The following is a guest post by the Rev Dr Peter Mullen, Hon. Chaplain of The Freedom Association.
Does the Foreign Office believe in freedom?
Senior civil servants in the FO have asked their staff to wear Islamic headscarves for a day because, they claim, the headscarf – commonly called the hijab or khimaar - symbolises “liberation, respect and security.” Hijab means a barrier and one might question how the veiling of a woman behind a barrier leads to her liberation. Many women in Iran certainly don’t think the hijab is liberating and, while women in our Foreign Office were wearing the veil for World Hijab Day, Iranian women were risking imprisonment and worse by removing their hijabs in public as a protest against “the institutionalised oppression of women.”
By the way, we, the taxpayers, paid for the FO’s issue of headscarves so that this stunt could go ahead.
Many, including some Muslims, deny that the headscarf is prescribed by their religion. At the time of the prophet Mohammad and during the early centuries of Islam, hijab referred to a veil or a curtain which screened women from the gaze of men. So men and women were allowed to talk to one another but not to look at one another while they were so doing. Again one might ask how liberating is that? For conversation is not only words: surely it is enhanced by gestures, smiles and the whole repertoire of facial expression?
Islamic tradition and practice declares that the hijab is necessary in order to protect women from men’s lust. Well, I think most men understand what it is to desire a woman, but on the whole we control ourselves without the need for artificial barriers or other forms of segregation. That is indeed what is required of Christian men: “Every one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honour, not in the lust of concupiscence.” – I Thessalonians 4: 4-5. It seems that St Paul had greater faith than Mohammad in men’s ability to behave continently. Thus the Christian tradition ordering relations between the sexes and developed over centuries was chivalry and courtly love rather than a barrier.
So what does the Koran say?
“And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what must ordinarily appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands or small children who have no sense of the shame of sex; and that they should not strike their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments. And O ye Believers turn ye all together towards Allah, that ye may attain Bliss!” - 24:31
Despite what the mandarins in the FO say, there is nothing liberating here – nothing to celebrate in the Koran’s talk of “the shame of sex.” In Christian theology, by contrast, sex is not a shameful matter but a gift from God “signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church; which holy estate Christ adorned and beautified by his presence and first miracle that he wrought in Cana of Galilee” – The Book of Common Prayer.
It seems to me that there is more liberation in a tradition and practice which emphasises our capacity for restraint and respect in human relationships than in one which requires veils and artificial barriers. Moreover, taxpayers’ money should not be used to subsidise the celebration of what amounts to the apartheid of the sexes.
All views expressed in contributions by named authors are their own and may not reflect the views of The Freedom Association.