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Varjavand: Immigrants should respect customs, culture of their new country

RezVarjavis associate professor economics finance Graham School Management St. Xavier University Chicago.

Reza Varjavand is associate professor of economics and finance at the Graham School of Management at St. Xavier University in Chicago.

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Updated: June 6, 2013 6:59AM



Why do we Muslims demand that Americans accommodate, even embrace, every odd thing we do under the umbrella of religion? We seem to have a predisposition to be obsessed with our religious rites so they have an almost pathological influence over us and others.

Some Muslims in the U.S. seem to have only two things to worry about — halal meat (the meat of certain animals slaughtered in the way prescribed by Islamic decrees) and the veil, or hijab (the woman’s complete hair covering). While halal meat can be found in some ethnic food stores, the hijab is visible almost everywhere, even in some highly improbable places such as around or in public swimming pools.

I go to health clubs on a regular basis, and one day I noticed something eccentric. Two young ladies covered from head to toe jumped into the club’s swimming pool, despite the fact that a swimsuit is required according to the club’s rules, which were posted visibly on the wall.

This kind of dress has become the hallmark of Islam, not to mention the most outward sign of being a female Muslim. Seeing the two young women raised questions in my mind.

Why would a woman who possesses such religious fervor jump fully clothed into a pool? What message does such contradictory behavior send to others, and what kind of judgment would people who witnessed it make about Muslims? And if a woman is so steadfastly committed to her religious beliefs, is personal dress the best way to proclaim it?

It surprised me that only one man was staring at the two ladies in disbelief. I thought about what would happen if an American lady traveled to Saudi Arabia or Iran or a Muslim country having less-strict Islamic rules — would she be allowed to walk the streets in her Western dress, let alone swim in a public pool?

Why have some Muslim women become so obsessed with covering themselves in such an extreme fashion? Do the tenets of Islam really require its female followers to wear a hijab?

Even though there is no consensus on this issue, most Islamic scholars believe the head-covering for Muslim women is not mandatory because it is not specifically mentioned in Quran. So what’s the rationale behind the veiling of Muslim women?

The claim of some advocates is that it’s a sign of piety and devotion to Islam and that mandating women to wear the hijab stems from concern for their eternal salvation. Do we really think that forcing women to cover their heads will transform them into faithful Muslims? If so, we should also force believers to go to the mosque to pray or make fasting, alms-giving and other pieties mandatory.

What about the millions of Muslim women who are virtuous but do not wear the hijab? Does this negate their virtue? And why should Islamic governments in many Muslim countries be so concerned with the welfare of women in the afterlife while they make women’s earthly lives so difficult, even unbearable?

Some Muslim leaders say women should wear the hijab so they are not ogled or harassed by men. However, sexual assaults regularly occur in Islamic countries. They remain mostly unreported, and hence undetectable, because doing so is believed to tarnish family honor and forever blemish the lives of the victims.

Do these people think men were created just to be tempted and corrupted by the presence of women?

Even if some men are, that’s their fault, not the fault of women. Women should not give up their right to dress as they wish simply because doing so may offend or tempt some men.

I believe women, Muslim or not, should be free to wear what they wish. It is within the realm of civil law to protect women against harassment or the unwanted advances of men, but not by legislating how they dress.

Forcing women to comply with a strict dress code, as is the case in Muslim countries, subjugates them to demeaning patriarchal law. It’s time for the apologists to stop taking refuge in rhetoric and disclose the real reasons behind this undue intrusion into the private lives of Muslim women.

Diversity is good for America and can be an impetus to economic growth if immigrants pledge allegiance to our country, embrace our identity and assimilate into American popular culture. If the identity of an immigrant population is associated with attitudes and characteristics that are at odds with American culture and its values, a greater chance of conflict is created.

As an immigrant, I feel we should respect the social customs and popular culture of the country in which we reside as a way to show our appreciation for the kindness and opportunity extended to us. This is especially true in the United States, which has accepted us and opened its equal-opportunity gate to us all.

Reza Varjavand is an associate professor of economics and finance at the Graham School of management at St. Xavier University in Chicago.



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