Musings Of A Spiritual Atheist

The subject of religious head coverings is often raised in the news media. This is almost invariably with reference to a hijab (head scarf), a niqab (head and face cover) or a burqa (whole body cover), the head coverings that Moslem women use to show modesty. On the other hand, we hardly ever hear negative comments about Jewish men wearing yarmulkes, Christian women wearing hats in church or Christian nuns wearing wimples, which are not that much different from hijabs. Usually, we just hear comments to the effect that Moslem women wear such items of clothing because Islam is anti-female. Strangely, Judaism is not considered to be anti-male because it requires a head covering for men. In that case it is apparently a spiritual expression of the individual. Rather a strange sexist dichotomy, I would think.

It seems to me that if a hijab is anti-female then so is a wimple because they are just about the same. Wikipedia defines a wimple thus:

A wimple is a garment worn around the neck and chin, and which usually covers the head. Its use developed among women in early medieval Europe. At many stages of medieval culture it was unseemly for a married woman to show her hair. A wimple might be elaborately starched, and creased and folded in prescribed ways, even supported on wire or wicker framing (cornette).

About head coverings for Christian women in general it says:

Christian headcovering is the veiling of the head by women in a variety of Christian traditions. Some cover only in public worship, while others believe they should cover their heads all the time. The Biblical basis for headcoverings is found in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. Though head covering was practiced by most Christian women up until the 1960s, it is now a minority practice among contemporary Christians in the West.

A minority practice is one used by less than 50%. It does not mean it never happens at all. In many Christian denominations whether women wear a head covering or not is a personal choice, although some churches still require it for church attendance and services, or in specific circumstances. Mostly, though, it is voluntary. Women may wear a head covering from a sense of respect and modesty if very religious. This is no different than a Moslem woman who wears a hijab for exactly the same reason. The difference is one of style, Christian women generally wear a fashionable western style hat, so they blend in, whereas Moslem women wear a covering distinctively not western, and stand out.

Whatever type of head covering is used in practice, it becomes an example of male oppression only if a male compels a female to wear one when she does not want to do so. Presumably, if one woman chose to force another woman to cover her head against her wishes it would be an example of female oppression. One might see this in a disagreement between mother and daughter, perhaps. In other words, whether it is an example of male or female oppression depends on the sex of the person doing the dictating. This rather obviously emphasises that compulsion is not automatically male in origin, even in societies that we presume are male dominated, since it is quite feasible that the father may not care, whereas the mother may be more religious and insist on it. Women can be as dogmatically oppressive as men about matters they consider to be religiously based, or which are based on their society’s expectations, or even on their own personal opinions as to what constitutes proper behaviour.

We have a tendency, sometimes, to relieve woman of responsibility for their actions and assume, as an example, that any criminal behaviour they engage in is because they were forced into it by an oppressive man. This is nonsense. Women can be as oppressive as men can be. People differ in their intentions and their sex is not a deciding, and should not be a mitigating, factor. There are gentle men and gentle women and there are vicious men and vicious women. Our penchant to overlook female wrongdoing is a discriminatory expression of western society’s collective Madonna complex, the Mummy syndrome. This attitude promotes a belief that our mothers should be put on a pedestal because they can do no wrong, and that it is the disciplinarian, the father, who is responsible for everything bad in the family. That is obvious nonsense.

Many Muslim women wear a head covering because they believe it is a sign of respect and modesty. They do so completely voluntarily, and it is their right to do so. For these women it is not a symbol of male or female oppression but an outward expression of their own spiritual feelings. They should be left alone to live their lives as they see fit, since how they do so is nobody else’s business.

Just recently (spring, 2015) there was a case of a judge in a courtroom in Quebec who refused to hear an application from a woman because she was wearing a hijab, saying that the courtroom was a secular place and religious apparel had no place there. Interestingly enough, courtrooms in Quebec take an oath on the Bible, a religious book, using the European Christian variant of it with Old and New Testaments and containing the books endorsed by the Western European Churches. Is this not blatant religious hypocrisy? Reject a religious head covering but require an oath on a religious book. How two faced!

One wonders whether religious apparel used by members of other religions would have been the cause of refusing to hear an application. Would the judge have rejected a Christian’s cross, a nun’s habit or a priest’s collar? Would she have demanded that a priest or nun change their dress completely from head to toe before hearing what they had to say, since everything they wear is religious apparel? Would she have demanded that a Sikh remove his turban or a Jew his yarmulke? I would hope not. Would the judge include Mennonite dress as religious clothing that would automatically stop a court application? Both men and women in Mennonite and Hutterite communities dress distinctively and doing so is an integral component of their religious life.

We live in a society which demands that people be treated equally, without discrimination and without favour, unless it is necessary to keep our society free and democratic. How does a head covering fit into that? How does compelling someone to remove a head covering jeopardise freedom and democracy? Clearly, it does not. It restricts freedom, it does not embrace it.

Perhaps the judge felt emboldened by comments from the Prime Minister (Stephen Harper) who insists that women should not take the oath of citizenship if their faces are covered. This is quite obviously aimed at those Muslim women who wear types of head covering which obscure the face. It is quite obvious to me that targeting a particular religious group as political policy, whether that particular group is popular or unpopular, is a majority or a small minority, visible or invisible, is a very slippery slope indeed and an example of the most objectionable discrimination which could very easily lead to the complete negation of fundamental Canadian values of liberty.

The reason given by Prime Minister Harper was that it is a matter of identifying the individual to ensure that the person taking the oath is actually the person who is supposed to take it and that obscuring the face during the taking of the oath is disrespectful to the Queen and thus, to the country. In this respect, it should be noted that the woman refused a court hearing did not have a full face covering, but a head covering, she was wearing a scarf, much like the Queen herself often wears. her face was not obscured.

However, if the person’s identity is in question there is a simple process which would remove any possible perception of discrimination, and which has already been used. At the Citizenship Ceremony or in a court, have a women of suitable standing (a lawyer, judge, notary or something similar) certified to authenticate a person’s identity. The woman could then reveal her face to this female official immediately before the hearing begins who then confirms her identity. The actual taking of the oath could then be in public with the head covering in place. Of course, this approach would simply facilitate matters in a religiously respectful manner and there would be no political hay to be made with it.

It is necessary to point out in the context of showing respect that forbidding a woman to cover her head from modesty and religious respect, since that is what the head covering is all about, is itself a blatant act of disrespect since it requires that a woman involved in a legal process must submit to giving up her religious liberty in order to swear an oath which will guarantee her the right to that same liberty. Surely that is plain hypocrisy: to tout Canada as a haven of religious freedom then require that very freedom be compromised to gain it.

A factor in all of this that is usually overlooked is the one of modesty. To some Muslim women, whether from a religious or cultural perspective, exposing their face or head is viewed in much the same way as a religious Christian woman would view displaying excessive breast cleavage. The body part is different, but otherwise the basis is the same. Would a court require a Christian woman to display her cleavage before hearing her? I think not! The outcry would be immediate and accusations of indecency and human rights’ violations would be resounding. So why is a Muslim women required to do what is the equivalent to that in her culture?

I find it interesting that I, an atheist, have put myself in the position of defending one person’s religious right to cover their head from another person’s religious insistence that they should not. An atheist defending one religionist from another religionist! What is the world coming to?

Previous page Home page Secular Articles Religious Articles Next page