Why women should not laugh in public

Why women should not laugh in public

Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç inadvertently initiated a new debate last week, by saying something unexpected during a long speech that touched upon “moral corruption” in society. He said:
“Chastity is so important … It is an ornament for both women and men. [She] will have chastity. Man will have it, too. He will not be a womanizer. He will be bound to his wife. He will love his children. [The woman] will know what is forbidden and not forbidden. She will not laugh in public.”

The last sentence here, as one could expect, triggered public controversy. The media reacted to Arınç, as well as thousands of commentators on social media. Women from all walks of life protested Arınç, some by posting their own photos of laughter on Twitter or Facebook. Notably, some of these women were religious conservatives who wear the headscarf. They, apparently, had found the level of conservatism that had a problem with laugher too much.

I, of course, agree with these women and sympathize with their campaign. To be sure, individuals, whether they are female or male, should be able to live as they wish, without the “moral” dictates from the state. Religious leaders might share such “moral” advice in their sermons, to those who wish to listen to them. But politicians such as Arınç, who represent a secular state and address a diverse society, should refrain from such sermonizing remarks.

To be fair, I don’t think Arınç, a man whose principled take on many other issues, has gained my respect, he has a plan to impose a law which will ban women from “laughing in public.” He probably caused a blunder without realizing it. But why did he make such a mistake? Where did this uneasiness with women “laughing in public” come from?

The answer is Arınç did not invent the idea that women should not laugh in public. It is written in various sources of classical Islam. Books of “ilmihal” (“the science of being”), which reflect the ideas of medieval Islamic scholars on the moral society, include many similar injunctions. You read plenty of advice telling women to stay at home as much as possible, to be silent and discreet when they go out, or to never look at the eyes of men. In fact, even any form of the “female voice” is considered “haram” (forbidden) in some of these sources, assuming that it will trigger male attraction.

As a Muslim myself, here is my take on all these: They reflect not the clear rulings of the Quran, the only supra-human source of Islam, but the way these rulings were understood and interpreted by mediaeval society. The Quran does command “chastity” for women (and men) as Arınç noted, but never commands details such as that women should stay at home or should never “laugh in public.” This was just how “chastity” was understood, and elaborated, in societies where men and women were already divided. (As historians note, sexual segregation in the Middle East predated Islam, only to encroach into it.)

Therefore, an interpretation of Islam that is relevant for modern society can come out only when the principles of the Quran, such as chastity, are reinterpreted, rather than blindly subscribing to medieval interpretations. Meanwhile, conservative Muslims, of course, have the right to insist on being loyal to those medieval interpretations and keep them valid for themselves. They just cannot have the right to impose them on everyone else.