Regular readers of The Hames Report may recall that I am blessed with ten children. They range in age from 2 to 37 years. Naturally each sibling is special - as different from each other as one could possibly imagine. Two of them are primarily artistic, for example, one outrageously athletic and gregarious, another painfully shy, while others are caring, studious, puckish, wilful, anxious, protective... They are all gifted in their own way. And it goes without saying I am immensely proud of them all.
In an uncanny echo of my own upbringing, several of my children had a particularly tough time during my divorce. They were all caught up in the painfulness of the rift of course. But my wife and I separated at a time when one child in particular was most vulnerable to the distress that ensued. Yet, even though dwelling half a world away contrived to keep us apart, distance was not sufficient to break the bond we felt for each other. At least, I like to believe that was the case.
As with most people, my daughter's life continues to have its ups and its downs. Recent relationships, not to be too disparaging, are possibly best characterised by the social media cliche, its complicated. At times she has appeared to be at odds with the world, while her choice of boyfriends has brought happiness and heartbreak in equal measure. But these choices also defined and strengthened her, as they tend to do. Which is why I wasn't perturbed by recent events....
Within the context of our family my daughter's individuality has been intensified by the fact that she now wears a head scarf. Not just any old head scarf you understand. Living with a young Muslim guy she conforms to the hijab dress code. Although she seems unduly self-conscious of this cultural symbolism, especially within a secular society like Australia, the decision has clearly given her a calm dignity she had long sought.
I am not sure whether she will decide to embrace Islam in the future. Nor would I be fazed should she choose to do so. For the time being, however, all I know is that she remains the kind, compassionate, slightly crazy yet endearing young woman she has always been. Her dress may have changed her outward appearance - but not her sweet nature.
Yet there are those who glance at her with mistrust in their eyes. People who do not know her, particularly strangers on the street, look askance at her appearance. Some, assuming she must be up to no good, base their mistrust on an absurd stereotype recently adopted throughout the Western world. A stereotype that stokes an irrational fear that foreign terrorists are lurking around every corner.
I find all of this quite mischievous and insincere. So, for example, flying by air is the safest form of travel these days. Nevertheless we are far more likely to be killed in an airplane crash than in any encounter with terrorists. Acts of terrorism have declined dramatically over the past few years - though you might not realise that from the constant beat up of this issue in the media and the many movies made with a terrorist plot as the theme. Many people still harbour the ridiculous notion that under every burqa hides a potential terrorist. Whatever happened to tolerance of other people's cultures, social practices and religious beliefs?
Codes for dressing modestly are not unique to Islam. My mother, a strict Methodist, invariably covered her head with a scarf when attending church services on a Sunday. This was accepted practice in conservative Britain after the war. All manner of veils and head scarfs appear in the great monotheistic traditions. They have done for centuries. Indeed the first recorded instance of veiling for women is recorded in an Assyrian legal text dating from the 13th century BC, which restricted its use to noble women and forbade commoners from adopting it. This form of dress symbolises nothing more than modesty and respect - a desire to maintain social distance and a statement of cultural status and identity.
To some unthinking observers, and to professional scaremongers, my daughter wearing a khimar appears to be a security threat. Her choice of dress plays into the notion, deliberately fabricated and shaped by the state, of how we might identify a potential terrorist. She easily fits into the stereotype we have concocted to separate ourselves from the evil "other" - in addition to almost anything else we do not understand.
Of course she is nothing of the sort. She is just a young Australian woman seeking to know herself and come to terms with her situation, in a world that is often difficult to fathom, while remaining sane. To equate such appearances with terrorism is crass - a degree of bigotry that should shame us and that should not be tolerated in an intelligent and free society.
My daughter's choice of clothing denotes nothing other than options she is free to exercise, coupled with the capacity and inclination to pay for how she prefers to look. Nothing more, nothing less. Words, however, trap us in ways that are not always so evident.
Ideas and the choices we make based upon those ideas are tainted and warped by the language we use to explain ourselves - constrained at every turn by the vocabulary we have at our disposal. A good deal of the behavioural aspects of any culture can be attributed to language discourse. Some languages are inherently passive while others are much more explicit and dynamic. So while I might say, "I am going to lunch now" (denoting who is going to eat and when) my Thai wife will simply say "eat" (kin khao). Without context this random statement could be referring to anyone and anything.
This linguistic principle carries over into the way adversaries choose to describe and chide each other in torrents of misconstructions and invalid assumptions.
Advanced studies in linguistics suggest such differences in speech patterns affect not only how we think but also how we interpret events. By using different words we actually perceive reality differently.
For example, in the eyes of most Western politicians, Nelson Mandela went from being a terrorist to an anti-apartheid revolutionary, to a freedom fighter and eventually to a liberator and father of the nation. I am quite sure his most fundamental beliefs did not morph significantly during that time. But the vocabulary we used to describe him, and what he stood for, certainly changed the way he occurred to us and, in so doing, created very different images in our minds of the man's intentions and his stature as a human being.
Naturally our choice of language does not excuse us from accepting responsibility for our behaviours. But it does offer us insights as to how we might learn to respond more openly to our misunderstandings and prejudices.
In this regard context is all-important. Varying the way we speak to accommodate broader interpretations of reality may be tricky - perhaps impossible for some people. But changing the way we think based upon our speaking habits only requires a little common sense and an ability to suspend judgement temporarily.
If we are able to set aside, even for a few moments, those aspects of the Occidental mindset that trap us into supposing every young Muslim is part of an organised global conspiracy to conquer the world, we may discover a culture and a social ethos that enriches rather than depletes our own view of what it means to be human.
Who knows, we may even find that we have more in common with each other than we care to admit.