There was an ugly incident at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont. this past week: Anti-Islamic profanity was spray-painted on the office of Muriel Walker, a (non-Muslim) professor who’d recently organized a campus-wide event in support of Muslim women. A general description of the spray-painting incident appears here. A photograph of Ms. Walker’s spray-painted door appears here (caution: contains a highly bigotted and obscene reference.)
Every thinking person should be outraged by this sort of thing. My sympathy for the woman is compounded by the fact that, according to this heartfelft blog entry and call to action, she is a widow who was doing something in good faith on behalf of a campus constituency she believes is the target of discrimination.
That same blog entry describes the April 4 campuswide event she organized, “Hijab Day,” as an occassion for all women to don the hijab in solidarity with their Muslim sisters (the full promotional text appears in the graphic above, which is taken from Ms. Walker’s web site). According to this account, the event itself was a success, marred only by the grafitti that later appeared on Ms. Walker’s door.
Ms. Walker was no doubt acting out of altruistic motives, and I have sympathy for her given the abuse she took. Still, the concept of “Hijab Day” makes me uncomfortable. Indeed, the whole episode seems like a clear example of a naive, multiculti Western academic being led astray by her desire to give the whole world a hug.
The problem is that the Hijab is not a politically neutral symbol of religious or ethnic identity, such as, say, a crucifix necklace, a yarmulke, or a Scottish kilt. Like the shaved heads and wigs that many married ultra-orthodox Jewish women endure, the Hijab signifies a coerced strain of social conservatism that symbolizes the lower status — or, at least, the institutinalized subservience — of women within a society. In some societies (not ours, yet) Muslim women who do not wear the hijab are beaten or imprisoned by religious thugs who see female modesty as a state-enforcable duty. Ms. Walker’s blog suggests she sees the hijab as a purely aesthetic/cultural/religious symbol. But I think she’s wrong: Her “Hijab Day” was arguably a celebration of that which is repressive and anti-feminist in Islam.
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