Brain-Scarves

- Yaman Ors M.D., D.Phil.,

Unit of Medical Ethics, Ankara Medical Faculty, Sihhiya, 06100 Ankara, TURKEY


Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 5 (1995), 96.
In his commentary in the May issue of EJAIB on the paper by Drs. Berna Arda and Serap Sahinoglu Pelin on "Bioethics in Turkey in 1995" (EJAIB 5 (1995), 64-65), Munawar Anees, the editor of Periodica Islamica, says that the "emancipation" of women in Turkey remains, in his judgement, a contested one, because "we continue to hear about discriminatory attitudes and practices towards those women wanting to wear a head-scarf as a matter of personal choice". We should note that the two authors are women. He also uses the expression, "the Hanafi school of thought," according to which "therapeutic abortion is allowed up to the first 120 days in pregnancy". As he says, people in other Muslim countries are struggling to find answers to the problems discussed in that article "in the light of Qur'an and teachings of the Prophet". He also asks the question, "Is this a marriage of convenience?" implying by this the two legislative sources (in his view), the religious and the so-called secular law "invoked in Turkey in an interchangeable manner".

I shall briefly discuss this general issue from both a factual and critically ideological point of view. First, and by definition, there can be no school of thought in any religion - the latter is a belief system, and any related linguistic expression used by its adherents is either a moral command, a rule of conduct, or an untestable utterance on the state of affairs in the world. The myth of the creation of man and the world is definitely not a product of any thought but an untestable claim observed in every system of belief. It seems to be not rare if not widespread perhaps that different sorts of linguistic expressions with their different sources and functions, such as our emotions, wishes, or mental activities, are confused as a result of uncritical "thinking".

Second, that women in Islamic countries want to wear a head-scarf as a matter of personal choice is definitely a "secular" myth, using such an expression at the expense of an apparent contradiction in terms. There can be no "personal choice" in a non-laic community, because the latter cannot tolerate "persons" in the sense of individuals whose differences can be expressed in every major aspect of human life. The truth, the naked truth is that what women in these countries are obliged to wear is not just a head-scarf at all but a religious-political uniform covering, in typical cases, practically all parts of the body. Changes of colour and shape signify definitely no choice at all but the religious sects to which "different" women belong. The scarf is evidently a misnomer, a linguistic means used with a view of hiding what lies behind the appearance - a usual behaviour on the part of the intolerant religious fanaticism.

Third, I used the adjective "Islamic" in preference to "Muslim" because the latter has an almost exclusively religious meaning, whereas the former may signify a worldly or secular component in social life. In historical perspective, we use the term "the Islamic" and not "the Muslim Society. But the limitations of belief systems on human thought certainly hinders people from clear thinking. And it is not unexplainable in social sciences that people in non-laic orders would struggle to find answers to moral problems by referring to, but certainly not " in the light of", religious sources. There have been not a few attempts in human history "to create belief systems"; due to the social, economic, political and possibly other factors prevailing in the related place-time settings, however, only some of them have been "successful".

Fourth, and as a point related to the last one, what is actually been observed today, as has been observed throughout history, is widespread religious exploitation, almost everywhere in the world. The quantitative aspect of the states of affairs being such a determining factor in social and political life as in other spheres in the world, this exploitation is certainly at its highest in religious, non-secular social orders. And people are struggling in these communities to find a secure place in the next or "other" world - a very suitable and successful opium for the continuity of the order and the socioeconomic exploitation inherent in it. No sensible person would believe that there can be other-worldly solutions to the secular problems of the world we live in. And women in Islamic countries are but a means to the mythical "solution" of their problems in the real world. They are either genders or, like their male counterparts, nondifferentiated elements of the overall mass. As a rule they are not individuals or women or females in the true senses of these words, but either mothers or women to be owned in numbers, serving as a means to others, mainly males.

Fifth, and last in the present context, the qualification "so-called" has apparently a negative connotation in general - we use it when we find an expression unacceptable. Not infrequently, people use it sarcastically or cynically in contexts which they have not conceived in depth. The so-calledness of a secular law has apparently a psychological function in this regard. On the issue of organ and tissue transplantation, Dr Anees questions whether the religious edict extends to ALL organs and tissues in their strictly biological connotation. But it is very difficult to give priority in the biological/evolutionary hierarchy of organs.

In this letter my concern has been philosophical and ideological rather than fatcual response, which I will leave to my colleagues, the authors of the paper. What I want to say is that what is deliberately and/or uncritically called a head-scarf in the Islamic context is, from an intellectual point of view, a "brain scarf". This is an important point in the discussion of bioethics in Islamic cultures in Asia, and we look forward to hearing from other readers and editorial board members in other countries.


A call for more country reports or papers briefly describing the bioethics situation in Asian countries is requested. One of the interesting issues is how the religious and secular approaches mix.

The question of how to assess cultural relativism and universalism will also be one focus for discussion in the East Asian Association of Bioethics conference, to be held in Beijing 3-5 November, 1995. - Ed.


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