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In June of 2016, actor Anton Yelchin died in an unexpected accident. The incredibly talented actor was best known for his portrayal of Pavel Chekhov in the 2009 reboot of the Star Trek franchise. Chekhov’s 1966 character was originally invented to offer a glimpse of what humanity can be when that which divides us is overcome. The decidedly prideful Russian character, complete with thick accent and a penchant for attributing historically significant events to Russia ranging from the Garden of Eden to the invention of Scotch Whisky, was a challenge to national division. The Cold-war era audience saw Russians, Scots and Americans working together forced an understanding that by 2200’s, the divisive nature of nations could end: although heritage may yet persist.
The 2009 reboot saga of Star Trek built on this diversity by reinventing classic characters and adding nameless crew members for diversity in-line with modern films. While the 1966 series was progressive for its’ time, the top billed cast was still overwhelmingly white: And the nameless extras even more so. Later series in the 1990’s would have more diversity, but the 2009 reboot made a larger effort to cast minorities in these nameless roles, bringing in transgender and racially diverse cast members to staff the bridge of the Enterprise. Hikara Sulu, originally a heterosexual male of Japanese descent portrayed by the brilliant George Takei, was also portrayed as having a same-sex partner in the 2016 installment: A nod to the 1966 actors’ real life identity. The 2013 movie was largely derided for reimagining Mexican actor Ricardo Montalban’s character Khan with arguably the whitest man on earth Benedict Cumberbatch, but otherwise the casting of the Star Trek films hasn’t been terribly racially offensive, nor has it been on the cutting edge of diversity as the 1966 version was. Martin Luther King praised the 1966 franchise, while the modern franchise is accused of not doing enough by modern progressive activists.
Given Star Trek’s ability to place characters of any nationality or background in any role, a history of pushing the envelope and a desire to pay tribute to Anton Yelchin and Pavel Chekhov’s character, a popular idea among some progressives has been to make the new Enterprise Helmsman someone from a racially diverse background and from a country we face current tensions with. One popular post on Tumblr suggests that Chekhov’s role be filled with an Iranian, Syrian, Saudi Arabian woman wearing long sleeves and a Federation-approved hijab. This specific idea is terrible, but I have a better one.
A bridge officer wearing a hijab would make about as much sense as Captain Kirk (Shatner or Pine) wielding a Beretta 9mm in place of his phaser, and for much the same reason: In the next 200 years, we must hope and expect technology and society to progress beyond modern challenges to new ones, and a Star Trek phaser should fullfill any needs Kirk might run into better than a 20th century handgun: It has less recoil, more power, more precision, and a non-lethal setting. For any tool a Beretta would do, a Phaser will work better: So if we see Kirk using a Beretta instead of a phaser, there needs to be a good reason.
In the same way we expect firearms technology to progress, we also should expect society to progress. Star Trek’s fictional history is distinct from our own: the fictional history holds that the 1990s were plagued by the great Eugenics War, in which Humans fought and ultimately overthrew genetically enhanced warlords including Khan Noonien Singh. Shortly thereafter, we entered into World War III using nuclear weapons liberally until 2059. It would take contact with Aliens, tremendous technological advances, mass atrocities, societal problems greater than any in our history, and nearly a century before Humanity transitioned from a post-apocalyptic recover era to the technological Utopia portrayed in every Star Trek franchise. Everything about humanity would change: An end to hunger and poverty, reinvention of economic systems with an end to currency, an end to all wars on our planet. We even found a cure for every disease currently known to humankind. And though history books and characters within the series don’t state it, a close examination of the Star Trek franchise reveals that human religion must have changed drastically as well.
Religion does come up frequently, however it is most commonly portrayed as non-human religion. The Bajorans, an alien species from the planet Bajor who wish to join the Federation, have a single religion with spiritual leaders eliminating anyone who proposed alternative interpretations of the faith. One such heretic was named Ohalu, living some 32,000 years ago. He preached that the gods of the Bajorans, known as The Prophets, were not gods at all: They were aliens whom Bajorans would one day regard as equals. Ohalu made many prophecies, and was ultimately vindicated as correct during the events of the 1993 series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine after 32 millenia of religious suppression at the hands of spiritual leaders.
In another portrayal of non-human religion, a bronze-age species known as the Mintakans are happily living a Bronze Age existence when one of them stumbles upon some malfunctioning observation equipment belonging to the Federation. As he approaches, the malfunctioning equipment sends an arc of energy into his chest, and he falls off a cliff. This creates a moral dilemma for the crew of the Enterprise-D: The Federation Prime Directive prohibits interfering with native peoples, yet the Federation’s failures have caused this Mintakans’ injuries, and he will die if nothing is done. The crew resolves to treat him, but in doing so the Mintakans become aware of the Federation and begin worshipping Captain Picard as a god. The Federation crew attempts to undo the damage by infiltrating the Mintakans, posing as their own, but this effort fails: The previously non-religious Mintakans in this village prepare to spread word of the god known as Picard to other villages. Faced with a choice of letting the Mintakans continue worshipping the Picard as god, or dispelling the illusion by directly sharing the truth, Jean Luc Picard of the 1987 series Star Trek: The Next Generation willingly takes an arrow to the chest to demonstrate that he is not a god, but merely a technologically advanced alien.
The 1966 Original Series even implies something similar happened to create the myths of Ancient Greece and Rome, when Kirk’s Enterprise encounters a powerful being known as Apollo. The aliens expect the humans to worship them, and this is one of the few places where a human cast member does address religion: Kirk claims “Mankind has no need for gods. We find the One quite adequate.” Apollo is later banished from our Universe bereft of any power he once held, and Kirk is never again seen making reference to any god, Nor is any other human.
Although Kirk and others make occasional reference to human myths like the Garden of Eden, specifics of modern human religion is entirely absent from the Star Trek franchise. No character is ever seen wearing a Crucifix, nor a Star of David, nor statues of Ganesha to adorn shuttlecraft, nor is the Wheel of Dharma displayed on walls. Wherever we see Alien religion, and in when ancient human religion is portrayed, it is attributed to specific alien interference rather than our modern understanding of what God or gods would be.
A hijab worn by a definitively Muslim character, as suggested by the Tumblr post I mentioned earlier, would be the first time a modern religious representation was made in the Star Trek universe. Placing a hijab on the bridge of the Enterprise would imply that Islam had survived to the 23rd century, while we have no reason to believe any other modern human religion can claim similar. This would require examining an historical aspect currently left unaddressed within Star Trek. An hijab on the bridge of the Enterprise would also beg the question: In an age when every miracle ascribed to God or gods in our holy texts can be easily and perfectly replicated through modern technology (including creation itself, as in the Star Trek DS9 episode Playing God), how could anyone believe in a supernatural being when alien intervention would proffer an infinitely more likely explanation? More disturbingly, wouldn’t the definitive survival of one religion when all others are absent offer a tacit admission that that religion’s adherents are somehow immune to the ravages of time?
The solution to these concerns is not to put a woman wearing a hijab on the bridge of the Enterprise in the next Star Trek film. By all means, put a character from North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia or Syria in Chekhov’s seat. For authenticity, try casting the Iranian actress Sadaf Taheriann (who was forced to flee Iran over the hijab in 2015)or Park Yeon-mi (who escaped North Korea in 2007) in the role. But don’t write a character wearing a multifaceted symbol without explanation: That character belongs on a different ship, with full exploration of the symbol.
Perhaps this character comes from an isolated group of people who still practice Islam in much the same way it is practiced today, and left that society for personal pursuits: Much as Jean Luc Picard left his family’s generations-long wine making culture. Perhaps she practices it as a cultural nod to her ancestors despite being atheist herself, along the lines of Chakotay’s spirituality in the 1995 Voyager series. My preferred explanation would be that she just gets cold on the bridge because she’s used to a warmer environment back home, as it portrays the hijab for what it can be: A tool used at the discretion of the wearer. Such a portrayal would also invite opportunity to explore hijab’s significance today, but only with the right platform for this discovery.
Star Trek: Discovery is set to premier on September 24th, 2017, and is a much better candidate for such a hijab-wearing character than a film franchise: dozens of 60-minute episodes offer more depth than a single 2-hour film can. The series could have this crewmember exclusively shown wearing the hijab for several episodes before removing it because it got too hot in the Jefferies tube during a climactic scene involving engine repair, or perhaps you could have a character who feels she can’t be herself because she grew up covering as a cultural practice, so she is granted permission to wear a modified uniform by the ships’ captain: Much like the Bajoran character Ensign Ro Laren in The Next Generation. A conflict between comforts and new societal norms could be explored when this character returns home, or has a relative visit the ship who approaches cultural matters differently. I am no writer, but if I can come up with these ideas I have full faith that Discovery’s professional writing staff can implement one or formulate better.
Whether you are an advocate for the hijab or morally opposed to it, none can deny the hijab is a complicated symbol that means different things to different people. Hijab-advocate Dalia Mogahed pointed to the hijab as a tool to empower women without relying on sexuality, while ex-Muslim atheist Sarah Haider contends that this rose-colored depiction of the hijab is a product of privilege granted by the rights to Freedom of (and from) Religion: Rights which are generally stronger in multicultural North America, Europe, and India than they are in Muslim majority countries where the hijab is often compulsory.
By all accounts, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry did not expect religion to survive into humanity’s 23rd century: He envisioned it dying alongside poverty, discrimination, nation-states, and the notion that male-pattern baldness needed a “cure.” And while there may be disagreement over whether the hijab is a tool of empowerment or oppression, I’m hopeful that Mogahed and Haider could agree agree that the practice of requiring or expecting women to wear a different amount of clothing than men is a practice that should die well before the 23rd century. Perhaps the hijab itself should be omitted from our ideal vision of the future, relegated to a broader off-camera existence. But If Star Trek is to continue depicting a futuristic golden age of Utopian civilization exploring the stars, and the hijab is to exist within it, it must be a depiction of what the hijab can be at its best: Not a clone of its’ modern worsts.