Sunday, March 28, 2010

What Drives Our Values?

Daily news reports from France and Quebec highlight the serious social upheaval resulting from conflicting community and personal values. The debates over the right of religious Muslim women to cover their faces in public are heated, nasty, and divisive. That rancor is not surprising, for our values shape who we are and how we live as individuals and communities.
Yet we often fail to examine what shapes and drives those values. What lies at the root of the powerful values? Are those particular drivers valid? Do they represent the individuals we want to be and the kind of society in which we want to live?
The debate over the niqab- the full-face veil worn by some devout Muslim women- provides fertile ground for this kind of examination. From the viewpoint of the Muslim women opting to wear niqab, it is fundamental to the way they publicly conduct themselves as devout practitioners of their faith. They believe that the Koran dictates the sight of their uncovered faces will cause carnal thoughts in men not their husbands.
Yet there has been long-standing and ongoing debate among respected Muslim scholars as to whether or not wearing niqab is required or optional for women. For those who view wearing the full veil as fundamental to their faith, the question is simple: In a free society, what right has the state to determine and dictate how they shall observe the tenets of their religion?
On the other hand, the perceived sexist implications of niqab offend many women who fought the long and hard battle to ensure societal and workplace equity. They ask a powerful question: Why should women cover their faces and bodies to ensure that men don’t think prurient thoughts? Are men no different than rutting animals?
There are also those driven by the memories of September 11th, 2001. They fear that the niqab may hide the faces of terrorists wishing to do harm to western society, and believe that exposing the faces of those wearing niqab will increase public safety.
Then there are those who see a middle ground. These individuals believe that in the general course of social life, a free society should allow people to wear what they wish. However, they also see a need for citizens to show their faces for specific purposes- for purposes of universal identification such as driver’s licenses and travel security checks.
I’m in the latter group. I can see the need for facial exposure in situations where all citizens comply with a process that is demonstrably for the public good. Beyond that, I am a believer in civil liberties. What people wear- or don’t wear- is their own business, regardless of race, color, or creed. I cherish the opportunity to live a life free of oppression or fear. No one- terrorist or parliamentarian- will take those freedoms away from me.
You may disagree, and that’s as it should be. If we have carefully considered our values, and what drives those values, we can sit down and have a respectful conversation and either come to agreement or agree to disagree. That’s the best way to avoid the ugliness afoot in France and Quebec.

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