• Thursday, Nov 14, 2019
  • Last Update : 12:55 am

The constraints of freedom

  • Published at 07:02 pm November 15th, 2018
Do her words make you uncomfortable?
Do her words make you uncomfortable? REUTERS

Oppression comes in many layers

Freedom has different meanings for different people. But freedom always entails some kind of maneuvering, a sort of compromise with one’s surroundings.

Being a woman living in Dhaka -- and coming from a particular background -- affords me the freedom to be able to write an article that will reach people who can read the language of our colonial masters. It allows me to juxtapose my experiences with the predetermined conditions in society. My decisions, then, maneuver around these conditions.

The constraints of my freedom are decided by historical trajectories shaped by remnants of laws coded by colonialism, by common perceptions about women’s mobility based on religious and social connotations. They’re decided by my family’s socio-economic status, my friends, among other things.

Women of my demographic may feel like they don’t have autonomy in choosing a life unrestrained. They may feel suffocated. But there is a spectrum of freedom within which we all lead our lives.

On the one hand, someone may be maneuvering around the Bangladesh government’s decision to lower the legal age for marriage from 18 to 16. On the other, someone else may be trying to grapple with being forced to get married, or if she wants to pursue an education abroad.

A recent article in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz spoke of a speech addressed by Ilhan Omar -- one of the first Muslim women elected to US Congress. The author expressed the discomfort she felt hearing the Islamic greeting so commonly heard in Muslim communities such as ours: “As-salaam Alaykum,” and “Alhamdulillāh.”

For her, the phrases carried her back to a place where religion was “pushed down [her] throat,” in Bangladesh. She admitted that the term “As-salaam Alaykum” could merely be observed as a greeting, but that it carried serious religious connotations. 

Like freedom, oppression has varying degrees. In some parts of the Muslim world, women aren’t allowed to buy property (without having six or so male witnesses of credibility). And it wasn’t until recently that the world celebrated the lifting of the ban on driving by Saudi women.

How bad one has it is an individual assessment, and applying the discomfort of one quite small and fairly privileged demographic does little to rectify the prejudices brought on by Islamophobia.

Oppression is layered. The folds within have targets, from whom something gets taken away. It can be the right to one’s mobility, or the right to cover, or the decision to not have children. It can also be the right to address a body of people celebrating success with words which feel familiar to them, with terms that may add value to their identity.

For Ilhan Omar, whose experiences as a Somali refugee in America has probably taken fairly different trajectories from someone from my demographic moving to the same place -- such a supposition may be true.

In this case, it may also be harmful to have loaded understandings of the phrases Ilhan Omar used. Perhaps only Omar herself knows whether she meant for them to be deliberately exclusionary, but this isn’t the first time referencing one’s “god” has seeped through the orders of the state. 

If the word “Allah” (coming from a woman with clear markers of being Muslim) makes the statement about religion (instead of that of greeting or inclusiveness, of heartfelt gratitude expressed from her belief system), then is the statement “In God we trust” printed on the back of the American dollar bill not the same?

Semantics aside, I do believe in the author’s desire to be able to resonate with Omar, and her inability to do so because of the pervasive ways Islam can infiltrate the lives of people in Bangladesh. 

However, the phrases “As-salaam Alaykum” and “Alhamdulillah” may not be as strong symbols of religious stimulus, especially if I put it in the context of the liberal, English-speaking Dhaka bubble.

I am a woman living in a Muslim country with a strong religious doctrine -- and the Islamic forces around me are anything but subtle. But the sense of powerlessness I may feel stemming from that also serves as a reminder of the spectrum within which my experiences are framed.

Being able to escape, or loosen the constraints one has, is an opportunity not all have in their lifetimes. But when having conversations about religion in seemingly secular spaces, it may do well for all of us to broaden our own understandings of religious marginalization vis-à-vis one’s freedom of religion, along with privilege. 

Luba Khalili is Deputy Manager, Communications, BRAC.