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When Fashion Clashes with Religious Customs

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Lekan Oguntoyinbo

By Lekan Oguntoyinbo
NNPA Columnist

 

I believe customs generally fall into three categories: inexcusable, curious if a little questionable, and fascinating.

Some customs – the rigid caste system in India, the practice by in-laws in many parts of Africa of putting newly-widowed women and their kids out on the streets, as well as deeply held racist beliefs and practices in the United States, particularly in the Deep South – easily qualify as abhorrent. So do others such as the murders of female rape victims in many Middle Eastern countries by male relatives, female genital mutilation and ritual human sacrifices in many African countries.

Most right thinking people would agree that such practices are just plain wrong.

Often times, though, it is the curious customs that stir things up. They amaze us and maybe even cause us to shake our heads.

I’ve been thinking a lot about curious customs lately in view of the first couple’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia – and the chatter over what the Washington Post called the first lady’s “fashion diplomacy.” Michelle Obama met the Saudi’s new King Salman dressed in dark pants and with her hair uncovered.

It was a blatant political statement.

Despite its enormous oil wealth, Saudi Arabia is a rigidly tradition-bound society. Adulterers may be stoned to death. Beheadings are common for some crimes, including dealing drugs.

In Saudi Arabia, it is still illegal for women to drive or vote. The kingdom places a premium on access to education for males and females but with the exception of medical schools, educational institutions are segregated by gender. There are strict rules for the mingling of the sexes. Dress codes are just as strict, particularly for women. Women are expected to dress modestly and to cover their bodies from head to toe. Out of deference for this custom, Queen Elizabeth wore an ankle length dress and covered her hair during a state visit to Saudi Arabia in the 70s.

To be sure, rules of modesty and dress are commonplace in conservative religious societies. Most of the world’s major religions have strict scriptural interpretations about gender roles and behavior. In many churches around the world (including the one in Nigeria that my parents have attended for more than 40 years), men and women are not allowed to sit together and women are required to cover their hair. As recently as the 1980s, many evangelical churches here in the United States frowned on the idea of women wearing pants to services – or at all. Many still do.

In many Orthodox Jewish communities around the world, there are strict dress codes for men and even stricter ones for women. In some Orthodox neighborhoods in Tel Aviv, women are required to sit in the back of the bus.

Viewed from a Western lens, such customs may seem arcane, perhaps even backward. But are they? And is it disrespectful when outsiders insist on not following them?

While Michelle Obama has taken some flak for not covering her hair during a brief visit with her husband to Saudi Arabia, she has also been hailed for flouting the tradition of this desert kingdom.

I have problems with the critics on both sides of this debate. For one thing, I suspect that many of those critics bashing the first lady are charter members of the ABO (Anybody But Obama) society. Many of them likely chose to forget that Condoleezza Rice, Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton failed to cover their hair on visits to Saudi Arabia. Many of them probably also criticized President Obama for bowing to the emperor of Japan and to the last king of Saudi Arabia – acts of respect common in those countries.

But I also worry that those who applauded her don’t get it.

While they might view the circumstances of women in nations such as Saudi Arabia as unfortunate and harsh, I suspect that many of these same people could never understand why some non-westerners view American women as oppressed – given our society’s obsession with looks and the tens of billions of dollars spent on self-esteem therapy, anorexia treatment, cosmetics and plastic surgery. Until recently when it was overtaken by Brazil, the United States was the world’s biggest market for plastic surgery.

To win the hearts and minds of those who think differently from us, it is important to first try and understand those differences and the rationale behind them. It is also important to strive to respect these customs whenever possible.

That’s precisely the same point Senegal’s president tried to impart a few years ago when the Obamas visited Senegal, another conservative, predominantly Muslim nation. In a speech, the American president urged his West African counterpart to lead his nation toward showing more tolerance for homosexual rights.

In his response, the Senegalese president firmly but politely told Obama to respect his nation’s culture.

More Westerners need to hear that.

 

Lekan Oguntoyinbo is a national award-winning journalist. Email him at oguntoyinbo@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @oguntoyinbo.

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Activism

In Dr. King’s Honor, California Black Health Leaders Call for Urgent Action During COVID-19 Crisis

Right now, an estimated 1.1 million Californians don’t have health insurance and are eligible for more financial health than ever before through Covered California, or they qualify for low-cost or no-cost coverage through Medi-Cal. Most Californians can now qualify to get brand-name health plans with companies like Anthem, Blue Shield, Kaiser, and Health Net for less than $10 monthly and many for $0 per month.

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Working tirelessly on the ground to enroll Black Californians and other people of color in affordable and quality health care is the mission of the California Black Health Network (CBHN).
Working tirelessly on the ground to enroll Black Californians and other people of color in affordable and quality health care is the mission of the California Black Health Network (CBHN).

“Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and inhumane.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

African American health leaders joined Covered California to reflect on the life and legacy of civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and with the final deadline in the current open enrollment period coming up, to urge Black Californians to sign up for comprehensive coverage through Covered California or Medi-Cal.

Doctors David Carlisle and Kim Rhoads, along with Rhonda Smith of the California Black Health Network, say Dr. King’s words on the injustice in healthcare are still profound today. Health inequities abound for Black Californians.

A recent report from the California Health Care Foundation highlighted that Black Californians have the shortest life expectancy – as well as the highest death rates among all racial and ethnic groups from breast, cervical, colorectal, lung, and prostate cancer. According to the report, Black Californians also experienced the highest rates of infant mortality, maternal mortality, first-birth cesareans, preterm births, and low-birthweight births.

Carlisle, Rhoads, and Smith joined Covered California to encourage Black Californians to get COVID-19 vaccinations and boosters and to sign up for affordable, quality health insurance coverage before open enrollment closes at the end of the month. The health leaders stressed that having access to quality health care is a means to help ensure health equity for Blacks Californians.

“Achieving health equity for African Americans is an important goal now more than ever,” said Carlisle, CEO and president of Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in Los Angeles.  “It is essential that all populations have access to healthcare and the tools needed to face down this historic public health crisis. The only way to get through this is together. Widely available and affordable health coverage coupled with quality health care can help level the field for everyone, putting California in the best position to get on top of COVID-19 and be prepared for future challenges.”

The latest state data shows that COVID-19 vaccination rates among African Americans currently at 52 percent. Increasing COVID-19 vaccination and booster rates and gaining access to quality health care is key to battling health care inequities, says Rhoads, associate professor of Epidemiology & Biostatistics and the director of the Office of Community Engagement at UC San Francisco.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has pulled the curtain back on the longstanding inequities in the health and health care for Black and African American people nationwide,” said Rhoads. “These disparities whether in high blood pressure, cancer, or COVID-19, are often related to challenges in finding and receiving high quality care. Getting and having insurance coverage is a powerful intervention that will help us address the negative effects of unequal access to prevention and treatment for Black and African American people in California.”

Right now, an estimated 1.1 million Californians don’t have health insurance and are eligible for more financial health than ever before through Covered California, or they qualify for low-cost or no-cost coverage through Medi-Cal. Most Californians can now qualify to get brand-name health plans with companies like Anthem, Blue Shield, Kaiser, and Health Net for less than $10 monthly and many for $0 per month.

Working tirelessly on the ground to enroll Black Californians and other people of color in affordable and quality health care is the mission of the California Black Health Network (CBHN), says Executive Director Rhonda Smith. As a statewide Navigator for Covered California, CBHN has enrolled thousands of Black Californians into health plans through the years.

“We are proud to partner with Covered California to ensure that healthcare coverage is available, affordable, and accessible to all,” Smith said. “We believe that healthcare is a right and not a privilege, and thanks to Covered California, we can provide a pathway to get more people insured and enroll them in the right plan that works for them.”

Covered California’s current open-enrollment period runs through January 31. Enrollment in Medi-Cal is open year-round. Consumers interested in learning more about their health coverage options can:

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Activism

COMMENTARY: After Jan. 6, An MLK Day Deadline for Voting Rights and Democracy

This is a dangerous thing that goes beyond mere policy matters. First the Cruzes fall in line. Then the people. Republicans are not shy about what’s next. They want to own our democracy. And they’re willing to get it by going state by state to limit our voting rights and take away our votes.

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Emil Guillermo is a journalist and commentator. Listen to his show on YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter @emilamok at 2pm Pacific M-F. Or on www.amok.com
Emil Guillermo is a journalist and commentator. Listen to his show on YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter @emilamok at 2pm Pacific M-F. Or on www.amok.com

By Emil Guillermo

We all know the images of Jan. 6, 2021. Lawless rioters ransacking the Capitol. Police being tortured and beaten. Members of Congress hiding in fear in the House gallery. The gallows and a noose meant for former Vice President Mike Pence.

We all saw the video images one year after and astonishingly they did nothing to pull our nation together.

Nothing.

They simply confirmed the only thing everyone can agree on.

Our democracy’s in trouble. Real trouble.

We already sensed that after the Civil Rights battles of the 1960s such things as race, policing, and income inequality are still major issues in 2022.

But we’ve got trouble in a different key.

C Major. No sharps or flats. This trouble goes right to the core of our democracy. They’re coming after your vote.

That is, after all, what the Jan. 6 rioters were attempting when they tried to stop the certification of the election.

But now the GOP politicians who may have been behind the Jan. 6 rioters all along, are going legit.

The majority of Republicans, notably California’s Kevin McCarthy, continue to sing the fictional tune “The 2016 Election Was Stolen.”

As if in a song battle, the Democrats counter with the loud truth, “The Election Was Fair. Trump Lost.”

But enough people keep singing the lie as if it’s their battle hymn.

And now they are looking for the ultimate control of any election. Legally. In plain view.

Republicans are taking over or running for top election official posts in key states. State legislatures are proposing laws to limit absentee ballots, mail-in voting and other conveniences. They are putting up obstacles to make voting harder with the hopes of suppressing your vote.

This is why Biden spoke in Georgia this week, saying “I will not yield, I will not flinch in protecting voting rights.”

Let’s hope he’s serious, starting with new voting rights legislation to make election days federal holidays and require federal approval of any state and local election changes.

It may take changing the filibuster law to make sure Republicans can’t block any Democratic reforms, but it must be done. And done now.

That’s why even the family of Martin Luther King Jr. is calling for “no celebration” of MLK Day without the passage of voting rights legislation.

This is how Democrats are talking to Biden.

The Republicans’ post-Jan.6 strategy is simply Orwellian. Where truth and lies are indistinguishable. And Republicans loyal to Trump are dead set on forcing their lies on everyone.

Witness Sen. Ted Cruz last week caught in a moment of truth calling the Jan. 6 rioters “domestic terrorists.” But how quickly he recanted when called on the carpet by Fox’s Tucker Carlson, the Trump Confessor, for all the Republican congregants to see.

Like a loyal Trumper, Cruz knelt, confessed, and did his penance.

It used to be called hypocrisy. Now it’s just called Modern Day Republicanism.

This is a dangerous thing that goes beyond mere policy matters. First the Cruzes fall in line. Then the people. Republicans are not shy about what’s next. They want to own our democracy. And they’re willing to get it by going state by state to limit our voting rights and take away our votes.

That’s even worse than the Jan. 6 rioters’ wildest dreams.

Emil Guillermo is a journalist and commentator. Listen to his show on YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter @emilamok at 2pm Pacific M-F. Or on www.amok.com

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Activism

COMMENTARY: Schools and streets have been named after Martin Luther King Jr. 

Those who misrepresent King and Critical Race Theory are illogical, and they only reveal their fear of him. There is no need to fear this American Black preacher who preached nonviolence and love. King was a peaceful warrior who was radically obedient to Jesus, who taught us to love even our enemies.

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Striking members of Memphis Local 1733 hold signs whose slogan symbolized the sanitation workers’ 1968 campaign. (Via Walter P. Reuther Library/Wayne State University)
Striking members of Memphis Local 1733 hold signs whose slogan symbolized the sanitation workers’ 1968 campaign. (Via Walter P. Reuther Library/Wayne State University)

By Dr. J. Alfred Smith Sr. | Baptist News Global

J. Alfred Smith Sr.

J. Alfred Smith Sr.

Churches and libraries are named after him. He is the only African American and the only American clergy honored with a national holiday. In many countries around the world, he is numbered with global heroes like Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela.

Some discredited him by calling him a communist, a detractor and troublemaker. Sophisticated ideological historians are deconstructing his history in order to distort the powerful truth of his ministry. Those who pass laws against teaching Critical Race Theory are making sure that present and coming generations will not learn as Professor Cornel West said, that King’s universal religious commitments led him to internationalize the American ideals of democracy, freedom and equality.

Those who misrepresent King and Critical Race Theory are illogical, and they only reveal their fear of him. There is no need to fear this American Black preacher who preached nonviolence and love. King was a peaceful warrior who was radically obedient to Jesus, who taught us to love even our enemies.

“There is no need to fear this American Black preacher who preached non-violence and love.”

Forgive us, Lord, for our ignorance

Forgive us, Lord, for reducing Martin Luther King to being only a civil rights leader. Forgive us, Lord, for our ignorance. All many people know about him is that he had a dream. He was more than a dreamer. Forgive us for ignoring your calling of Martin Luther King as a minister with good news for a bad news world.

In keeping with Luke 4:18-19, King — like Jesus — had a deep commitment to the poor, pushed down, left out, disrespected Black sanitation workers of Memphis. He addressed, to the displeasure of the white power structure, the basic constitutionally guaranteed rights of the Black population — equitable education, decent housing, jobs that paid living wages, and equal justice in the courts. The sanitation workers had lost their lives working long hours for dirt-poor pay with unsafe trucks that had taken the lives of several workers.

The workers had a strike with the support of many in the community. They carried signs that said, “I AM A MAN!” Some critics of King did not understand his identification with the cause of sanitation workers.

On March 28, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy, right, lead a march on behalf of striking Memphis sanitation workers. (AP Photo/The Commercial Appeal, Sam Melhorn)

On March 28, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy, right, lead a march on behalf of striking Memphis sanitation workers. (AP Photo/The Commercial Appeal, Sam Melhorn)

Professor Luther D. Ivory states in Toward a Theology of Radical Involvement that King used the teaching of Imago Dei to counter the notion of Black inferiority. Everyone irrespective of race, gender, education or economic status is to be valued and treated with respect and dignity. Blacks needed this message to overcome feelings of shame, inferiority and self-hatred caused by the absurdities of racism.

With this understanding, the foundation is built for Blacks and whites to live together in the beloved community. Living in the beloved community calls for Blacks and whites to work together to transform existing injustices in institutions and public life.

Forgive us, Lord, for our distorted gospel

Martin Luther King speaks to an overflow crowd at a mass meeting at Holt Street Baptist Church in Memphis. (AP Photo/Gene Herrick)

Martin Luther King speaks to an overflow crowd at a mass meeting at Holt Street Baptist Church in Memphis. (AP Photo/Gene Herrick)

Lord, forgive American Christians — Black and white — for their middle-class captivity with a distorted view of the gospel. This understanding of the gospel was concerned about life after death and not life after birth, addressing only the sweet by and by while ignoring the nasty now and now. This gospel condemns the personal sins of the individuals while ignoring corporate and institutional evils. This gospel refused to oppose chemical and nuclear waste dumps that are built on the edge of communities where the poor and politically powerless live.

In his book Stride Toward Freedom, King corrects the distorted view of the gospel saying: “The gospel deals with the whole man, not only his soul, but his body; not only his spiritual well-being, but his material well-being. … Any religion which professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the conditions that scar the soul is a spiritually moribund religion only waiting for the day to be buried.”

Forgive us, Lord, for our white nationalism

Forgive America, Lord, for her ethnocentrism and white nationalism that justifies her behavior whether it is right or wrong. American arrogance has been promoted by persons who have held the highest leadership positions in the nation. America has promoted herself as being No. 1 among the wealthy nations of the world.

In “A Lament for Humanity” on Humans Rights Day 2021, pastor, author and judge Wendell Griffen wrote, “The world’s richest 1% have more than twice as much wealth as 6.9 billion people. Nearly half the world’s population of 3.4 billion people lives on less than $5.50 per day. Every year, 100 million people are pushed into poverty because they must pay out-of-pocket for health care. Currently 258 million children (one out of five) will not be allowed to attend school.”

Pastor Griffen adds: “And it came to pass that humanity appears to have cursed itself and the world by that greed, lust for power, inequality and bigotry that make community seem like a global fantasy instead of a human imperative.”

The inequality is not accidental; it is deliberative, calculated and purposeful.

Forgive us, Lord, for we were warned by King in his last book, Where Do We Go from Here? He wrote, “We have inherited a large house, a great world house in which we have to learn to live together, Black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Hindu. A family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest, who because we can never live apart, must somehow learn to live with each other in peace.”

Forgive us, Lord, for our violence

Martin Luther King delivers a sermon on May 13, 1956, in Montgomery, Ala. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Martin Luther King delivers a sermon on May 13, 1956, in Montgomery, Ala. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Forgive us, Lord, for our worship of guns. There are more guns in America than people. Our money says “In God We Trust” but there are 121 firearms for every 100 residents. And 75% of homicides are related to guns. America leads all other nations in gun deaths. Our children have fears of being killed in school by a student. Black Christians in churches and Jews in synagogues have been killed while worshipping. Our shopping centers have had mass killings.

On Jan. 6, 2021, the U.S. Capitol was invaded by persons with guns attempting to stop the counting of the Electoral College votes. The reports say the lives of the vice president and the Speaker of the House were marked for death.

Guns are used to settle differences. The United States is the No. 1 seller of arms to the countries of the world. Forgive us, Lord, for giving deaf ears to the apostle of nonviolence. He preached against what he called the triplets of evil: war, poverty and racism. It was he who said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”

A prayer for hope

May those of us who have become discouraged because racism seems to be on the increase find hope. May those of us who have become discouraged because white supremacy and white nationalism are boldly obtaining a stronger foothold in state and national governments find hope. May those of us who have become discouraged because voting rights for which people shed their blood so we could vote are now being stolen, placing democracy in jeopardy find hope.

Forgive us, Lord, if we forget how Martin Luther King told us in his very last speech that we would face difficult days. Those days are here.

Two months before his assassination on April 4, 1968, he spoke powerful words of hope. We must not forget them. He said, “We must accept finite disappointment but never lose infinite hope.”

Yes, the immediate future may not look promising. Negative news about climate change may haunt us. Young college graduates are uncertain about career opportunities. The COVID-19 virus and its mutations trouble us. These finite disappointments multiply geometrically, but we must not lose infinite hope.

I am not speaking of blind hope but an infinite hope that presses forward believing that if we do our part, our way-maker God, who brought us through the Middle Passage, the horror of runaway slaves chased by bloodhounds and beaten with many stripes if caught, the sexual abuse of the slave woman bearing a mulatto child for the slave owner, and the way-maker God of liberation who helped us survive the terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan and inspired our preachers to preach on after their churches were burned and to rebuild them back bigger — that this God will inspire us and create in us the power to keep the dream alive.

Not the God of the slave master’s preacher who told us not to steal the master’s chickens when our babies were crying from hunger, but the God of infinite hope, the God who creates ex nihilo, who makes a way out of no way. The way-maker God inspires us and creates in us the power to keep the dream of Martin Luther King alive.

Dante Stewart reminds us how Pastor James Bevel spoke about infinite hope: “There is a false rumor around our leader’s death. Martin Luther King is not our leader. Our leader is the man who led Moses out of Egypt. Our leader is the one who went with Daniel in the lion’s den. Our leader is the man who walked out of the grave on Easter morning. Our leader never sleeps nor slumbers. He cannot be put in jail. Our leader is still on the case. Our leader is not dead. One of the prophets died. We will not stop because of that.”

Alfred Smith served four decades as pastor of Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland, Calif. Now pastor emeritus, he is a member of the American Baptist Churches in the USA and dually aligned with the Progressive National Baptist Convention, where he served as the organization’s 12th president.

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