Veiled Issue

Will banning Muslim headscarves really solve France’s problems?


The latest controversy in France involves neither the war in Iraq nor genetically modified food; rather it concerns the way a Muslim woman wears her hair. On Thursday, A French commission released a study arguing in favor of banning articles of religious clothing from being worn in public schools.

Although the new recommendation includes Jewish kippot (skullcaps) and large Christian crosses, the real debate centers around the hijab, or headscarf, worn by some Muslim women. Arguments differ on why the headscarves should be banned, feminists argue that it is a symbol of women’s oppression, and politicians see it as debasement of the separation of church and state and a provocative symbol of Muslim fundamentalism. While critics have valid concerns, it’s not clear how forcing Muslim women to expose their hair will solve these larger problems.

Next week French President Jacques Chirac is expected to recommend the finding as he has already stated that there is something “aggressive” about women wearing hijab. Speaking in secular Tunisia last week, Chirac railed against such religious symbols. “We cannot accept ostentatious signs of religious proselytism, whatever the religion,” he said.

Bernard Stasi, a former government minister who led the commission argued that the hijab, kippah and cross are “conspicuous” symbols of religious affiliation and should be kept out of schools. It cited that fact the majority of school directors in France wanted to ban religious symbols in an attempt to ease “the tensions which are created by claims of religious identity, the formation of gangs for example and community-based factions in the play-ground and canteens.” While Stasi’s commission opposed individual religious identity in schools, their findings suggested that schools offer kosher and halal meals, as well as observing Jewish Yom Kippur and Muslim Eid el-Kabir as official school holidays.

Although France’s proposal rests on the country’s commitment to separation between church and state, the public discussion is not as focused. Most of France’s Jewish leaders support the ban, but it remains controversial in the Muslim community. As home to Europe’s largest Muslim community, five million of mostly North African origin, France is not the most successful example of cultural pluralism. Despite the fact that this community is 40 years old, many people in France feel that Muslims have not adopted an adequate assimilationist approach to French culture. As Caroline Wyatt writes for the BBC France isn’t interested in following the path of American multiculturism. “France expects its immigrants to adapt to a French way of life, rather than adapting France to its immigrants’ customs and culture,” she writes.

With the surge of religious extremism, many in France argue that Muslim women primarily wear the hijab when motivated by religious fundamentalism. Parliament member Jacques Myard argues that keeping Muslim women’s heads bare will help France control Islamic fundamentalism.

“A lot of Muslim girls say that they wear the headscarf freely.

But in fact when you look at it carefully you will see that they are in some cases, in fact in most cases, motivated by religious fundamentalists and if you give them just a bit of a finger they will eat up your arm up to the elbow…So we have to be strict and very adamant — and say this is the way things are in France.”

And then there’s the French feminists, some Muslim, who argue that the hijab is a symbol of oppression. Opponents argue that women are forced to wear the hijab by overzealous fathers and husbands. French feminist philosopher Elisabeth Badinter thinks the issue boils down to gender equality.

“If we allow women to wear headscarves in state schools, then the republic and French democracy have made clear their religious tolerance but they have given up on any equality of the sexes in our country.”

A number of Muslim women have spoken in favor of the ban, but others argue that it will only purge Muslim women from public schools, undermining France’s vaunted religious pluralism. Some Muslim women insist that the hijab is essential to their individual and religious identity. As American Muslim Maria Mills writes in her essay for the online magazine Muslim Wake Up, having the freedom to wear, and ultimately not wear hijab, has been part of her religious growth.

“So far [after three years of wearing hijab], I’ve made it without hijab in all aspects of my life except for my time at the office. I simply don’t want to face the questions from everyone. But I’m sure that day will come, and I’ll load myself with all the right answers. I will tell them that although I believe deeply in the hijab as a part of Islam for many, I’m not going to wear it anymore. I will explain to them how Allah has granted me free will to choose my path of submission to Him. I will remind them that I was Muslim before wearing the hijab, I was Muslim while wearing the hijab and I will continue to be just as Muslim after taking it off. After a few days pass and everyone gets over the shock of seeing my hair for the first time in years, life will go on.”

Tunisian-born Noura Jaballah told the BBC that for her, attempts to make students leave hijab outside the classroom has little to do with women’s liberation.

“People are not at ease or happy with it, so they look for problems…This is why the headscarf has become an issue, when in reality, the headscarf has never been the root of any problems – not at school or elsewhere.”

Jaballah touches on a core question in the debate over hijab — why has a headscarf become the center of an argument about assimilation, feminism, secularism, and fear of islamic fundamentalism? And the controversy doesn’t exist in France alone. German courts have been wrangling over the issue for months following a high-profile case involving a Muslim teacher that went to the nation’s top court. A court in the German state of Bavaria unveiled on Tuesday a draft law that would forbade teachers from wearing hijab in public schools. Bavaria’s minister of education argued that the scarf was increasingly used as a political symbol. Neither the proposal in Bavarian, nor another proposal in the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg prohibits Jews or Christians from donning symbols of their faith.

The question remains as to how the proposed bans will help alleviate the ills politicians and feminists have accused the hijab of provoking. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, a Muslim women who chooses not to cover her hair, interviewed a number of “hijabis” for an article in Independent of London. One teacher she spoke with described two instances where she was harassed and spit upon by Muslim men who thought she, a Muslim woman, should be more modestly dressed. While feminists object to abusive men, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, abusing women, preventing violence and harassment has more to do with law enforcement than whether students and teachers can legally wear a hijab.

As the Economist points out, the real issues as stake in France are not being discussed. Instead of cutting to the heart of the issues — the dearth of Muslim leaders in French politics and business, a lily-white national image, a growing fundamentalist movement — France has decided to reduce complexities to the issue of whether Muslim women can wear hijab.

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