Secular State and Hijab

1. We can all accept the fact, I suppose, that some thing or another is a religious symbol to someone when s/he belongs to that religion whose symbol it is. In this sense, the Cross (for a long period of time), the figure of the Prophet Mohammed (also for a long period of time) and the star of David (in the course of this century) are symbols that carry religious significance to the Christians, Muslims and the Jews respectively. We are also agreed, I suppose, that there is no way of characterizing any of these as religious symbols in a religiously neutral way.

2. There is another issue. All of us know the following as well: we know that the Cross, the figure of the prophet, the star of David are religious symbols to some groups of people. We know that they are religious symbols (to some people) even when we do know that there is no neutral theory that makes them religious symbols (to all). That is to say: even though the Cross is no religious symbol to me, I do know that it is one for a Christian. Question: what do I do about it? Do I act as though I am not appraised of this fact and piss on a Cross (in front of a Christian) or do I act in a reverential way towards it as well? That is, how do I relate to this other tradition that Christianity is (even when I am not a Christian and consider Christianity as a religion)? To what extent do I recognize the practices and symbols of other traditions as things that are as important to these traditions as my practices and symbols are to me?

3. One cannot argue that in order to recognize this parallel, I need some or another theory about what tradition is, what symbols to a tradition are, and how we can differentiate between traditions, and so on. Learning to be part of a tradition includes learning to relate to other traditions as well. In this sense, even if we do not know (or have a theory) about dress codes and such like, we do know that hijab, burkha etc are dresses approved (and, on some accounts, compulsory) by and within a religion and that they do connote certain attitudes, values, and so on. One cannot feign ignorance about this piece of knowledge and act in an indifferent way towards this issue of women wearing hijab, burkha and so on. Of course, we might just know that Muslim women wear these dresses (through acquaintance with their dressing habits) and know no more than this. Then, and only then, could we reasonably say “Oh, Muslim women wear Burkhas the way Indian women wear Saris”, and leave it at that. But if know more than this, then our indifference would take on the form that (rightly, I think) angers or irritates some. Suppose that the burkha does signify that women are creatures of a lower order than men. And also that we know this. Then, I do not quite see how one could swallow this and still believe that differences between men and women does not imply asymmetry between these two sexes.

4. There is no one particular reason why the Indian women wear Saris or do not wear them. The question  is: is this also true of hijabs and burkhas? All I can say is that I have heard of at least three different reasons: 1. It is an expression of the lower status of women in Islam; 2. It is religiously mandatory; 3.people would like to affirm their so-called religious identity. Recently, a fourth response has emerged: 4. an act of defiance born out of a perceived injustice against the Muslims.

5. I really do not think that it is possible to appeal to the notion of “pagan indifference” in the presence of information about symbols that have significance to other religions. In this sense,  by appealing to the impossibility of providing a neutral notion of religious symbols or whatever is to evade the issue. Nor could we suggest that the western states adopt the attitude of “the pagans”. The western state is hostile to religion and this hostility is religious in nature. I think a more fruitful way of challenging the western secular state is to show that there exist no reasonable grounds for it to be unremittingly hostile to either religion (in general) or to religious practices (in general). That is, show that the hostile opposition between the secular and the religious does not have any reasonable grounds. Of course, this does not prevent the state from being hostile to specific religious practices in the public realm. However, such a hostility cannot be reasonably extended and generalized. Consequently, we have to ask the question: has the western state made a reasonable case against Muslim women wearing headscarves? Or, does it simply rely on the tired repetition of the mantra about the religious-secular divide?