"I feel I might be condemned for criticising aspects of the muslim religion…"
It has recently come to my attention that people on cruises, such as the one my mother’s school is taking to Egypt, are advised by the tour operators to cover their legs and arms. Foolishly thinking that this had something to do with insect bites or sunburn I nodded in passive acknowledgement as she told me. Later, after a heavy day’s shopping in which her wardrobe was refilled to accommodate clothes which met the tour operator’s criteria, I expressed my surprise at the extent to which she was following advice on insect bites and sunburn, only to be told that it was not for those reasons at all. Instead, the reason for her sartorial excess (fashion notwithstanding) was the tour operator's insistence on all women and girls wearing clothes which were deemed acceptable to those in the Muslim countries which they
Two things shock me about this: firstly, the frankly misogynist Muslim tradition of covering women’s skin; and secondly, my mother’s commitment to respecting this tradition. This incident reflects a concern that I have about many people in British society’s misunderstood respect for traditions and faiths which are discriminatory. Please do not mistake this for a Daily Mail-type rant. I have full respect for the right of other cultures to enact (and expect respect for) their various traditions, as long as they do not stem from, or support, a prejudicial or bigoted ideology. For example, it is justly considerate to take one’s shoes off inside a mosque, so as not to cause offence. Unfortunately many aspects of Islam are (in many people’s interpretation) both prejudicial and discriminatory. There are passages of the Qur’an which reflect those of Leviticus 20 ("Thou shalt hang out to dry all those filthy queers… and throw in an adulterer or two... Oh, and someone with those pointy ears! What do you call them? Rabbits! I hate those bloody Rabbits!" – semi-accurate paraphrase). A reasonable person would not argue if one refused to respect these traditions. However, when the issue is tamed down to something like the requisite attire for women, a "tolerant" Westerner such as my mother will find it hard to sympathise with a viewpoint which degrades this tradition, claiming that it is "disrespectful". An extreme example of this can be found on the Barbelith website. A recent Barbelith scribe begins a thread entitled "Muslim Imam refuses to condemn the stoning of female adulterers" with the words "I feel I might be condemned for criticising aspects of the muslim [sic] religion...". No you won’t! If these are the "aspects of the muslim religion" which you are criticising, then any condemnation is not worth listening to. This explicates perfectly the foolish attitude of respect which many liberal Westerners have towards traditions which do not deserve it.
A common point of contention is the requirement for Muslim women to observe Hijab, and it is this facet of Islam which my mother will be observing. Hijab requires Muslim women to cover their head and body because Allah told them to: "O Prophet, tell your wives and daughters and the believing women to draw their outer garments around them (when they go out or are among men). That is better in order that they may be known (to be Muslims) and not annoyed..." (Qur'an 33:59). There are various secondary reasons in support of women wearing headgear which are explained in this article on the University of Southern California website. For a Muslim, it is only to be expected that they will observe Hijab, as they have been told by Allah to do so. It is understandable, for they face the prospect of not complying with Allah if they refuse to wear Hijab. From a non-believing Western perspective, however, Allah did not tell women to observe Hijab, because Allah doesn’t exist, and He never existed. So if Allah didn't say it, someone else must have. The man (and I think we can be pretty sure it was a man) who wrote this part of the Qur’an has discriminated against women, separating them from men, essentially giving them less freedom and oppressing them. Therefore, from a Western perspective which ordinarily frowns upon misogynistic tradition of this sort, respecting Hijab should prove a problem. Even if one respects the right to wear covering clothes, one should surely not show one's support for it by following suit. Surprisingly, many Westerners do not think in this way.
To return to the incident concerning my mother. Should she have felt compelled to respect this tradition, something which in Britain she would have felt entirely inappropriate and wrong? Her argument went something like, "When in Rome..." The notion that someone’s values can change depending on one’s topography is a disturbing one, but it reminded me of an article which Germaine Greer wrote for The Guardian several months ago in which she explained her reasons for curtsying to the Queen at a dinner in Buckingham Palace. Whilst I can appreciate Greer’s perspective, I find it surprising that someone like her can similarly change hir principles (i.e. anti-monarchy) depending on where s/he is. Should one respect the discriminatory views of Muslims when walking on "their" land?
There are, of course, justifiable reasons for being extra-tolerant of cultures which have principles other to one’s own, such as fear of offending, fear of retaliation, and as a strong tolerant opposition to the anti-othercultures polemic vociferated by the "Daily Mail" et al. One feels that these justifications should not have to exist, though. Far better would be to travel wherever one wanted to, wearing whatever one wanted to wear, without fearing causing offence.