Freedom, Not Fashion Is the Issue

[Recently, Elham Manea, an Egyptian-born Yemeni who is the deputy head of the Arabic Service of Swiss Radio International, wrote an article critical of Obama’s appointment of researcher Dalia Moghahed to the to the Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, mainly on the basis that Manea was upset by Obama’s defense of the right of American Muslim women who choose to wear the “hijab” (Islamic headscarf) to do so. I was disturbed by Ms. Manea’s eagerness to ascribe motives to people she has never met and to over-rule their freely made choices on the basis of social pressures that may or may not apply to her own life but are not the case in America. In any case, our respected friend and colleague  historian Khalid Blankenship offers this concise critique.]

I am unable to understand the desire of people who call themselves liberals and progressives to exclude the hijab from the realm of acceptable discourse. It is only a piece of cloth or a dressing style, and the attempt to insist that it has some sinister political or religious symbolism completely fails to recognize the difference that the various forms of hijab contain. My wife, for example, observes hijab, a decision she made herself in college despite the unanimous opposition of the males in her family. Critics such as the one represented in this thread (Manea) do not know me or my family and have no right to impose meanings on our actions that have no relevance to us. Such critics’ discourses, in trying to eliminate the voices of observant Muslims of different stripes from all access to government and in carrying on a prejudicial and hostile discourse against observance in fact, whether they intend it or not, abet and prepare the way for those forces that would like to harm myself and my family, and I will not be silent about it. Surely societies that have no problem with the very parallel forms of observant orthodox and ultraorthodox Jewish women’s dress can find it possible to accommodate various types of Muslim women’s dress as well, without engaging in unsupported innuendos about the intentions of the women wearing them. Let people be judged for positions that they actually take and the actual content of their views instead of for their appearance. And in fact, it would seem to me rather the epitome of liberalism, progressivism, freedom, and democracy for the US government, as opposed to those of France and Turkey, to affirm the right of all women to dress in whatever fashion they choose, including in any of the various forms of Muslim hijab. It is rather an intrusive and illiberal statism that would attempt to dictate even the clothes people may wear. What an absurd usurpation of the concept of liberalism for such a statism to attribute liberalism to itself.

Khalid Blankinship
Temple University

2 Responses to “Freedom, Not Fashion Is the Issue”

  1. Patricia Noor Abdullah says:

    Great post! One might also mention the dress of Mennonites, Amish, Catholic nuns and priests, devote Mormons, and ultra-conservative Christian women, which may identify someone with a religious belief structure but has nothing to do with personal political or socio-economic opinions or ethical behaviors. Liberal: “not bound by authoritarianism. orthodoxy, or traditional or established forms in actions, attitudes, or opinions.” Seems to me a liberal point of view would allow for any expression of fashion sense. But having spent over 20 years as a teacher, I know too well the schizophrenia of high school administrators who espouse “liberal” political views but find it neccessary to impose authoritarian dress codes on students so that everyone “appears” to be playing by the rules set by the school system.
    Thanks for this.
    Wa salaam,
    Noor

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