic dress has moved into the swimming pool after a 35-year-old woman was banned from bathing in her “burkini”, a head-to-toe swimsuit.

…a 32-member parliamentary inquiry… opened last month to review the possibility of a law to bar Muslim women from wearing the face-covering niqab in public. President Sarkozy stirred fundamentalist anger in June when he sided with the review, saying that such dress was not a symbol of faith, but a sign of women’s subservience and that it had “no place in France”. (source)

The stated reason for banning this woman from the public pool was hygiene, but since her dress is basically a wetsuit, that seems unlikely to be the real reason. France has been moving in the direction of restricting public displays of religious attire since 2004, when it banned headscarves in state-run schools. As the above quote shows, they’re now considering outlawing many kinds of religious dress altogether.

I understand France’s desire to maintain a secular state and prevent the religious oppression of women, but this isn’t the way to do it. The woman in this case isn’t even from a Muslim family, but was an adult convert from Christianity – it’s absurd to argue that she was being coerced. And banning religious attire in schools and public places isn’t going to free women from Islamic families. If anything, it’s likely to result in them being even more restricted and less able to leave their homes.

Forcing women to wear Muslim garb, or banning them from wearing it, are wrong for the same reasons. When it comes to people expressing themselves, dress is second only to speech. Any restriction on freedom of expression should be justified by only the most compelling reasons, and the mere desire to maintain an outwardly secular state isn’t one of those. Fighting imposed religious oppression is a worthy goal, but this is a battle of ideas and persuasion, not one that can be won by the force of law. If the values and freedoms offered by the Western world – or the Islamic world, for that matter – are superior, people will come to adopt them of their own free will. If they’re not superior, trying to impose them anyway is an effort that’s bound to end only in failure and worsened division.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Ritchie

    The French against women covering up?! Shocking. Lol.

    Actually the burkha as a garment seems quite a contradiction to me. I understand that it is supposed to be a symbol of modesty, and in a country where wearing it is the norm, or at least common, it may well be. But surely wearing one in a society where it is rarely seen makes you stand out?

    But that aside, I do agree that banning them would be as much an infringement on personal freedom as enforcing them.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Having actually seen the French media coverage of the swimming pool incident, I can say that it does actually appear to have been solely a health regulation issue, and even the Muslim organizations in France concede as much. If you look at the images of the so-called burquinis, they are loose and baggy jogging suits, not wetsuits. The pool in question also had signs up banning baggy t shirts and shorts from the pool. If the woman had actually been wearing a full body lycra wetsuit, close to the body, like Olympic swimmers wear, I’m sure she would have been allowed in the pool.

  • Ritchie

    This might be another stupid question, but why exactly would burquinis, or loose T-shirts and baggy jogging suits for that matter, BE unhygienic?

  • Ambrosia

    This might be another stupid question, but why exactly would burquinis, or loose T-shirts and baggy jogging suits for that matter, BE unhygienic?

    Not much, assuming they were clean. Unless they are going to have someone check for filthy vermin-infested clothes, it’s easier to ban non-bathing attire. Bathing attire could also be filthy, but it’s much less likely to have (potentially) been worn as street clothes.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    Forcing women to wear Muslim garb, or banning them from wearing it, are wrong for the same reasons.

    Thank you for this. I’ve been trying to put into words why I have such a problem with France’s new policy of banning burqas. This says it exactly. It’s basically banning speech solely because they don’t like the content. And that’s not okay.

  • Sarah Braasch

    It’s probably a public pool that requires bathers to run under a quick shower before entering the pool. If you’re wearing what is already a full set of normal clothing, a shower isn’t going to do much. I can find out the particulars, if anyone cares.

  • Staceyjw

    It could just be an excuse, but it seems like they are consistent about banning baggy swimwear. I wonder why baggy clothes are a health issue- a safety issue in a pool, I can see this- but heath???

    I guess this means the woman will not be swimming, as a form fitting suit, even one providing full coverage, is still out of the question for a Muslim woman. Too bad.

    I can see why France would want to ban religious clothing- it is tempting. I still think its a bad idea, that is both impractical and unethical- and will have the unintended consequence of restricting Muslim women, rather than freeing them from oppression.

    If they want to limit the religious influence of Muslims in their country, they could limit (legal and illegal)immigration from Muslim nations, as many Muslims in Europe are transplants. This will also keep out those that are fleeing Islam in their homelands, and won’t do anything about French converts.

    to stop religious influence, you have to promote secular society in general, by:
    - Stopping any funding/ tax breaks/ etc. going to mosques, churches, etc.
    - Education- secular schooling for ALL (no religious outs), including comparative religion, mythology and a heavy dose of science
    - Sexual freedom- birth control/sex ed targeting those who would otherwise miss out
    - Empowering women- programs to help traditional women survive w/o male support/husbands
    - Ending the undeserved respect given to religion in public/private discourse
    - Cracking down on ANY administration of Sharia (any religious) law within their borders
    - Working to end the isolation of traditional religious groups- they need to be invited to join the modern world, instead of hidden away in closed communities.

    I think France already does most of these things, this is just a general list of ideas.

    BTW- not everyone that wears a “burkini” is a Muslim- I have an atheist friend that is extremely sun sensitive, and she loves “burkinis”.

  • Scotlyn

    There is a deeper issue here – note that in all cases we are talking about women’s dress. This has to do with the way in which women find themselves permanently “on view” to men. The way that, for a certain type of man, they are there to be looked at, rather than to look out at the world themselves. The default presumption is that women express, through their dress, whether they are “available” or not. A man may presume “availability” even if the woman does not intend it, depending on his own cultural learning and habit. As Sarah Braasch wrote, in another piece about her Moroccan experience, if most women only wear Muslim garb, any woman not wearing it is seen as “easy prey.” Western women also are subject to continual barrages of comments about the way they look or dress, with the presumption that they should want to look attractive to men, and there is something wrong with them if they do not at least try. This is one reason why western female converts to Islam often find their new way of dressing quite relaxing – as it removes you from being constantly on show in the Western sense. It will be a long way down the line, perhaps, but this debate will no longer be necessary when what a women wears, in any country, can simply be about what she feels like wearing and not about what sexual messages men might or might not presume she is broadcasting. It’ll be especially liberating when women no longer feel they have to look any particular way to please anyone but themselves.

  • Sarah Braasch

    This is an issue I struggle with so much.

    First of all, it makes me so upset that we focus so much attention on women’s bodies and clothing, especially the sexualized trappings of Islam, instead of ensuring that women are recognized as human beings with inherent dignity and full and complete access to their rights as such. If these women had real and legitimate and credible and valid choices, then this issue would be moot. In that situation, of course, a woman should be able to do whatever she wishes, be it wear a sheet over her head, isolating herself from society entirely, making herself a sex slave to her husband, her family, her community, or running for the French presidency, having an abortion, or getting a law degree.

    A little bit ago, I walked down a Parisian street to the grocery store. I passed a woman in a burqa. A burqa is literally a sheet worn over someone’s entire body. It completely robs them of their humanity, totally isolating them from society. Yes, this is my perspective, and, maybe that woman under the sheet felt closer to Allah and more confident and secure in hiding her physicality. Maybe she felt a profound sense of self respect, but I really, really doubt it.

    In my opinion, also having lived in a Muslim Arab country for three months, in the Maghreb, which is where most of France’s Muslims are from, I can tell you with a great degree of confidence that Islam is used as the justification, but the reason for forcing women to wear Islamic clothing has nothing to do with religious observance. Or, if it does, it is for a very, very small minority of Muslim women.

    I spoke with many Muslim men, women, and families. The young Muslim men were blatant and frank about their attitudes towards women, Muslim or no, who choose to wear or not wear a veil (a hijab — the headscarf). Women who wear the hijab are not sexually available — they are chaste, devout. Women who do not wear the hijab are sexually available and actively pursuing sex. It is to mark women as either whores or not whores. If a woman isn’t covered, and she excites a man’s lust, it becomes her fault if he rapes her.

    This is the truth. Condemn me or praise me as you will.

    In France, most Muslims live in the ghettoized housing projects in the suburbs surrounding the major cities. Their communities are isolated and segregated from the rest of society. The young men in these communities, bereft of employment and education opportunities and discriminated against and politically marginalized, turn their anger and frustration against the women in these communities, imposing a severe form of Sharia upon them. They have formed gangs, patrolling and controlling these neighborhoods, leaving the women in terror.

    Families in these communities were and are forcing their daughters, even their very young school aged daughters, to wear the hijab, if not the niqab or the burqa, because they fear for their safety; they fear that they will be seen as sexually available whores and raped. This has happened and continues to happen in these communities. This is the reality for these women.

    Do I support freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of expression, autonomy, the full realization of one’s personhood as self defined — of course I do.

    But, I also agree with Sarkozy when he says that the burqa is not about religious expression but the debasement of women. This is the truth.

    It is a difficult subject and there are no easy answers. Are there probably a handful of women who fervently believe that they are following Allah’s commandments by donning the burqa. Yes, I’m sure there are.

    But, I won’t even go into how free that choice can be when someone has been brainwashed from birth to believe that she is subhuman and meant only to give birth to more of her kind and obey the men in her life. I was brainwashed in this way. And, as a child, I argued vehemently on behalf of this position, vociferously defending my right to choose my life’s path.

    Like I said, it’s a complicated issue. Can we force people to recognized their own human rights? But, I don’t decry France’s choice. They are not just defending their own culture. They are really trying to make it so these women can have full lives as human beings, instead of sex slaves and baby incubators.

    And, I am condemning Islam, because it is so misogynistic and lends itself so well as a justification for the demonization and debasement of women.

    Sorry for the soapbox, but this is my issue, so, of course, I couldn’t not respond.

  • Hassan

    Hi! I am Egyptian and I’d like to leave a couple of comments:

    ….. a political party called the Muslim Brotherhood.

    The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) is not, and has never been a political party. Simply, they have been denied this right for over half a century. MB itself is an 80 years old movement; it existed even before the establishment of Saudi Arabia.

    the Muslim Brotherhood has won support by handing out food and social services to Egypt’s millions of poor.

    Partly true. The main reason people vote for MB is that they are the only other option they have. Mubarak’s party has practically been the only active party in the country for Mubarak’s whole 29 years in office. People are sick of it. And if people vote for an alternative to this corrupt party, you should not blame them. You also should not theorize the situation in terms of the rising Islamic extreme movements.

    FWIT, the MB movement is officially banned. When it’s been referred to in the government-run newspapers, it’s cited as “The banned movement” instead of the real name :)

    Dictatorships are the cause of this country’s continuously deteriorating conditions, not some oppressed, misguided movement!

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    Re: banning loose, baggy clothing from pools. I was a lifeguard many years ago. The reason we banned similar clothing was because loose fibers from non-standard swimwear clogs the filtering/water circulation system, which results in unclean water (cut-off shorts are particularly bad for this, because the edges are frayed and come loose easily). So, there actually is a hygienic reason for the ban.

    But in exchange for that help, it’s seeking – and winning – more and more restrictions on people’s freedom…. This is a point worth remembering when people praise religion for the good it’s done for the world’s poor and needy. Too often, the price of that help is much steeper than it first appears.

    This point can’t be reiterated enough, IMHO.

    @Sarah, #9 – thanks for explaining some of the complexities of the burqa issue.

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com D

    Well said, Ebonmuse! “Freedom” means the freedom to be stupid and irrational, too – because legislating intelligence and rationality is, paradoxically, both sticky and slippery business.

    I have one fairly minor quibble, though. You wrote, “If the values and freedoms offered by the Western world – or the Islamic world, for that matter – are superior, people will come to adopt them of their own free will.” Superior in terms of what? Likeliness to be adopted by the populace of its own free will? Well, sure, but that’s an uninteresting tautology, and of small comfort to those who don’t want to see Islam win for being the winning type (perhaps because such an outcome would mean the defeat of their own values in the marketplace of ideas). It’s a minor quibble in relation to the overarching point of the post, but it touches on a major point of ethical discourse.

    Of course a Muslim will find Islamic values to be superior, and of course a secularist will find secular values to be superior. In terms of freedom and equality, secularism beats Islam hands-down. Or did you mean memetically superior, in that whichever proves more fit to perpetuate itself through the ages in the cultural zeitgeist will be the victor? But that depends on a whole bunch of contingent factors about human psychology and the local culture in question which may or may not change – for instance, Islam has been and still is memetically dominant in certain regions of the Middle East (where to this day you can be beheaded for speaking your mind, or murdered for being raped), but secular values are clearly dominant in the Netherlands (where you can legally smoke pot for fun, marry any consenting adult you’d like, and speak four languages at no extra charge). The environment – and “environment” is here meant robustly, including things like local history and everything that goes to make a place be how it is today – goes a long way toward determining which memes will have head-starts over which other memes, so you can’t even use present success as a gauge of superiority. And you can’t evaluate them ethically, since each set of values is ipso facto an ethical toolkit, and so you’re begging the question by picking an ethical framework to start from in order to evaluate other ethical frameworks (or “systems of value,” tomayto/tomahto).

    Really, the only thing you can say about which one will come to dominate is, “whichever dominates, shall dominate.” If you want to be right, that is – if you want to be interesting, you’ll have to say something else entirely.

    @ Sara Braasch: Wow, you really hit the nail on the head! I just want to add that “the problem” is not about what women wear, whatever it is that women wear. The problem is the attitude of some men, specifically (as you outlined above) the unwarranted and unwanted ascriptions of sexual intent to a simple matter of public dress. I believe you alluded to the virgin/whore complex in an earlier thread, as well. Involving women at all – whether they want to obey Allah, be modest, ignore fashion, make a statement, attract a person, or even appear available to anything with a pulse – is blaming the victim.

    An eye-opener on this last point can be found in “My Short Skirt” from The Vagina Monologues. One line, elegant in its simplicity, stated matter-of-factly: “My short skirt has nothing to do with you.” OK, sometimes it does, but the point is that assuming anyone’s intentions from their dress should be tempered with a willingness to, hey, change one’s mind when evidence to the contrary comes up (“Get away from me, you creep” is a strong sign).

  • http://reasonvsapologetics.blogspot.com jim

    Sarah:

    Thanks for that. The truth concerning the mindset of fundamentalist Islam towards women can’t be stressed enough, and you did it eloquently.

  • John

    So, what do we do?
    How do we stop the fundamentalists? I really want to know. Yes, I’d like nothing better than let anyone wear what they want and all but this form of Islam isn’t benign, it’s a cancer. I’d like to help stop it.

    But how?

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Seems to me that banning clothes on religious grounds — no matter how noble the intent — is akin to what the Army PR flack said when asked why an operation was so destructive: “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.” Values cannot be imposed by force.

    To John’s question: Here in California, we have a “special circumstances” clause that adds on to sentences for, well, spceial circumstances — lying in wait, use of a firearm, the exchange of money in a murder plot, etc — and I would argue that harming or murdering anyone for religious reasons should be added to this list, and that other states, and countries, ought to do this as well. This would make a conviction for honor-killing a death-penalty offense, for example, if the jury issues that sentence and the judge approves it.

    To those who disagree with the death penalty: I respect your views, and generally share them, but that topic should be debated on another thread. Those who would argue that this would violate the religious freedoms of the killer / rapist et al, or that they would appeal such a sentencing guideline on that ground, the counter-argument is simple: the right to be free of violence is much more fundamental that the right to violently practice one’s beliefs.

  • http://confessionatheist.blogspot.com Dale

    I agree, Ebonmuse. Banning a certain type of clothing will do nothing to further the secular goals of French politics, because groups that want to wear their religious garments will feel persecuted and strike back. The way to make an effective change is, as you said, to alter the thoughts in peoples’ minds rather than restricting what they are allowed to do with those thoughts.

    @Sarah Braasch
    I found myself looking at the issue with new eyes after reading your post. You are clearly intelligent and passionate about this topic, and I hope more people are exposed to your excellent ideas.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    I almost forgot we have a bona fide expert on this subject! Thanks, Sarah, for your insight and your thoughts.

    I stand corrected about the nature of this woman’s bathing suit. The news stories I read gave the impression that it was skin-tight, like a wetsuit. If that’s not the case, then I can see that there might be legitimate health concerns about allowing it in a public pool.

    Sarah’s comment (#9) so vividly lays out the situation faced by Muslim women in France, I can sympathize with why the French government wants to ban face-covering garb. In an environment of oppression and religious terror, there’s no realistic way that those women could make a free choice to wear such a thing, not when they would face harassment, violence and rape for doing otherwise. These clothes have become an active part of the Islamic campaign to repress women, which is something no civilized government should permit to happen to people under its protection.

    But at the same time, banning the burqa is not going to solve this problem. Though it’s an instrument of terror for many women, it’s also, paradoxically, their only protection against even further harm. If this law passed, women who went out in public uncovered would, as Sarah says, be considered easy prey for roving gangs and other dangerous fanatics. The practical effect would almost certainly be to confine women to their own homes, making them unable to go out in public to get an education, pursue a career, or do any of the other things that are the only hope for women’s uplift and equality between the sexes.

    Unfortunately, this isn’t a problem that can be solved by the force of law. That said, I can think of one thing the French and other European governments can do: it could only help to provide job training and other assistance to help Muslim immigrants find economic stability and integrate more fully into society. Chronic unemployment leads to poverty; poverty leads to feelings of despair and humiliation; and those feelings are all too easily find an outlet in the service of violent, destructive religious fundamentalism.

    As regards D’s question:

    You wrote, “If the values and freedoms offered by the Western world – or the Islamic world, for that matter – are superior, people will come to adopt them of their own free will.” Superior in terms of what?

    What I meant is that Western culture needs to show itself superior in the only way in which it makes sense to compare the values of different cultures: do those values lead to a peaceful, prosperous, happy society? Do they promote human flourishing and well-being, or do they promote the opposite?

    Any honest and objective observer, even a Muslim one, would have to admit that the values championed by Islamic theocracies (or any kind of theocracies) have led only to stagnation, tyranny, corruption, and continual violence. Islam didn’t conquer the world, as its founder promised it would. It’s only the fortuitous possession of massive oil reserves that have enabled most Islamic states to do even as well as they have.

  • Sarah Braasch

    I’m so sorry. I feel like maybe I was too didactic. I can get quite worked up about these things. I love reading all the comments. This is a great community.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Sarah –

    Your comments are nothing to apologize about. As others have pointed out, they are educational.

    Having lived in Teheran for about 4 years under the regime of the Shah, I can say that your points are spot-on.

  • Karen

    Islam should have a special status at the library,” he said. “This is a Muslim city in a Muslim country; that is our identity.”

    It gave me chills to read this and realize that if we replace “Islam/Muslim” with “Christian” or “Judeo/Christian values,” it could have come from any number of Christianist politicians in the U.S.

    The irony, of course, is that those people are as anti-Muslim as they come. But they are so blind they don’t see the similarities in their fundamentalist mindsets.

    Sarah writes:

    But, I won’t even go into how free that choice can be when someone has been brainwashed from birth to believe that she is subhuman and meant only to give birth to more of her kind and obey the men in her life.

    This is the heart of the issue. Ayaan Hirsi Ali makes the same point in her books. Whether the best way to encourage free choice is just to ban clothing, I think is debatable. But recognizing that these women do not have free choices is important.

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com D

    @ Sarah Braasch: Sorry? Didactic? Poppycock! You pointed at some relevant facts and made some very pertinent points. Your comment was timely, insightful, and informative. You did a great job!

    @ Ebonmuse:

    …banning the burqa is not going to solve this problem. Though it’s an instrument of terror for many women, it’s also, paradoxically, their only protection against even further harm. If this law passed, women who went out in public uncovered would, as Sarah says, be considered easy prey for roving gangs and other dangerous fanatics.

    You’re talking about Europe here, right? I mean… aren’t there laws in Europe that say you can’t beat the shit out of someone? I agree that the mere act of banning one method of religious oppression will not solve all of that religion’s oppressive nonsense, but I’m pretty darn sure that even Muslim women in Europe have recourse to the law, burqa or no, should they be raped/beaten/murdered (well… OK, any murder victim doesn’t have recourse to the law, but the law can still go after the murderer…). Or is the situation in France even worse than I’m imagining here? (It might be, I honestly don’t know.)

    …Western culture needs to show itself superior in the only way in which it makes sense to compare the values of different cultures: do those values lead to a peaceful, prosperous, happy society? Do they promote human flourishing and well-being, or do they promote the opposite?

    OK, subtle but important distinction here: I agree that the Netherlands is a more happy and prosperous society than, say, Saudi Arabia. But the reason I say the Netherlands is better is because the Netherlands corresponds more closely to my own values than does Saudi Arabia. A devout Muslim and Saudi Arabian patriot would disagree, perhaps saying that evil has conquered all in the Netherlands and now their society is plunging into degeneracy, getting along with each other because they’re all equal in their iniquity, and prospering on Earth at the cost of their immortal souls. Y’know, more or less what Fox says about ‘em. And any lack of flourishing in overtly religionized nations is only due to the corrupting influence of infidel riff-raff, coupled with the fact that the Shaitan is everywhere and more or less runs this fallen world. The deck is stacked against the faithful, while the wicked are rewarded with prosperity, until the day when God Almighty will strike them down (which will be all the more humiliating in light of their earlier prosperity).

    I am vehemently opposed to such a view, but this is how many of the faithful see things (not just Muslims). An honest and objective Muslim, through the lens of faith, can legitimately write off the stagnation/tyranny/corruption/violence as an effect of intrinsic human corruption, continuous evils that must be fought tooth and nail at every step of the way. This is a coherent and internally consistent interpretation of the same data – and absent any clinching proof that theocratic values cause individuals who hold them to become tyrannical/corrupt/etc., we can only pound tables about which system of values is “truly” better for human flourishing. What you and I call “civilization,” devout believers will call “degeneracy.” These systems of value are lenses that fundamentally alter one’s perspective on the world.

    As for which one will come to dominate… well, the problem is that that’s an open question. It may be that the civilized/degenerate values of secularism come to dominate, and humanity will enter a Golden Age of flourishing prosperity – you and I would say that’s wonderful, the devout would say that’s terrible. Another possibility is that rigid theocratic values come to dominate, and humanity will either blow itself to smithereens (which Christians would doubtless call the Rapture), or enter another Dark Age of repressive superstition (a temporary victory against the forces of darkness, according to the devout). You and I would say that’s terrible, but the devout victors would say that’s wonderful.

    I hope this helps to make my objection clearer: what view shall come to dominate in the future is an open question, and the interpretation of those events (however they actually play out) will be affected by the values of the individuals doing the interpreting. In short, there is no force for good (as you and I would call it) in the Universe; we actually have to do the hard work of spreading our values around since they’re not written into reality. Or in other words, human culture is a memetic niche (well, several local memetic niches, to be more precise) and what memes come to dominate bears no necessary relation to how rational those memes are, or how good they are at causing humans to flourish happily. Does that make more sense?

  • Scotlyn

    Ebon:

    That said, I can think of one thing the French and other European governments can do: it could only help to provide job training and other assistance to help Muslim immigrants find economic stability and integrate more fully into society. Chronic unemployment leads to poverty; poverty leads to feelings of despair and humiliation; and those feelings are all too easily find an outlet in the service of violent, destructive religious fundamentalism.

    and Karen:

    Whether the best way to encourage free choice is just to ban clothing, I think is debatable. But recognizing that these women do not have free choices is important.

    Well said, both of you. The superficial issue of choice in clothing can easily distract from the things that completely grind a person down to where the concept of choice itself is pure, unaffordable luxury. Choice has to be about real things first – education, work, type of housing, living area, schools. Governments have to be seen to be able to protect people from violence, even from within their communities. Violence is a fairly quick-acting choice-remover. Then, discussions of freedom in clothing can become something meaningful.

    Sarah, I’ve enjoyed all your contributions, and although I never lived in an Islamic country, I spent six months working in an Egyptian-owned chipper (transatlantic translation – fast food joint). The owner was a gentleman, the cook was a groper (my elbows are still among the fastest in the West), and the fellow that I shared the counter with was superficially a nice, soft-spoken guy who kept his hands to himself. But over time, as we chatted during breaks, his point of view on things began to raise hairs on the back of my neck. He was going out with an Irish women, and expressed himself fairly approvingly, it sounded to me, on the topic of the sexual freedoms of that species. So, one day (I was a lot younger and brasher then) I said something like, “well your sister would find herself with a lot more freedom here than in Egypt, isn’t that a good thing. People here don’t crucify you anymore if you get pregnant outside of marriage.” He turned around and in his nicely spoken voice, said, “Oh, if my sister got pregnant, I would kill her.” The look in his eye, and his tone of voice let me know that he meant what he said. Great!

    It’s like he believed he carried two kinds of sperm in his testicles – one kind to make humans and one kind to make cows! Every farmer knows how terrible it is when the cows break out of the field and wreck the breeding programme!

  • Archimedez

    D,

    You wrote:

    “An honest and objective Muslim, through the lens of faith, can legitimately write off the stagnation/tyranny/corruption/violence as an effect of intrinsic human corruption, continuous evils that must be fought tooth and nail at every step of the way. This is a coherent and internally consistent interpretation of the same data – and absent any clinching proof that theocratic values cause individuals who hold them to become tyrannical/corrupt/etc., we can only pound tables about which system of values is “truly” better for human flourishing.”

    Let’s also keep in mind that doubters, skeptics, and contrarians arise in perhaps in every culture, and maybe all of us–religious or not–have varying levels of these tendencies. The doubters of religion are often in the minority, but they do exist. Some of the Mu’tazilites, for example, thought that Muhammad was a fraud (see Patricia’s Crone’s God’s Rule). Today, there are many ex-Muslims who reject Islam completely, as well as Muslims who reject (or selectively interpretively remove) some major parts of Islam, who live and were raised within Islamic cultures. There may be many more of them who we don’t know about due to the fact that they hide their disbelief out of fear of the harsh punishments for public expressions of disbelief and apostasy.

    Fortunately, ideas and beliefs (or memes) can be modified, questioned, and even rejected completely by their hosts, due to the general human capacity to doubt, question, argue, experiment, etc. Some societies facilitate this process more than others.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    But the reason I say the Netherlands is better is because the Netherlands corresponds more closely to my own values than does Saudi Arabia. A devout Muslim and Saudi Arabian patriot would disagree, perhaps saying that evil has conquered all in the Netherlands and now their society is plunging into degeneracy, getting along with each other because they’re all equal in their iniquity, and prospering on Earth at the cost of their immortal souls. Y’know, more or less what Fox says about ‘em. And any lack of flourishing in overtly religionized nations is only due to the corrupting influence of infidel riff-raff, coupled with the fact that the Shaitan is everywhere and more or less runs this fallen world.

    Yes, they would say those things. The difference is that we’re right and they’re wrong.

    I realize that answer might sound somewhat flippant, so let me suggest another: Although many Muslims may say their society is superior to ours, which one do they actually seek to live in? And when people are given the option to vote with their feet, the results are clear: huge numbers of people from Islamic societies are choosing to emigrate to Europe, whereas there is no comparable tide of refugees moving in the other direction.

    Take Sarah’s essay about her internship in Morocco. Even the people she met who were openly racist, misogynist and anti-American, who praised the virtues of jihad and religious terrorism, still dreamed of living in America (and labored under the delusion that she could grant any of them citizenship) because, they believed, everyone there led lives of luxury. That’s a pretty potent testament to the values our civilization represents.

  • Scotlyn

    …still dreamed of living in America (and labored under the delusion that she could grant any of them citizenship) because, they believed, everyone there led lives of luxury. That’s a pretty potent testament to the values our civilization represents.

    Only if, to extract the nugget of this: luxury=the values our civilization represents
    It seems to me that this is a common perception, but, in my view misplaced. Luxury can exist anywhere – for the few – usually at the expense of the many.

  • Sarah Braasch

    There was definitely a desperation for economic improvement, but, also, a sincere thirst for freedom and education and well being, not just economic well being. In retrospect, I wish I had highlighted this more in my piece. They wanted to be free of the totalitarian, authoritarian yoke of Moroccan society, imposed not just by the king and his oppressive government, but by a tribalistic, hyper-religious, patriarchal culture. The economic precariousness of one’s existence exacerbated the other oppressive elements — the dog eat dog nature of life.

    While, certainly, the young women felt oppressed, the young men did as well, especially beneath the pressures placed upon them by their families. One young man complained to me about many aspects of his life, which I had not previously considered. His father had died. He had many younger sisters. He was the “man” of his family. He was under extreme pressure to provide for his family. He had had to use wider family influence to procure a menial, low paying job. His mother also had to work — in the government. This was a shame for him. He was facing pressure by his mother and wider family to marry one of his French cousins and to move to France to work. He didn’t wish to do this. (He wished to get out of Morocco — he just didn’t want to marry his cousin.) He complained of being viewed as weak by his extended family. He constantly berated his younger sisters, trying to keep them in line, lest they betray the family’s honor. He talked about wanting to go to Palestine or Iraq or Afghanistan to martyr himself and to fight the Jews and Americans, but he said that he could not, because of his familial responsibilities. He actually told me that he hates Arabs, because they are thieves. I believe he was referring to the clannish, cut throat daily struggle for the vast majority of people in Morocco. You take care of yourself and your own (your family) and if other people have to die in the process, then they have to die. It’s strange to me when people talk about Islam as venerating the poor — requiring charity as one of the central pillars. This is true, but, at the same time, the giving to the poor felt very superficial to me — maybe just out of necessity — most families gave only their day old, left over bread. I saw Islam as exacerbating the tribal aspects of the culture, the dog eat dog nature of society, layered upon economic hardship.

    This young man actually complained to me, in some ways explicitly and in some ways implicitly, about the pressures placed upon him to appear manly, strong, sexually virile, even brutal and dangerous and violent. These characteristics were to be esteemed in a man. He seemed to me a rather effete (maybe closeted gay — it’s hard to say — just my impression) and soft hearted young man.

    So, of course, it’s multifaceted, but there was definitely also a thirst, a desperate yearning for the freedom of the West. And, at the same time, this was one of the young men who had waved his cell phone in my face, beaming an image of the planes hitting the twin towers on 9/11, and laughed heartily at the thought. It was one of the few times I saw him laugh.

    Consider that Morocco is often held up as an example to the rest of the Islamic world, as what a moderate Muslim nation can be.

    I am often torn when I discuss this issue. I don’t know if this helps. While I think it is important to acknowledge problems, I’m more interested in working towards solutions. How do we do this? It seems, sometimes, to me, that naming and shaming only makes things worse — people really get their backs up when you criticize their cultures, their societies, their nations, their families. They shut down the channels of communication. But, do we just sit back and do nothing then? Do we praise that which is not praiseworthy, but blameworthy? Diplomacy truly is an art. And, I think grassroots approaches are very, very important. Sorry, I digress. It’s just something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.

    I do want to say this — cultural relativism is BS. This is simply a convenient tool of the oppressors. There are many, many men and women fighting and struggling for their rights in Morocco, to make Moroccan society better, as there are in all Muslim, Arab, Muslim Arab, and all other nations and societies in the world.

    So only the oppressors, the powerful get to define the culture, the values? Is that it? When we do this — we capitulate to the oppressors. We turn our backs on the human rights activists.

    More and more I think that there is no such thing as culture, just as there is no such thing as race or ethnicity. These are arbitrary social constructs employed to exert social control.

    There are only individuals, human beings. And, human beings want to be free to do as they wish, to lead their lives. Human rights are not Western or Christian — they are universal.

    One only needs to travel and to talk to people to discover this. I just struggle with the best way to get that message across — because we have obviously failed to do so as of yet. And, right now, with America’s military and Christian missionaries across the globe, I think we are making it worse.

  • Scotlyn

    Thanks for unpacking of that sense of “yearning,” Sarah. I love the depth with which you have reflected on your experiences.

    I grew up in Latin America, so when I went to college back in the States in 1978, I had acquired a fairly nuanced perception of American foreign policy which, when I tried to share it with born-and-reared Americans, was often like speaking a foreign language. At that point, I was highly familiar with historical events like the American interventions in Guatemala (1956), Chile (1973) and the way that right-wing death squads in many Latin American countries were composed of people trained in the US “College of the Americas”. The Nicaraguan people’s push against Somoza, and his US-supported abuses, was just heating up. The nub of the problem was this. From an outside point of view, it seemed self-evident to the Latin Americans I knew that the US “talked the talk” about human rights, free speech, self-determination, etc. But when it came to “walking the walk” – as in intervening militarily or offering covert educational and financial support to violent dictators – the US seemed more prepared to protect its own citizen’s “luxuries” than to support human rights for the rest of the world.

    And yet, all of these military interventions, when publicised at all, were sold to American citizens as “defenses of human rights.” The possibility that it might look different to the people on the receiving end, for the most part, simply did not seem, to the Americans I encountered, to even be plausible.

    This is just to point out that part of the difficulty of “selling” our values and belief in human rights abroad is that the people who have been at the receiving end of our military interventions have no reason to see us as being concerned about their human rights, rather they read our actions and foreign policies as a defense of our own luxuries, and a measure of how little the lives and rights of others matter to us. It is very hard to “tell” an Iraqi or Afghanistani population that their treatment of women is wrong when our own bombs and trigger happy soldiers have killed so many of the same women.

  • Sarah Braasch

    I just want to say that I have better discussions on this site about these issues than I had in law school. I love it.

  • Neal O’nions

    @Sarah has the argument here. I am sure you will find women who think the burqua is a good idea and choose to wear it just like I’m sue you could find slaves who thought slavery was a good idea. However on balance extreme clothing of Muslim women is largely imposed by Muslim men and this along with a long list of other forms of oppression is unacceptable in western society.

    I understand France’s desire to maintain a secular state and prevent the religious oppression of women, but this isn’t the way to do it.

    I’m sorry but I disagree. Banning shackles worked. Ban the burqua, ban the”burkini”, ban sharia law and ban anything else that gives these misogynists the space to operate. Banning is the only way to get these fundamental freedoms.

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com D

    The difference is that we’re right and they’re wrong.

    Well, right-er. Ish. Right-er-ish. We’re really only a few shades less crazy-go-nuts than they are – they’re very important shades, I’ll agree, but still just a few ticks in one direction along one continuum of many. Look, I agree with you, but I guess I just really wish that being right on this issue counted for something… maybe that’s some residual longing after “ultimate meaning” from my religious days.

    What I think bothers me at root about the whole situation is that, even though secularism is better for human flourishing than theocracy, even though the vote-by-emigration message is clear, even though the Abrahamic faiths are so obviously nothing more than the fairy tales of nomads living in squalor, the God-nuts are still able to adopt that smug sense of superiority and they might die without ever knowing exactly how wrong they are. That drives me up a friggin’ wall, and I guess I just need to get over it. Argh. They’re just plain wrong, and may never really understand that.

    @ Scotlyn: Oi, the College of the Americas is rough stuff. I can definitely understand how growing up with that knowledge is way different from obtaining such knowledge when you’re in college, as I did. We humans sure are a messy lot, aren’t we?

    @ Sarah: Yeah, patriarchy is hard on the penis-havers, too. While there’s no contest that patriarchal ideas of “what a woman should be” are certainly more harmful to females than the analogue for males, the ideas of “what a man should be” are just as restrictive in light of the fact that people come in all shapes, sizes, and flavors. “A man should be in power,” wrong as it is, just takes the edge off the shit taste for some.

    I took a class on sex, values, and human nature taught by a professor with PhDs in both of biology and philosophy, and he laid out one of the most popular schemes for social organization in Western patriarchies:

    Men: Masculine males. These guys run things.
    Women: Feminine females. These chicks support the men on top of them – from the kitchen or else.
    Dykes: Masculine females. They can play with each other until a penis shows up, but then it’s time to get down to business. (Note the grievous misunderstanding of actual lesbians.)
    Animals: Just animals. More valuable than pansies & freaks, though.
    Pansies, Sissies, Fags, etc: Feminine males. Kick the shit out of them because they’re too weak to defend themselves.
    Freaks: Other. Lock them up, ostracize them, or laugh at their expense; but don’t ever legitimize them with power or prestige. Self-esteem is not for them.

    Now, this sucks and is awful, but it’s how a lot of people see the world, unfortunately (or at least how they act). The important point is that penis-havers who don’t fit the masculine ideal are lumped in with the pansies or the freaks, and regarded as less than animals; vagina-havers who don’t conform to feminine norms are likely to be raped and told that they “asked for it,” which is also unconscionable. It’s hard to compare the two kinds of awfulness directly, because they’re both fucked up in different ways and one isn’t really more important than the other. But males can still act like men and stay on top of the social order, so in that sense they’re better off.

    If only we could realize, as a species, that we’re all freaks and that’s OK. You’re absolutely right that there is no such thing as culture, or race, or ethnicity. These are arbitrary labels that we foist upon the world, just like “masculine” and “feminine,” or even “male” and “female.” Consider the case of Diane, an adult XY human with streaked gonads who exhibits androgen insensitivity (she has male-typical genes, but underwent female-typical development because she’s “immune” to testosterone). Diane is genetically male, anatomically female, and developmentally in-between in her sterile reproductive glands – is she male or female? No. She identifies and presents as female, so we’ll all play along, but she doesn’t fit either of those categories and there’s nothing wrong with that, it just tells us that our categories are made up from seeing a consistent pattern for so long that we come to believe “that’s just how things are.”

  • An Indonesian Atheist

    I’m wondering, does anybody know what kind of female clothing is popular during muhammad’s rule in the 7th century? Did they wear burqa and niqab like today’s islamic fundies?