September is a difficult month. It’s when my MA overlaps with my PhD, and when I’m finishing my dissertation on “traditional” homosexuality in Indonesian fiction, which is not going as well as I initially intended. DGM still seems half-constructed, like an unfinished new home, and I feel a bit sad about that. BUT, the grand submission is next Wednesday, I shall begin my new life as a researcher of interesting things, and more writing will ensue. Until then, Eid Mubarak, everybody!
In the beginning of ‘The Enemies of Reason‘, Richard Dawkins’ latest TV crusade against the irrationality of religion and spiritualism, he asks: why is it during an age in which science is proving more ‘truths’ about life and the universe do people still turn to UFOs and miraculous burnt marks on toast that look like Jesus Christ for meaning?
OK, maybe he didn’t mention UFOs and icons on toasts, but the crux of his contention is this: with the progress of science and the evidence of our origins on this earth becoming more established and indisputable, we should be more rational and not the other way round. It’s like what schooling does to children. With more years of learning, reading, and writing, children become better at them and should by implication become more “clever”, right? Wrong.
To begin with, humanity is not like children. The historical path to reason is not mapped out on the linear progression from baby talk to sophisticated soliloquies, or from ignorance to reason. Reason, like humanity, is complex. We as witnesses of history know that it is the dubious science of ‘race’ evolution or social darwinism that became the ‘rationale’ for European colonialism. Late 19th century genetics inspired the science of eugenics, the same branch of science that rationalised the extermination of Hitler’s “undesirable” people. The atomic bomb was “superb physics” and “technically sweet” according to Enrico Fermi and Robert Oppenheimer respectively. Today DNA databases are being used to mine physical (and very personal) information that can potentially be used to discriminate on the basis of health and heredity.
Of course digging out the horrid past and selecting only the unsavoury aspects of genetics are probably unfair, unbalanced, and lacking in taste. But these things nonetheless prove one thing: great science does not make us reasonable, more fair, or more human. Since the publication of The God Delusion, Dawkins has fashioned himself as something of a scientist-thinker-provocateur extraordinaire. But a philosopher he is not. The discursive paradox that Dawkins is probably unaware of because of the height of the horse he’s mounted is the postmodern turn the field of philosophy as a whole has taken.
Foucault will not be Dawkins’ friend here, because any humanities undergraduate will tell him that there’s no such thing as an unbroken line of history towards reason. The historical path to knowledge is full of ruptures determined by what is trendy, what is profitable, and what benefit certain groups of people – these reasons may not be immediately rational but they certainly can be rational-ised, which does not make them the same thing.
This has been an argument to say that science is not the end-all to end-alls. In the charmingly titled ‘Faith School Menace?‘, Richard Dawkins was aghast when faith-oriented school children in Britain were not buying the theory of evolution wholesale. It was as if their lives on earth were a mockery because they did not take science as seriously as he does. It is as if without science, our lives have no meaning because we refuse to understand it scientifically. To commit the biggest sin of all is to refute evolution and Dawkins’ eyes would burn with fundamentalist intensity.
Dawkins’ greatest fear is that religion and other means of spiritualism deny us the unadulterated awareness of where we come from based on the knowledge of our common ancestors and the intricate workings of the gene, because for some reason these beliefs make the foundation of reason. This is a huge leap in argument for someone who makes the maddeningly simplistic case for reason disguised as some kind of philosophy. Perhaps one thing he should turn his attentions is to the cult status of The God Delusion amongst anti-religionists and Islamophobes and their irrational fears and hatred.
We envy only those whom we feel ourselves to be like—we envy only members of our reference group. There are few successes more unendurable than those of our ostensible equals.”
Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton
Once, I had pooh-poohed the idea that female friendships are tricky. What’s so difficult about maintaining friendships with another fellow female when we share the supposed love of shopping, beauty products, and girly-time gossip? These purported common interests, whether indoctrinated by the media and advertising or enacted in real life, are meant to bring women closer together, not apart.
The less than idyllic world of sisterhood with hands adjoined came crashing down when I was the last to realise on different occasions that it is the ‘Very Good Friend’ who had always expressed admiration and envy with equal measure who was conspiring to end our friendship, whether it was through spreading unsavoury rumours about me, attempting to remove me from campus accommodation based on fabricated records of my behaviour, or accused me of simply being a terrible friend. The root cause of the sour demise of these friendships was later identified as jealousy. Apparently the things I had, the way I looked, and the way I was as a person quite generally sparked a uniquely female envy.
Well, never mind the fact that I have always struggled to make friends and be ‘like everyone else’. Like many people, I had plenty of self-esteem issues; my big untameable hair, a temperamental complexion, and awkward social graces. No, jealousy and envy chose to ignore these characteristics I thought were unenviable. In the end, I can only put it down to the negative personal issues these former friends had.
But to be fair, we all feel envy about the successes and luck of others from time to time. What I don’t understand is when envy conspires to poison friendships. These sad experiences left an indelible impact on how I form friendships with women. It’s a pity that there are 1001 ideas and more on how to deal with a jealous partner or how to mend a romantic relationship, but seldom do I find advice for dealing with jealous friends.
(First published over at Muslimah Media Watch. To be honest, I’m pretty fed up about having to discuss and write on this topic ad infinitum. So let’s call for a moratorium from now on)
I took the a brief moment from work to watch a 12-minute segment on BBC’s Newsnight about why British women choose to wear the niqab and why more women are wearing it in unprecedented numbers. Like any Muslim feminist, I hung onto every word and hoped nobody said something that has already been said before, ad nauseam: “Muslim women who cover their faces are deluded and oppressed.”
But tonight was a little different: it was a program that provided the panacea to what I’ve been railing against since the talks about the French burqa ban exploded in the media. Finally, a whole segment—a brief but precious 152 minutes—on prime time British television was dedicated to only women in hijab and niqab talking about their sartorial choices and views about their British identity. No self-righteous, media-hogging commentators or “experts” were in sight. This was a rare occasion!
Women in niqab have appeared on British television numerous times, but usually in a situation where they are embroiled in a heated debate surrounded by detractors who were often white and male, or Muslim liberals who have little patience for other Muslims who do not fit some absurd model minority mould (Taj Hargey and Yasmin Alibhai Brown, I’m talking to you). Tonight’s program featured three British women, three out of four in niqab, and no one else talking over their heads.
The segment was, however, structured to be a story with two halves. On one side of the debate, three young British women, Rumaysa, Sara, and Ruman, chose to veil their faces, and on the other, one woman, Khola, who had previously done so but currently wears the headscarf. She is against the niqab.
They spoke about their concern for their safety in public spaces, an issue that grabs my heart, even as a hijab-less woman. Any kind of harassment against women—be it sexist, racist, or Islamophobic—is an attack on all women. But the main reason these women were on television is to explain the growing trend of British-born women who take up the niqab.
Debates about Muslim women’s hijab have been rejuvenated following proposals for new British laws to mimic those in France and Belgium. Similar re-assessments about identity and citizenship seem to fuel debates behind the ban, and I was pleased that the women on Newsnight went straight for the jugular of the issue, asserting their British-ness and even their Western-ness.
It shouldn’t be a big deal, calling yourself British or Western. You can have a passport to prove it. But identity can be a tricky beast. It’s tricky when you’re surrounded by people who want to define you and deny your selfhood. Identity is so precious, especially for people in power, who want sole control in determining who’s “in” and who’s “out,” using the language of identity, values, rights, and citizenship, as if they own it.
This has boiled down to whether the niqab (or hijab) is part of British identity and in line with British values. The answer to this should be left to open-ended interpretation, and something a person should be free and confident to define for herself. The women make it a point to say that their mothers do not cover their faces, and that the break with their parent’s generation and religious expectations is part of their process of carving out a uniquely British identity.
Behind the “why” in the question why women choose to cover their faces is a direction towards a potentially productive conversation about gender and clothing. If the non-Muslim British society at large can understand why certain women need to conceal their hair, face, and other parts of their body, then maybe certain irrational, racist, Islamophobic fears can finally be laid to rest.
But to argue that women’s choices in clothes are no one’s business but the wearer’s is to deny the position of society in helping a woman make that choice. Rumaysa, one of the women on the program, argues that by covering her face, her voice becomes the defining element of her identity. But more importantly, it helps her achieve a higher level of spirituality.
Her arguments make perfect sense, but I then wondered why these avenues for spirituality and identity are for women only. Men do not retreat from the world on a daily basis in a niqab or insist on being defined by his voice, thoughts, and ideas rather than the way he looks. These questions will be met with a variety of responses, most I figure will say I’m being a ridiculous, but such responses will certainly point towards the way society works and how that is implicated in why men do not wear the niqab.
By the end of the program, I felt happy that the attention concerning the niqab is taken away from right- and left-wing pundits for once, but I can only be sure that this is only momentarily. Before long they will make noise again, wondering aloud why women should cover their faces.