Joylessness or family values?

Here’s a photo that’s a part of a story run by The Daily Mail, “The Talibanisation of British childhood by hardline parents”:

The caption: Joyless: A Muslim family stay covered up as the[y] bathe on a British beach.

The “joyless” assumption is understandable. After all, they’re all wrapped up in clothes that restrict movement; such clothes hardly seem appropriate attire for frolicking around on a beach. Determined to follow religious rules, they deny themselves the pleasures of running and swimming unencumbered. Joyless indeed.

But I’ve seen my share of conservative Muslims bathing, ridiculous attire and all. They don’t seem all that joyless: this group in the photo also seems to be having fun.

The clothing, in fact, is not the only difference noticeable in the photo, when compared to a beach scene composed of half-naked Westerners. The people in the beach scene are not dispersed, doing their own thing or acting in small groups. They are standing close to one another, even though there is room to spread out. In all likelihood the photo depicts an extended family, enjoying the beach together.

A conservative Muslim might well say that this is exactly the point: a beach is a joyful occasion for this family. They might look at a beach scene of Westerners and be more impressed with the lack of large family groups; they might be inclined to interpret it as a sad scene of individual isolation rather than joyful enjoyment of a beach.

In this view, the restrictive clothing is not an arbitrary imposition, but a vital device to protect the integrity of the family in public circumstances. In an isolated family compound, free from the public gaze, all the protective clothing would come off. But in a public environment, particularly a non-Islamic environment full of all sorts of temptations and dangers to the structure of the family, protective measures are necessary.

Secular liberals often look at conservative Muslims, and perceive them as oppressed by all sorts of onerous and arbitrary restrictions on their personal freedom. Maybe. But conservative Muslims often see themselves as protecting their families—the proper context in which a fully human, emotionally satisfying life can be led. They can even perceive liberal Westerners as acquisitive automatons, pursuing individual ambitions, oppressed by their lack of strong human connections but not even aware of the fact.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • Ash

    It is entirely possible, and I assume common even, for oppressive social measures to be motivated by sincere intentions to do good. In this example, I agree that the women playing in the water are probably not joyless or kvetching about their attire. That does not mean that the religious requirements that keep their bodies hidden from public eyes are not oppressive. All I'm really suggesting here is that good intentions and happy feelings are not enough to ignore formal social constructs that favor one group over another. We in the West might indeed be "oppressed" by our individualistic ways, but at least everyone is welcome to such ambitions equally (and are equally allowed to reject them, unlike those women on the beach).

  • Voss

    While I agree that the family group pictured is having fun, there may be more information that can be gleaned; not only from what is shown, but also from what is missing.

    These people can be evaluated in the manner you you used, as a family group. They can also be evaluated as individuals or as age groups or as gender groups.

    I see the children dressed in filmy white clothes with bare heads. This is almost western style. I see the women dressed totally covered in black. I see the men dressed in …? Why are there no men? Would the men also be totally covered in black (head to toe) if they were there? Did the men have any influence on how the women are dressed? Do the women have any say? Are adults of opposite genders even allowed to frollic together in these circumstances?

    What I am saying, Taner, is that there is not enough information available from this photograph to draw any conclusions about the family dynamic.

    I am glad that they are having some fun at that moment.


  • Jason S

    It's an interesting assertion that westerners stand around in isolation at the beach, each self-involved and berift of strong family connections. If only as a single datum or anecdote, I can assure you that when my family goes to the beach, we are as involved with each othe at least as much as this group appears to be. And moreso if you consider that husbands and brothers are also present.

  • Alex Dalton

    Who cares how people dress? Why are we even posting a picture of these people like this? This whole post is intrusive and alienating. Let them have their traditions. Would you want your family photographed and talked about like this? I would not.

    Out of curiosity, has anyone looked at the incidence of rape, spousal abuse, etc. in these cultures and compared it to our own?

    It is especially hypocritical to see Western Christians criticizing Islamic culture on several issues like this, as the culture of the world that most of the New Testament was written in, was much closer to modern Islam than American culture is, and the books were written with alot of the same cultural assumptions – female garb being one of them.

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