Religion and Society: Fixated on the Superficial

by Natalie Bowlus

We had more to celebrate this year at the 2012 London Olympics than nations coming together in peace for two weeks to admire the efforts of our greatest athletes. This year was also the first time that every country sent at least one female athlete.

For new female athletes from conservative Muslim nations, however, getting to the Games was only part of the challenge. Wojdan Shaherkani, one of the two female athletes from Saudi Arabia, had to fight the Olympic Committee for the right to wear a hijab while competing. Fortunately, Shaherkani won the battle and thus the right to represent her country while still following her religious beliefs. Preventing her from competing after she had come all the way to London would have done greater harm to the International Olympic Committee’s attempt at inclusiveness than her absence.

Although the Olympic Committee must put the safety of its athletes first, their debates over female athletes and the safety of the hijab revisited many issues already put to rest by other organizations. In June of last year, FIFA disqualified Iran’s women’s soccer team from an Olympic qualifying match because their headscarves allegedly posed a safety hazard. After more than a year of lobbying by Prince Ali of Jordan, currently FIFA’s vice president, the International Olympic Committee deemed athletic hijabs safe and overturned this long-standing ban.

More than safeguarding the lives of female athletes, these bans force women to choose between, on the one hand, obeying their faith and pervading socio-cultural norms, and realizing their full potential as athletes on the other. There is no reason a woman cannot do both; bans on headscarves create a polarizing false dichotomy.

This choice is similar to the one faced by many Muslim women throughout Europe: a choice not between religion and safety, but between practicing a faith and fully participating in society. Debates rage throughout the continent over when and to what extent a woman is able to cover herself, with perhaps the best-known example being France’s infamous ban on “conspicuous religious symbols.” While it does not specifically target Muslims and other religious minorities, one can imagine that pious Catholics with large crucifixes are not the target group. Similar laws have been debated in the Netherlands, Belgium, and other countries. In many places full facial coverings are banned, and it is illegal for teachers to wear headscarves in seven of Germany’s sixteen states.

In France, the ostensible reason for the law is the preservation of laïcité, or strict separation of church and state. Other arguments used by politicians and members of civil society are that women’s head coverings prevent immigrants from integrating, or that head coverings are visual reminders of male domination and therefore antithetical to European values, such as women’s rights and equality of the sexes.

Women’s clothing has been politicized by secularists and Islamists alike since Turkey’s first president, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, banned religious clothing in 1934 on the principle that modernism and Europe were one and the same and a new, modern Turkey required equally modern, or European, dress. Today bans ultimately spring from Europe’s fear that immigration is irreparably changing the face of the continent.

That immigrants are a permanent fixture in European society is an immutable fact, just as is their presence in the United States. It is right that a society should be worried about preserving its “core values;” however, it seems as though many politicians have forgotten some core values in favor of others. Separation of church and state, women’s rights, and gender equality are all cornerstones of Western democracies, but so too are tolerance and freedom of thought.

Instead of worrying about whether immigration to Europe will permanently alter the face of the continent, citizens should worry about fixating on the superficial and losing sight of the larger need for freedom of religion in a healthy, pluralistic society. They might also do well to remember that an educated, freethinking woman who wears a veil is still an educated, freethinking woman. There should be no reason to have to choose between being French and being an observant Muslim.

This year’s Olympics reminded us that symbols matter. Women with covered heads can be a frightening symbol of foreignness or a powerful symbol of tolerance and vitality. Which interpretation prevails will depend on European citizens themselves.

About the Author

Natalie Bowlus is a second year MALD student at The Fletcher School where she focuses on Security Studies and Political Economy. Prior to Fletcher, Natalie spent three years in Hungary studying, teaching, and working in the private sector.

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