December 6, 2017

Surfing Girls Enrage Muslims in Bangladesh

surfing girl
There's an awful lot about Islam that I don't understand. It is not one of the religions I've studied extensively, and so it is important for me to acknowledge the many gaps in my knowledge of Islam. One of the specific questions that seems to come up for me recurrently is how (or if) Islam can be considered apart from the culture in which it resides. When I encounter a specific belief or practice, it is often difficult for me to determine whether it derives primarily from Islam or primarily from other cultural traditions in a country or region of the world.

I recently saw a brief bit of reporting from the PBS News Hour on a girls' surfing competition in Bangladesh, a predominately Muslim country. It was interesting, and it had not previously occurred to me just how brave these young girls have to be to do something as simple as surfing. Why would I say they have to be brave to surf? Evidently, conservative Muslims in the town hosting the competition were upset by the mere sight of girls in the water. From the transcript:
Watching girls surf is a rare sight in this predominantly Muslim country of 160 million. The surfers are mainly men, and most of the people here say it bothers them to see girls in the water.
It bothers most of the residents of this town to see girls in the water? Why? The answer, best I can tell, appears to be Islam. In fact, some of the local conservative Muslims have been bothered to the point that they've threatened the girls.

The part of the story that caught my attention was when the on-the-scene reporter interviewed an imam from a local madrassa. When asked what he thought about girls and women surfing, here's what he had to say:
The issue of girls surfing, to me, isn’t a good thing. Girls are meant to be covered, so that boys can’t see them. Girls have been told to stay out of boys’ sight. Girls are respectful beings, and they have been asked to stay hidden. So, if girls are surfing and go into the ocean, then a lot of people can see them. And that’s a sin. It’s not good.
Girls are meant to be covered so boys can't see them? Why is that necessary? Would it be the end of the world is a Muslim boy noticed a Muslim girl? Do Muslim boys and men have so little ability to control themselves that the sight of a girl's body might lead them to do something inappropriate? Is this why we see Muslim women in some countries wearing clothing that appears to be designed to hide as much of their bodies as possible? What does it say about Muslim boys and men that they would have so little self-control?

The imam went on to explain the role of women in Islam by noting, "God has created women to be respected and to be at the disposal of men. This is the main theory of Islam." Wow! How respected can a woman be while simultaneously being "at the disposal of men?" That doesn't sound like respect as much as it sounds like control.

From what I can tell here, the notion of an uncovered girl or woman being "a sin" is more about Islam than anything specific to the culture of Bangladesh that we would not expect to find in other predominately Mulsim countries. It appears to have much to do with the high value placed on modesty. It also seems that there are concerns that the sight of a girl in a swimsuit might lead Muslim boys and/or men to experience feelings of sexual attraction.

Are Muslim boys and men unable to deal with feelings of sexual attraction appropriately? What does this say about them? Do they accept so little responsibility for themselves that the only way to cope with such feelings is to prevent them by restricting the freedom of girls and women?