Belief systems in many societies are regarded as unquestionable. Most people are too scared to question or criticize accepted norms — in some cases, just voicing disapproval is dangerous. When an entire society dogmatically follows one fixed set of beliefs, it’s hard to even form opinions that differ. How can individuals believe that their dissenting views are valid when everyone around them claims the opposite?
Speaking up against unfair traditions is like saying Voldemort’s name out loud. Lord Voldemort, the antagonist in the “Harry Potter” series, was an evil and powerful wizard. Almost everyone in the wizarding world was too scared to even speak his name and instead called him “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named” or “You-Know-Who.” In conservative societies, many issues cause the same reaction, and people become too scared to acknowledge or challenge them.
These issues are those-that-must-not-be-questioned.
In school, I was surrounded by people who stifled intellectual exploration. Most teachers avoided controversy at all costs and presented only one fixed perspective. To them, religion was unquestionable and tradition indisputable.
My views differed from those of most people around me, especially when it came to women’s and gay rights. My family was a lot more liberal, and I hated how many people in society treated women as inferior and confined them to the domestic sphere. For a long time, I kept my views to myself. I was convinced that there was something wrong with me, that I could somehow not understand what everyone around me did. I was ashamed that I kept having doubts when it came to my faith.
I was a progressive, pro-gay-marriage feminist in a society that was conservative, homophobic and sexist. I felt alienated because of my views and did not dare to voice them. When my English teacher defended patriarchy as being useful, I stayed quiet. When my sociology teacher compared feminists to man-haters and claimed that all gays should be expelled to an island, I stayed quiet. At that time, I wasn’t convinced that my views mattered, and I felt that I could not openly challenge the sexism, intolerance and bigotry that surrounded me.
Even when I did speak up, I ended up internalizing the criticism I received. When I criticized the analogy comparing women who don’t wear the hijab to dirty, unwrapped sweets, I was told by classmates that my understanding of Islam was corrupted and that I was to blame for finding the hijab restrictive. Other comments I made were met with the same reaction.
It wasn’t until my high school history teacher encouraged me to speak up that I realized my views weren’t flawed. Yes, they were different. My experiences and opinions did not conform to what everyone else expected, but that didn’t mean they weren’t valid. It’s OK for people to hold differing perspectives — there isn’t one absolute answer, and there is truth in opposing viewpoints.
Unlike my other teachers, my history teacher encouraged freedom of speech. He challenged traditional views, even though most people in school, including students, did not like hearing dissenting opinions. In class, he would talk about Sigmund Freud and human sexuality, speak against religious intolerance and highlight the sexism present in our society, even though these issues were considered extremely contentious and it was taboo to talk about them. When I nervously confessed to him after class one day that I supported feminism, he didn’t criticize my views. Instead, he encouraged me to speak up and gave my hope that change was possible.
Albus Dumbledore, one of the few wizards in the books who calls Voldemort by his name, once tells Harry, “Call him Voldemort, Harry. Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.” My teacher was like Dumbledore. He didn’t shy away from addressing issues the way they deserved to be addressed.
History class became a safe space where I could voice my views, where I could speak Voldemort’s name out loud. I slowly expanded my discussion to include other friends and acquaintances, and I realized I wasn’t the only with doubts and conflicts. Lots of people felt the way I did.
Sadly, not all spaces are safe, and not everyone is tolerant of dissent. In some societies, speaking up does not just lead to social ostracism and criticism, but to imprisonment and even death. In the past few months, three secular bloggers have been hacked to death in Bangladesh. In April, Sabeen Mahmud, a human rights activist in Pakistan, was gunned down. Last week, Saudi Arabia upheld the sentence of a thousand lashes and 10 years of jail time for a blogger, Raif Badawi, who encouraged secularism and free speech. These people were speaking up against injustice and intolerance, and it’s a shame that their voices were stifled so brutally.
Even in the United States, people can receive such extreme backlash and violence for coming out of the closet, for being transgender or for promoting issues such as abortion that it can be hard to not question one’s convictions.
When your views challenge traditional norms, you may experience considerable self-doubt and shame. But it’s important to realize that your views and experiences are valid.
Even if only to yourself, speak Voldemort’s name out loud.
Shanzeh Khurram writes the Friday blog on feminism and religion. You can contact her at [email protected].