Last March, during an Umrah visit to Saudi Arabia, I was disturbed after witnessing the mutaween (religious police) forcing people to pray and harassing women to cover up.
Meanwhile earlier this year, Tehran announced that the city’s Gashte Ershad (the “guidance patrol”) had their mandate expanded. The city’s police chief, General Hossein Sajedi Nia, stated that “noise pollution, unsafe driving, disturbing girls and incorrect hijab” would be punished. This is, reportedly, a common announcement before the summer months, but this year the 7,000-strong force would be undercover with powers to enforce dress codes and even impound cars if occupants are not sufficiently covered.
Clearly, they had not received the memo highlighting the Quranic passage upholding that there was no compulsion in religion. The situation appears no different with secular fanatics. While the religious police in Muslim lands are busy enforcing religious rules, the secular police clearly don’t want to be outdone.
Years ago, I came face to face with secular liberal fanatics at the Swissotel, The Bosphorus in Istanbul, Turkey.
As I completed my lap in the swimming pool, I caught a glimpse of what appeared to be my wife being escorted out of the pool by hotel staff. We were on our honeymoon, minding our own business, when unbeknownst to us some political drama had been brewing in the background. Two other patrons at the five-star hotel had complained to the pool staff about my wife.
The staff asked my wife if she could leave the pool. My wife, who by nature is much more passive than I, had obliged. I climbed out of the pool, rushed over to her to find out what had transpired. “They are saying that I am not dressed appropriately,” said my wife.
I made my way to the counter and inquired as to what the issue was. The one in charge appeared worried and clearly did not want a confrontation. One of them sheepishly informed me that someone had complained about my wife’s swim attire. Not one to back off, I asked for a copy of the pool dress regulations. They said they did not have an official written policy so I asked for the manager.
While I waited for the manager, we explained to the staff that her outfit — tights, a long shirt and a swimmer’s cap — were all swimwear material and ought to be allowed in the pool. As we engaged with the staff, we noticed two women waiting around eavesdropping on our exchange. At one point, one of them interjected that my wife should be wearing a bikini because this was a swimming pool. The secular haram (prohibition or forbidden) police had spoken.
It quickly became evident that they were the complainants. Interestingly, there were many Westerners in the pool, and none of them had any objections to what my wife was wearing and neither did we object to what they were wearing, but these two Turkish women were clearly threatened by the extra bit of fabric. I told them it was none of their business what anyone else wore.
When I insisted to the staff that my wife be allowed to swim, the women became more aggressive and ordered the pool staff — obviously stuck in the middle — not to oblige. The women appeared to have some clout as regulars of the hotel fitness club or due to their social status.
When the manager arrived, we advised her that we would be escalating this if my wife was not allowed to swim with the dry-fit outfit she had on. In fact, we informed her that my wife had used this outfit in pools throughout the US, Canada and even in the Caribbean without any problems. The manager relented and apologised.
The two women were obviously furious. While walking away, I told the complainants that I did not like the way they were dressed (or more aptly undressed) and yet I had not objected or opposed their choice to dress as they pleased. At this point, one of the women turned to the manager and retorted that “these people are changing our country”.
The year was 2011, and she was alluding to ‘Islamists’ because, of course, an Islamic-leaning party was in power in Turkey. Unfortunately, I lost my cool and delivered some of the choicest un-Islamic words — clearly establishing that I was not an Islamist — and went back to the pool with my wife.
It was a shocker to me that these two Turkish secular fanatics (which clearly they were) had gone out of their way to impose their views on others.
The situation is not much different elsewhere. Last month, Switzerland became the latest to ban face veils by introducing a £8,000 fine. In June, Swiss authorities rejected the naturalisation application of two Muslim girls (ages 12 and 14) who refused to take swimming lessons with boys. Their father was also fined $4,000 Swiss francs for their refusal. The list of countries where women cannot wear the veil is growing longer each year.
A few months ago, Switzerland suspended the citizenship process of a Muslim family after their two sons refused to shake the hands of female teachers. Their understanding of Islamic norms precluded them from having physical contact with women outside their own immediate family circle. The authorities would have none of that. Freedoms were not worthy if they came with a religious tag.
Meanwhile in France, around the same time, a teenage Catholic girl who converted to Islam, K De Sousa, was banned from a Paris school because her skirt was too long. The head teacher informed the 16-year-old that the length of the skirt meant that it was an “ostentatious religious symbol” — prohibited in state schools since 2004. Interestingly, long skirts worn as a fashion statement are fine, but if worn out of religious conviction, then secularism would be threatened.
Indeed, even in the bastion of multiculturalism and pluralism, Canada, we witnessed a Muslim woman’s choice of dress become a national election issue when the Stephen Harper conservatives played politics with the niqab last year. Thankfully, the Federal Court of Appeal stopped him in his tracks but not until the government had squandered about half-a-million tax dollars. For both sets of extremists, assimilation and respect for local customs essentially means checking in your rights and freedom of conscience at the door. Sadly, the brunt of both secular and religious extremist policies is aimed at controlling women and how they dress and conduct themselves.
Indeed, secular fanatics are just as intimidating and coercive as religious fanatics. It’s about time both sets of fanatics gave it a rest.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 3rd, 2016.