There are few hijab-wearing women at Yale. Though this is, perhaps, to be expected given the low percentage of Muslim students and faculty, I feel their absence whenever I contrast Yale streets to the streets from my memory of Syria. While hijabs are foreign to American culture, they give us a new look at an idea Americans love. In Damascus, when I asked two Muslim girls why they wore hijabs, they giggled. Finally, one of them ventured: “It is our freedom!” She did not mean that they are able to wear whatever they please, but that wearing hijabs gives them freedom.
Beneath the cloth, they were free from judgment on the basis of appearance, free from unwanted eyes and tempting compliments, free from a world in which faith could be forgotten. They used a word central to American ideals to justify a practice many Americans see as offensive because to us it represents oppression.
Americans obsess over Freedom. We believe it is what our nation stands for, what we progress toward, what everyone deserves. The word alone, however, has no inherent meaning without context. While saying, “We should have freedom from poverty,” makes sense, “We should have freedom!” does not. The word does not imply an absence of controlling forces. When there is “freedom” from rules or laws or culture, brute strength and will are the controlling forces. Absolute freedom, however is impossible. Freedom can only exist in relation to specific controls.
So we should ask: By what should we be bound? We should not strive to be free, but instead strive to be obligated to the proper people, groups and morals. What will you be bound by while at Yale? There is no decision or path you can take that gives you freedom. Each path or decision is, in reality, a decision to be bound by something. In the broader context of state political order, a strictly secular government is not free from religion, but bound, instead, to atheism.
In other words, one cannot ask government officials to make decisions free from religious ideas. That would be asking them to make their decisions with the assumption that atheism is true. They would be forced to make decisions that see humanity and nature as the ultimate truth. The state (as the largest association of humans) and sovereignty over nature (the land and resources of the state) would be the most important things on Earth. Every action of the state, including every law and every manipulation of the people, would be for the betterment of the state.
France has taken the secularization of government to heart. The French school system is dedicated to making each French citizen feel and act culturally French by the time he or she graduates. The common experience of public schools and similar curricula used to be enough to accomplish this goal. Now that France is faced with immigrants with vastly different cultures, there is more pressure on public schools to “Frenchify” their students. The latest effort to do so is to erase any evidence of religious difference among students. France is a secular state, so its citizens should also be secular. No crosses, yarmulkes or hijabs are allowed in public schools. In a misguided attempt to spread freedom, France does not want to allow its students to be bound to their God, but to be bound solely to France.
Is it just to force students to bind themselves to an organization of ever-flawed humans in a bureaucracy rather than the perfection and ideals represented by their God? Freedom has nothing to do with this discussion. The discussion revolves around whether to tear Muslim girls away from being bound by their God and force them to be bound solely to the state of France.
No path leads toward freedom, simply to a different set of obligations. Let’s stop calling for freedom and grapple instead with what should bind us.
Isabel Marin is a sophomore in Trumbull College.