MaltaToday: Hair and the forbidden fruit
OPINION | Sunday, 20 January 2008

Hair and the forbidden fruit


The headscarf is in the news again with European Union members disagreeing on whether banning the wearing of it in schools is such a good idea after all.
There is also a bit of a contradiction with the ban.
While the EU promotes diversity, it will be stifling it by forcing girls to give up their individual choice to cover their hair.
The ones in favour of the ban believe that it will promote equality. The theory behind it is that most girls want to give up the veil and are being coerced by religious convention to wear it.
However, as difficult as it is for you and I to believe it, many of these girls have a long way to go before they can decide whether it is right or wrong for them to go against what they have been brought up to believe in.
Those who do not believe in the ban, say that legislation will not change mindsets.
I believe in the latter argument. Rather than helping women, a ban on the way they dress can stifle their advancement and will only further their oppression.
It will take much more than prohibiting girls from wearing headscarves, for all women who are oppressed by Sharia law to gain equality.
According to Turkish law women who wear the headscarf are forbidden from being employed by the State and from attending university.
There is no doubt that this is blatant discrimination. In trying to secularise Turkish society, politicians have acted by depriving women who still believe they should stick with their religious beliefs from further education.
And now debate is raging on changing the law to allow the veil to be worn at university, with the PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan (head of the AKP the Justice and Development Party) claiming the problem can be solved quickly and that there was no need to wait to amend the Constitution to lift the ban.
Reading about the debate raging in Turkey, in The Turkish Daily News on Friday, I was baffled by a vocabulary battle between Erdogan and the CHP leader, Deniz Baykal, on the distinctions between a turban and a headscarf.
I am not sure how that came about, but I assume that Mr Baykal must have been making some religious connections between the turban and the headscarf.
The Turkish Daily News reported that Erdogan told Baykal to consult an encyclopaedia about the distinction between the two.
I must say I cannot see the connection. The turban is mandatory wear in the Sikh religion. But the philosophy behind the wearing of a turban is very different to that of wearing a headscarf in Islam.
Sikhs never cut their hair out of respect to God and I assume they wrap it in a turban for practical reasons. It has no sexual connotations, as far as I know. On the other hand the headscarf in Islam is worn to prevent men from being attracted sexually to women.
At the moment Turkish law prohibits religious dress in public places, including the veil; but the law is not enforced and the President’s wife wears one.
The AKP’s plan was to insert a one-sentence clause into the draft constitution saying that no one can be barred of the right to education because of their attire, unless they violate the general moral values and the penal code.
Hard-line secularists insist that the headscarf is a political symbol that silently advocates the establishment of a state based on Islamic Sharia law.
Yes, it could certainly be seen as that. But why are they punishing the powerless messenger? It would be far better to challenge the way women’s lives are restricted and the much harsher penalties imposed on women by Sharia law than merely banning the symbolic headscarf.
Many liberal women cannot begin to understand why girls and women go along with religious traditions that negate their sexuality.
I remember the shock I got when being newly married, I discovered that Hasidic Jewish, married women shaved their hair off and wore wigs, unflattering ones of course, and headscarves to ensure men were not attracted to them.
I certainly would not have shaved my hair off for any man. The wearing of the headscarf in Islam, while not as extreme as shaving one’s head, has the same connotation – keeping men away from the forbidden fruit.
We in Malta also had a cover up contraption – the ghonella, which lasted from the time of the knights to the 20th century and only faded out completely in the 1950s.
Religions have always had a problem with sexual attraction and always portray women as the bad apple that leads the men astray.
Why, for example, if men are attracted and aroused by women’s hair, don’t their religions require them to go around blindfolded? Of course that would not work, because that would mean men would not be able to see anything at all, not just the women. It is much easier to get the women to cover up.
On the other hand, clever women like Benazir Bhutto used the headscarf very seductively, it was always slipping of her glossy black hair making her look more enticingly beautiful than ever. But she had power and money, which most women entrapped by religious conventions don’t have.
Some women, usually coming from rich and educated families, living in countries where their religion dictates not only what they wear, but also how they conduct their daily lives, do manage to reach high office, but most of them conform. They know better than trying to upset the apple cart.
The challenge is in getting their less fortunate sisters to see that there is more than one way to skin a cat.

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