WHAT IS the central dilemma for humanists? I was recently asked this question and responded that on the subject of religion, humanists must decide whether they are champions of religious freedom or, more fundamentally, just anti-religious. Allying with humanist forebears and our nobler selves, we aspire to the former, which is why humanists decry the recent wave of Islamophobia sparked by the planned construction of a privately funded Muslim cultural center in lower Manhattan, two blocks from the site of the World Trade Center. To brand the project as insulting, divisive, and grotesque (along with all the other hate-filled verbiage being thrown at the Cordoba House Initiative) is the worst kind of political grandstanding and fear-mongering (see pg. 6 for further commentary) and must be countered by reasonable, compassionate, humanistic thought.
When the subject turns to the treatment of women, however, humanists’ support of religious freedom becomes a bit trickier. Do we still support religious freedom if it impedes the liberty of a segment of its practitioners? What if certain members of that female population contend that they’ve chosen subservience, even subjugation, for themselves as a commitment to their religious faith?
A half century ago a man named Martin Hall noted in these pages that humanists of the day were aware of the dichotomy “between the theory of individual liberty as the highest moral goal and the reality of modern mass society which demands more and more restrictions of that individual liberty to satisfy [an] equally moral goal, that of social justice.” The dichotomy survives here as we explore women’s issues, namely pornography and the face-masking Muslim burqa (the taking off and covering up, if you will). Not to artificially conflate the two but to examine the issue of choice in both cases and how they relate to justice. As articulated by the artist Makan Emadi, whose work is featured on this issue’s cover, the treatment of the female form in the sex industry and in terms of Muslim dress are “contradictory but lead to the same ultimate result: overexposure as well as overprotection can both be forms of objectification and in turn contribute to the marginalization of women.”
To be clear, not all Muslims desire to “overprotect” Muslim women. The stated mission of the Cordoba Initiative (a.k.a. the Ground Zero mosque) that’s raised such conservative ire is to improve relations between the Muslim and Western worlds. To this end they have an extensive section on their website called “Women’s Empowerment,” featuring numerous photos of women along with egalitarian messages like, “End invisibility, separation, and subordination of women in Muslim spaces.” And what we in the West see as overprotection or marginalization is regarded quite differently as the preservation of honor in Islamic culture. It’s in this vein that Madina.com, the social networking site specifically for Muslims, can claim that they encourage unity while also restricting female users from using their photographs in their profile.
To expose or not to expose, is that really the question? I like to think that being a pro-choice feminist means letting a woman choose what to do with her face and body, but what if the choices she makes adversely affect others? What if a woman chooses to make pornography depicting violent acts against her that later inspire a man to do the same to his wife or his date or a prostitute, who not only isn’t turned on by it, but suffers mentally and physically from it? And what about the identity obscuring burqa—do humanists oppose bans in the name of liberty or do we support more and more restrictions in the name of social justice? Fair warning: you will find no consensus herein.
Jennifer Bardi is the editor of the Humanist.