Thursday, March 12, 2009

You say secular, I say secular...

I saw this as part of one comment on a Salon Broadsheet piece about a Muslim woman being asked to leave the teller line because she was wearing hijab:

The USA is a secular country, and you have the right to look secular. I don't care if it's your religion or a personality disorder that makes you a non-conformist but wearing head-to-toe garments is no different from going barefoot or shirtless. No shirt, no shoes, NO DICE.

This is mild, of course, in comparison to some of the frothing-at-the-mouth anti-Muslim/anti-religious nonsense that passed for comment in this thread. However, it pinged one of my pet peeves, so I'm on it.

Secular has multiple meanings. It can mean non-religious in a categorical sense: like football is secular or T-shirts are secular clothing. It can mean non-religious as in secular humanists, who reject religion and theism generally. It can mean non-religious as in the secular state is separate from and takes no official stance on religion.

In France, secular means the third usually but the second in many cases, even when referring to the secular state. France has passed laws forbidding the wearing of certain religious attire in public schools, for instance, an act that would be illegal and unconstitutional in the U.S. Unfortunately, the French response to diversity is not an effort at multiculturalism, but an effort to conceal differences rather than tackle bigotry.

As far as the U.S., our government and our rights, secular takes the third meaning. So, you have the right to look secular, sure. But you also have the right to look religious. Heck, you have the right to walk down the street dressed as a Klingon monk or Vulcan priestess if you want. As far as the government is concerned, it is unconstitutional to pass a law that would impede the free practice of faith and the free participation of all people of all religions (or none) in our society. It is also illegal to discriminate based on religion or lack thereof, if you are a private entity operating a public business, such as a bank.

Which brings us to hijab. Asking a person to remove a baseball cap to enter a bank for security reasons makes sense and doesn't do any harm to the person involved, unless he or she is wearing a cap for some medical reason (like concealing the effects of chemotherapy.) Culturally, asking a woman to remove hijab is like asking her to remove her shirt. Big difference.

A standard policy of "no head coverings", no matter how universally applied, has a very different effect on Muslim women then and impedes their free participation in our society. It's bigoted. It's unnecessary. It's illegal.

*For the anti-Muslim bigots who like to invoke woman-beatings and redneck-ized versions of Muslim men when hijab comes up, I'll point out that many Muslim women wear hijab voluntarily and see it as an act of basic modesty, like wearing a shirt. Liberal women defend this choice, because it is a choice worth defending. There is no hypocricy in supporting a woman's choice of culturally-relative modesty while opposing the forced covering of women and the persecution of women who would not or do not choose to wear hijab, niqab or burqa. So, get off your high horse.

And by the way, If you want to stand in judgment, imagine how "oppressed" some cultures would find us Western women, forced to cover our breasts in public (even while breastfeeding)under threat of arrest for public nudity.


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