Posts Tagged 'equality'

Taking secular values at face value

Photo by the|G|™

By Harry van Versendaal

France’s decision to ban the niqab and the burqa — the latter being a version of the full-body veil usually associated with Aghan women who were repressed by the Taliban — has naturally drawn a shower of criticism from politicians, clerics and pundits in Muslim countries. An Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman promptly complained that “any kind of ban on observance of the veil means a lack of freedom and rights of Muslim women.”

But apart from the public rebuke from Iran — an unlikely defender of women’s rights and liberties — the French move has also come under fire from Europe’s liberal-left commentariat, which has denounced the ban as a wrongheaded breach of the freedom of expression or, more cynically, a political machination on behalf of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s party, the Union for a Popular Movement, aspiring to ride the burgeoning wave of anti-immigrant sentiment in the country of 65 million people.

But even if it passed the ban for the wrong reasons — which is debatable — Sarkozy’s party may still have done the right thing. What most critics seem to miss is that France has a long tradition of strict secularism or, what the French like to call, laicite. The legacy of revolutionary anti-clericalism, this peculiarly French doctrine differs from other European understandings of liberal pluralism such as, for example, Britain’s live-and-let-live multiculturalism which revolves around allowing all different cultures flourish in a multiethnic, multireligious environment.

The French are concerned that this shrug-your-shoulders-and-move-on type of religious tolerance works against social integration because it encourages the creation of social apartheids — parallel societies living according to their own norms and principles but never really mixing with each other. For that reason, the French elites have for over a century insisted on an unflinching secularist policy designed to purge religion from public life while safeguarding the three fundamental principles of the Republic: liberty, equality, fraternity. Being French is not about the right blood, color or metaphysics, but about endorsing these key secular values which by default stand above any ethnic, racial or religious tag.

It’s an inevitably imperfect and oft-betrayed ideal, but it is still an ideal. And it’s easy to see how this uncomfortable tent-like garment that reduces visual perception of the outside world to a burqa mailslot, falls short in respect to these values; in fact, in many ways it stands at the opposite end.

A symbol of inherent inequality and male domination, the burqa is the product of a bizarre notion of sexuality: gazing at the hair or faces of women arouses sexual desires in men; and the people who must punished for that are the women. Andre Gerin, the Communist deputy who chaired the commission that examined whether there was a case for outlawing the burqa, said the full-body gear is “the tip of an iceberg of oppression,” while Algerian-born minister Fadela Amara described it as “a kind of tomb, a horror for those trapped within it.”

As defenders of the practice like to point out, there are of course exceptions as some women claim to don the garment by choice. But so long as there are women out there who are beaten, stoned or disfigured by their menfolk for not covering their face, liberal societies in the West have an obligation to defend their citizens against this jailhouse garb.

And, whether some women actually like to wear the burqa or not, it’s hard to disagree with the fact that covering your body and face signifies something else than unwillingness to integrate with the rest of society. France, a country which includes 5 million Muslims, has good reason to worry given recurring reports of Muslim men who forbid their wives from seeing a male doctor, of women who demand female-only swimming pools or refuse to participate in school sports, and of pupils who skip history classes such as those on the Jewish Holocaust.

Instead of whipping our backs while trying to accommodate the most indefensible of customs in the name of a misguided anything-goes cultural relativism, we secularist liberals should have the courage to defend the animating principles that make the open society: freedom, equality, openness. Anyone who wants to join in must, at least, have the courtesy to show us their face.

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God is not secular

By Harry van Versendaal

There are many things about the Roman Catholic Church that should provoke outrage – such as its evasive posturing on the burgeoning pedophilia scandals involving Catholic clerics – but the recent ban on women becoming priests should not be one of them.

The Vatican earlier this month ruled the “attempted ordination” of women as “graviora delicta,” one of the gravest crimes in ecclesiastical law, in fact putting the practice on par with clerical sex abuse of minors, heresy, apostasy and schism. Any cleric who attempts to ordain a woman will be defrocked, the Vatican said, causing a fury among liberal Catholics and women’s groups.

The Women’s Ordination Conference, a US-based advocacy group, denounced the decision as “medieval at best” and a “scare tactic.” “The Vatican is using this attempt to extinguish the widespread call for women’s equality in the Church,” the organization said in a statement.

Terry Sanderson, president of the UK-based National Secular Society,” shot down the ban on female ordination as “one of the most insulting and misogynistic pronouncements that the Vatican has made in a very long time. Why any self-respecting woman would want to remain part of an organization that regards their full and equal participation as a ‘grave sin’ is a mystery to me,” he said.

But to seek greater participation by women in ecclesiastical affairs is to confuse theology with democracy. Those who are looking to eradicate gender inequalities within the Church merely wish to play the religious, metaphysical game by modern, secular rules. However, like all religions, Catholics have their own mythology and, well, Jesus was not selected by vote.

“The Bible insists on the absolute equality of men and women but gives them different functions in the church, so that men can show leadership through self-sacrifice and thus reveal the character of God, and women can demonstrate Christian discipleship to the wider church, thus helping us all follow Christ better,” Rod Thomas, vicar of St Matthew’s Elburton, Plymouth, wrote in The Guardian. “These are theological issues, not ones to do with justice or fairness.”

Thomas is right. Calls to update religious principles are preposterous and those who say that Christ was only behaving according to the norms of his times are missing the point. Religion is by design all about timeless, unchanging truths. It does not come with an automatic software update. Religious credo is based on godly wants and desires revealed to people who lived thousands of years before us.

The fact that these people knew less about the natural world than the average primary school student today is a completely different story.


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