Not very often does one come across an article that it truly mind provoking. Today, I was fortunate enough to read such a piece, which has since left me contemplating my own society and the concepts of tolerance and acceptance. The article, entitled, "Bikini or headscarf — which offers more freedom?" (http://tinyurl.com/28gdnp3) which appeared on CNN deals with the conflicting emotions of an Anglo-Saxon white American mother whose young daughter embraces the Muslim headscarf. The article is insightful in that the mother explains her initial reluctance to accept her daughter’s choice but realizes in the end that there is no one right answer or one right way to live one’s life.
The article, like I mentioned earlier, was a catalyst for reflection on my own Palestinian society and the slow but palpable move towards conservatism. Having lived in Palestine for nearly 30 years, it is not difficult to see the changes in society overall, the increase in young women donned in Muslim attire, the headscarves over more and more female heads, the ankle-length "jilbab" in various colors modestly covering western clothes. It is an obvious trend even in the more cosmopolitan Ramallah, a city with a mixed Muslim-Christian population where many of its residents have had extensive exposure to the western world. Still, religion, or at least the physical manifestations of it, has increased and intensified over the years. In the northern and southern West Bank and in Gaza, this trend is even more tangible –” most Muslim women are covered from head to toe in what has become something of a moral marker by which women are judged.
Here is my point of contention with this trend and why the CNN article (originally published in O Magazine) made such an impact on me. For myself, a secular (albeit spiritual) Muslim, it is not the fact that so many Muslim women choose to cover their heads that irks me. This is a choice, a right that all able-minded adults should reserve. It is the fact that whether a woman covers her head or not is the standard by which she is judged is what pains me, for this is an indicator of the lack of tolerance our society is moving towards.
This is the perfect time of year for such a discussion. Ramadan, the holy month of fasting is days away. Muslims are meant to utilize this month for meditation, for self-reflection just as much as for self-denial, piety and prayer. Muslims fast from dusk until dawn for an entire month. No food, water, cigarettes or sexual encounters are allowed during the hours of fasting. However, the month is not designed solely around the abstinence from food and drink but focuses on the betterment of the person, the purity of mind and heart and on the embracement of tolerance.
In Palestine, and perhaps in other parts of the Arab and Muslim world, this is lacking. While Palestinians pride themselves (and rightly so in this day and age of sectarian strife) on Muslim-Christian tolerance, it is the Muslim-Muslim relations that have begun to suffer. Thirty years ago, walking through my small Jerusalem-area village without a headscarf was nothing unusual. There were plenty more girls and women dressed just like me. Today, not only am I (and those few others) a rarity in this village or any other village of selection, but I am not immune from criticism for a look I have donned all my adult life. Girls as young as nine can be seen with headscarves and long modest attire, something rarely seen in the past. Again, if this were a conscious choice (even from a nine-year old) then so be it. However, it is the coercion which I am sure takes place behind closed doors in many cases, the pressure that "good girls" cover up that makes me so uneasy. Whether a woman wears a headscarf or not should not be the indicator for her character or her morality. Women, just like men, should be judged on their behavior and value system, not on their appearance.
Before imaginations go wild, it should be made clear that Palestine has not become Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia. However, in Gaza, where the Islamic movement Hamas is in control, signs of "enforced morality" are becoming more and more apparent. Last month, the de facto authority there banned women from smoking the water pipe in public. "It is inappropriate for a woman to sit cross-legged and smoke in public. It harms the image of our people," Ihab Ghussein, Hamas Interior Ministry spokesman was quoted as saying at the time.
In the West Bank, where Hamas has failed to retain a stronghold and where the secular Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas rules, the situation is not as threatening. However, social norms can oftentimes be stronger than any political decrees, especially when they carry religious interpretations. This has proven true in our society as a whole, which does not impose the headscarf by law, but the occurrence of which has increased nonetheless due to social pressures.
Next week, as Ramadan starts, I think it is imperative that the customs of our society are respected and honored whether you chose to observe the month of fasting or not. This means that disrespecting those who fast is just as inexcusable as forcefully imposing it. If Palestinian Muslim women choose to don a headscarf or pray or fast, that is their choice and their way of expressing their devotion to their faith. However, expressions of faith are not one-dimensional. Spirituality has been embraced throughout the ages by various means and by various religions and faiths. It is not for humans to dictate to other humans how to connect with their higher power. Likewise, it is not for people or governments to impose (even unofficially) a code of dress or conduct that then becomes the primary marker for their morality. The CNN article is a perfect example of tolerance, one that will hopefully be embraced on a large scale, not only by Muslims, Christians and Jews but by all peoples about all issues. The bottom line for any society to function properly on the basis of tolerance is acceptance of those it embraces and to judge, not on physical appearance but on the quality of character.