Return to Traditions Can Have Chilling Under Currents

June 17, 2007

Having recently returned from a high level conference in Amman, Jordan on the future of Arab women, I read with great interest a recent article in The Detroit Free Press on the growing number of Muslim women who are wearing Islamic head scarves.  But I was left chilled by the time I finished the article entitled:  "Return to Tradition."

Because metropolitan Detroit is now home to the largest population of Arabs living outside the Mideast, our news coverage increasingly features items about local Arab individuals, communities and customs. 

I read them with great curiosity and an open mind.

 According to the report, increasing numbers of metro Detroit women are choosing to wear some form of Islamic dress – from the hijab headscarf to the full-length jilbab and even the extreme niqab that exposes only a woman’s eyes.   The journalist who wrote the article captured the unnerving truth behind the trend reporting, “But regardless of style, the underlying concept is the same: ‘A woman is like a pearl that needs to be hidden.’” 

I wonder what that means.  Hidden from whom?  And for whose benefit?  Thinking of women as pearls to be treasured is one thing.  Defining them as objects to be hidden away is entirely different and deeply disturbing.

For thousands of years, the world has missed the benefit of women’s strengths, insights and leadership because of a cultural mentality that kept them “hidden away” from full participation in decisions that impact the entire human family.  All of the major breakthroughs for women have been achieved in the 20th century, with the most dramatic changes in the last 40 years.  The women of the world look to the United States to continue to lead the unlocking of feminine potential. 

Returning to tradition as a symbol of one’s personal faith is one thing.  It is another thing entirely for growing numbers of women to be walking advertisements for cultural philosophies that still treat women as possessions and “others” for whom different rules apply. 

Civilization evolves by moving forward, not backwards.  Our world is crying out for women to step up to their full potential and help us become a more peaceful, healthy and humane global environment for the generations to come.  Hiding away half of humanity is not progress. 

Acceptance of other cultures, religious freedom and individual choice are all part of the foundation of our great nation.  But it is equally essential that we pay attention to values that are so intertwined with traditions they cannot be separated.   When such values directly undermine hard-fought freedoms, including the right of women for full empowerment in our society, leaders do not remain silent. 

Thomas Jefferson's words are as true today as they were when he first spoke them, "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty."   


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