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To wear or not to wear... this is the question

To wear or not to wear... this is the question

Issue 4 Mar / Apr 2004

A few MPs have openly supported this ban, such as the Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, Dr Evan Harris. In a recent interview on BBC Radio, in answer to whether the ban contravened the human right of freedom of religious expression, he replied that it didn’t as “schools are for learning, not practicing religion.” Yet not all of the public share this view. “The French government are being insensitive in not recognising that some Muslim girls won’t want to be seen without the hijab,” says Harriet Smith, a Geographical Information Systems Development Officer. “Now that France has banned it, I think it’s easier for other countries to do the same. They’ve seized an actual part of a person’s religious belief and I don’t believe that you can do that and call yourself a fair, reasonable country.”

On a sunny but chilly January morning, male and female, hijab-wearing and non-hijab wearing demonstrators gathered outside the French Embassy in Knightsbridge to protest against the French proposal to remove religious apparel in schools. Nearly a thousand people waved placards asserting, “If this is democracy, then we say Non Merci!”

Muslim organisations initiated the demonstration, and were joined by the Stop the War Coalition, United Sikhs, Nuns, Socialists, the Green Party and others. It was a clear show of unity that this ban wasn’t simply about removing religion from schools, but about the infringement of civil rights.

As Mejindarpal Kaur, director of United Sikhs explains, “I was told, how come you all look alike? I said, no coincidence, we’re all human beings aren’t we? The issue here is to show solidarity to a belief. I don’t have to be a Sikh, I don’t have to be a Muslim to believe in the rights of another.”

Sikhs have already started to feel the pinch of the ban in France. “I’ve been told that the most basic thing that a French person has to have with them is their ID card,” says Harpartap Singh, a solicitor. “Yet some Sikhs have been denied the right to have ID cards if they have a photo with a turban on. A Sikh friend of ours has already been rejected at five French universities simply because of the fact that he practises his religion.” Likewise with Muslim women: they cannot have passport photos with scarves on.

Demonstrators cheered on George Galloway MP as he openly criticised the wars on Muslim nations, which he related to the ban. “You know, it starts off with the kind of racist drivel in the Sunday Express by Kilroy- Silk,” he said. “Then dressing up decisions such as this on the hijab as some kind of secular stand. It moves on to insult Muslim people and ends up with bombs and missiles on Kabul, on Gaza, on Baghdad.”

Whilst boisterous, the demonstration was peaceful, with many smiling faces in the multitude. Yet there was no doubt as to how seriously protestors took this issue. As Mayssoun Olabi, formerly employed at Al- Jazeera and now working for the Muslim Association of Britain says, “I’m here today because as a woman wearing hijab I think it’s oppression not to be allowed to wear it in schools. Muslim women will not get scared and take off the hijab, they’ll just be forced to stay at home. So the law would stop women doing their duty and helping the community.”

Lindsay Smith, a London fire-fighter, shares this view that the ban actually oppresses Muslim women. “I think that women should be allowed to wear what they want and I don’t agree with the French government dictating to women in France. In society it can be hell to be a woman, we get suppressed in all sorts of ways and I really respect all the Muslim women here today who are standing up for themselves. I hope it will not be a problem in British schools and I think Britain should express solidarity with the people of all different faiths who live here.” However, there is a challenge in the British High Court by a Muslim girl from Luton who was told to go home from school when she arrived wearing a long outer garment (jilbab). Another teacher is being prosecuted for allegedly assaulting a schoolgirl whilst forcefully pulling off her scarf.

Rajnaara Akhtar, who works at the Al-Aqsa Trust in Leicester, hopes that Muslims here won’t face the same challenges they face in France. “I actually think the British government is very different from the French government. Britain as a society is much more accepting, there is greater diversity with many cultures living together. Yet this protest is a strong signal to our government that if they ever did think of anything like this we wouldn’t sit back and let it happen.”

As the ban would directly affect schoolgirls, what do they think of the matter? “If we just stand here and do nothing about it, it might become a reality in London,” says Sara, a student at Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School. “Many of my friends wear hijab and they’re scared about the new law in France, so I told them to come to this protest. My friends who don’t wear hijab think the law is bad. Just as we respect other people’s religions, ours should also be respected.”

Famida, a student at Wellington Ray Primary School agrees. “In France, they want to stop women wearing the hijab, that’s why  we’re here, because as Muslims we have to wear hijab. Many of my friends wear the hijab and they won’t want to take it off.”

Sara Butt from Altrincham Grammar School is of the same view. She says if there were a ban in England she would “simply have to stop going to school. My scarf is a very important part of me and I would not give it up. A ban would force me to stop my education, unless I could find an alternative – private education or home-schooling.”

Embassy a very small crowd of about 30 was draping women in huge black cloths and clanking chains, in support of the French ban. Sohaila Shereti, a member of Women’s Liberation in Iran explained why. “This is not about what women want or women’s freedom. It is actually about the other side of the coin. I believe in a society free of religion, free of Islam. Children shouldn’t be forced to wear hijab because that’s imposing your belief, and is against individuality.”

Houzan Mahmoud, editor of Equal Rights Now! (paper of Women’s Freedom in Iraq) is of the same opinion. “We defend independent secularism. Women’s rights have been violated for many decades. The veil is a symbol of political Islam; it’s about power and an attempt to undermine women.” Fiona Mactaggart’s colleague at the Foreign Office, Mike O’Brien, recently declared the wearing of hijab as a fundamental freedom. During a visit to the Islamic Foundation in Markfield on 5th February, Mr O’Brien said that the British “are comfortable with freedom of religion.” Indeed, there is a High Court judge, Mr Rabinder Singh QC, who wears a turban in court instead of the traditional wig. This respectful attitude was enforced by Mr O’Brien when he stated that “integration did not require assimilation,” and that we had the option of either “embracing multi-culturalism and being proud of our diversity and freedom,” or we could “restrict freedom and impose a mono-culturalism on minorities.” He said his government would be more “pro-active in advocating the benefits of freedom, diversity and multi-culturalism.”

Sheikh Ibrahim Mogra, an imam in Leicester, out-rightly condemns the ban on hijab in schools. He says it interferes with a Muslim girl’s practice of her faith. “Some people erroneously claim that the Qur’anic verse of hijab only addresses the wives of the Prophet,” says the Sheikh. “Most Muslim women, be they wearing hijab or not, will agree that it is mandatory for Muslim women to observe the hijab in light of the teachings of the Qur’an and the Sunnah.”


This proposal is an affront to the practice of faith. “Despite the fact that we don’t live in a Muslim country that adheres to Shari’ah law, we find Muslim women who adopt the hijab of their own free will. A democratic society is one where people are allowed to practice their beliefs without government interference. As Muslims, we should encourage other members of the French community who aren’t Muslim to join with us to challenge this ban.”

A fundamental question that needs to be answered is whether the French legislation contravenes European law. “The French law banning from state schools the hijab, the turban, the Jewish skull cap and large crosses would constitute a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights, in particular Article 9 on the freedom of religion, and Article 14 which prohibits discrimination,” says Malcolm Shaw QC and professor of International Law at the University of Leicester.

He goes on to say that “freedom to manifest one's religion is a critical part of the freedom of religion guaranteed under the Convention. It may only be restricted where ‘necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.’ This necessity is highly unlikely to be met with regard to France and the recent legislation. Such a law also offends Article 18 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights” which states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”


The motivation behind wearing the hijab varies. To many Muslim women it is a religious obligation, as simple as that. Many are grateful for it, and wear it willingly and devoutly, as a form of personal religious observance, a grateful submission to God. To others the scarf is there to protect from sexual harassment. When they are covered, some Muslim women say, not only are they freed from petty concerns about painting their faces for male approval, they are likewise hidden from the often oppressive intrusion of the male gaze. The hijab frees women from the shackles of fashion and enables them to become human beings in their own right. Once people cease to be distracted by women’s physical appearance, they begin to hear their views and recognize the inner person. And for some women it is a statement of defending their culture against western incursion; they would say that hijab represents a Muslim woman’s prestige and they put on a scarf in order to emphasize a political statement.


Fiona Mactaggart, Home Office Minister and MP for Slough is responsible for race relations and would deal with this issue if it were to arise in the UK. She was quick to clarify that the British government have no intention of taking the same road as the French, explaining that Britain has a different approach to its diverse cultural and religious communities.

“Our way has been, as far as possible, to celebrate the difference and permit the expression of difference, because in a way that creates the possibility of unity,” says Ms Mactaggart (right). “In my view the really important thing is for everyone to be able to say, I’m Muslim and British, I’m an atheist and British, I’m of Afro-Caribbean heritage and British. All these ‘Britishnesses’ are as British as each other. They are all as legitimate as each other and all contribute as powerfully as each other to that which is our nation and our community.”

Whilst the Minister thinks it is a “pity” that the French have proposed this ban, she recognises the difference in France’s cultural and political heritage which influences their brand of secularism. “My view is that our tradition is a better way. Of course, we don’t always get it right, but as a general approach, I think ours is a better way. I have communicated that view to the French, but we are partners and we recognise that there are differences in different countries and that they have to  make their own decisions.”

In view of this, Ms Mactaggart dismisses the idea that there could be any sort of EU ruling to ban religious attire in schools, though some countries such as Belgium, Germany and Denmark have been encouraged by the French ban. “I cannot see the prospect that the EU will decide this as a bloc and I don’t think it’s a sensible fear to conjure up. One of the reasons why some people do worry and think everyone should look the same is because differences are seen as somehow threatening. One side is seen as threatening by forcing everyone to go with bare heads even if they want to wear the hijab, and the other side fears that all girls will be forced to wear hijab. Actually, in my view, we should be saying there’s nothing threatening about the hijab; there should be a choice.”

What if this ban means that many Muslim girls in France do not attend school? “In Britain it would be unlawful not to educate your daughter. I think that those who react in this way will deprive their child of a valuable experience and are wrong to do so.” Would we then accept French nationals in UK schools? The Minister does not think it probable that Muslims or other religious communities would leave France once this ban becomes law. “I don’t see signs of that yet. Migration is a very big decision for people. It is not normally your first port of call; you normally see whether there are other ways of resolving conflicts, like private education or something like that.”

Ms Mactaggart feels it is necessary to look at the situation as it stands and leave out the ‘what-ifs.’ “It is good that the French are publicly talking about this issue which has been silently existing. In Britain there’s no doubt about the way we’re going, but I’m glad that the debate is happening.”


Leading the French Resistance


Marie-Noelle Bauer meets 29 year-old Saida Kada who owns an IT business and heads FFEME, a political activist group for French Muslim women based in Lyon. When the headscarf controversy first broke she co-wrote a book with Dounia Bouzar titled “One Wears the Veil, the Other One Doesn’t” (Publisher: Albin Michel, Paris, 2003).

She was further thrust into the media spotlight when she was the only Muslim woman wearing a headscarf to testify before the Stasi Commission set-up by President Chirac to investigate whether a law banning conspicuous religious symbols in French schools was necessary.

“Like many women of my generation, I only really discovered Islam in my late teens. Until then we had known very little about this mysterious religion, which our parents had essentially reneged on when they emigrated from North Africa so they could blend into French society more easily. By doing so they’d virtually rendered themselves invisible, a condition my peers and I did not want for ourselves. Islam helped young Muslim girls like myself to forge an identity by reconciling us with our history and traditions. It made us understand that the discrimination we were experiencing in our everyday lives was a legacy of our colonial past, and it spurred us to become citizens playing an active role in French society. I’ve been involved in various associations in the deprived suburbs of Lyon ever since I left school before getting my baccalaureate.

The Association I currently lead helps young girls who have been excluded from their school for wearing the hijab - their numbers have swelled over the past ten years. Up until very recently they were allowed to complete their studies by doing a correspondence course, but the Academic Inspector recently rescinded this, which means that an entire generation of girls will have to end their studies prematurely. Their families will have their benefits cut because their daughters are no longer studying, which means that people who were probably already in a financially precarious situation are being further sanctioned because of their religious beliefs, which is doubly oppressive. Our Association tries to help these girls who have been excluded from the academic system so that they can take charge of their lives. We hope that some of them can go on to establish their own businesses, just like I did.

I wrote One Wears the Veil, the Other One Doesn’t, a book consisting of first hand accounts of the lives of young French women who either wear or do not wear the hijab, so as to try and humanise the debate surrounding the veil. I testified in front of the Stasi Commission on secularity with the same aim, but I think my presence was used as a charade. Indeed, just before my appearance a press release was issued by the Commission making much of the fact that a veiled Muslim woman was going to be giving testimony. It all turned into such a circus and there was a really strange voyeuristic side to it all! This Commission acted as if women who do not wear the hijab were more concerned by the proposed law than those who actually do. The vast majority of the women invited to voice their opinion clearly wanted the ban, so it was all a bit of a sham.

I believe that this headscarf controversy is endemic of France’s inability to truly deal with the issue of immigration, as well as its skewered relationship with former colonies such as Algeria. It continues to treat its immigrant population as if they were foreigners, as demonstrated by the fact that Chirac’s government consulted religious figures in both Tunisia and Egypt to sound out his law. There is still an inherent belief that you cannot be both French and Muslim. I see this law banning the scarf as a form of neo-imperialism, with the French authorities trying to impose their way of thinking on its immigrant community. When I speak to the French Muslims around me I sense anger and frustration. But I am both an optimist and a fighter, so I truly believe that although there are definitely challenging times ahead for all of us in France, we will find a way to halt this segregationist wave so that all components of our society can live together harmoniously.”



Rosmin Majid is a young mother of four  from south London. Such was her anger at the French edict on the hijab that she decided to make a personal stand.

“I had been watching the news about the French ban on hijab and discussing the issue with my friends. I felt great despair at the way the hijab was being misrepresented in France and the inaccurate things they were saying about women being forced to wear it. It was February 10th and I decided to go to France to gauge the mood for myself and try to understand why they were doing this.

I explained to my children and husband that I had to do this and they gave me their full support. We looked up how I could drive there and then I got on to the Channel Tunnel and headed for Paris. The atmosphere in the city seemed calm and my only uncomfortable moment came when I was in a restaurant and was the only person in hijab. The lady who served me said that the only space they had in the half-empty restaurant was in a dark corner. However, another waiter who was Algerian subsequently seated me by a window.

I can’t really explain why I was so driven to go to Paris. I guess I wanted to show my French Muslim sisters they weren’t alone in this fight for the hijab. By the evening I felt so emotionally exhausted I didn’t have the energy to drive back home so I slept all night in my car. The next morning I travelled home having felt as if I had made a symbolic gesture that I hoped would count for something.”

France Unveiled

More than cheese or romance, the French love a good debate. However, few issues have sparked as passionate a controversy in the land of ‘Equality-Fraternity-Liberty’ as the law banning the hijab and other so-called conspicuous religious signs from public schools. It must seem absurd that a piece of cloth could prove so contentious, unless you understand how deeply France’s secularism is rooted in its history and national psyche.

In France secularism is such a hallowed entity that it is denoted by the special term ‘laicite’. In a recent speech on ‘the secular society’, French President Jacques Chirac explained that laicite must be protected at all cost “because it underpins the nation’s cohesion as well as its ability to live together and unite on what is essential.” Indeed, what France fears most is a return to the bad old days when the country was ripped apart by religion. For many years French Catholics were pitted in a relentless civil war against their Protestant brothers. Moreover, a corrupt Church long abused its political influence over the monarchy and siphoned money away from the poor. All of this engendered a widespread hatred of the clergy, spearheaded by Enlightenment philosophers such as Voltaire, who denounced religion as a divisive force.

The French Revolution heralded a great clash between Church and State. Priests were forced to pledge their allegiance to the newborn Republic, while the Catholic Church’s wealth was ceremoniously seized. However, with the Vatican resolutely resisting the Republicanism Paris was trying to impose throughout Europe, the French marched on Rome on two occasions (1798 & 1809), kidnapping uncooperative Popes. With the Concordat, Napoleon achieved a sort of détente with the Church, which he brought under state tutelage - but left alone so long as it remained confined to spiritual matters; an arrangement that lasted a century. In 1905, with anti-clerical feelings running high once more, the Third Republic decreed the separation of Church and State in the first Article of the Constitution. This law of separation meant that proselytisation would not be allowed by the French state in public buildings, particularly in schools. In the French Republic public schools are considered a privileged space where the citizens of tomorrow are formed, in all neutrality, regardless of creed, race, gender or social standing. In 1937, to preserve the sanctity of this space, the education minister ordered that all religious symbols be removed from French schoolrooms; a decision which stirred no controversy. But France was a very different country back then: an ultra-homogenous, white-Catholic nation, it was still one of the world’s superpowers, overseeing its many colonies; a nation reveling in its reputation as a bastion of progressive thought and staunch defenders of human rights.

Secularism went untested by the initial wave of immigrants from North Africa in the 1970s whose only real desire was to integrate into their new homeland. However, the subsequent generations born and raised in France adopted Muslim practices, to express their identity and make themselves visible in a society they deemed hostile to them. Unlike the US and UK, France prizes assimilation rather than multiculturalism - its Republican values of neutrality and equality dictate that its immigrant population should adapt to the French way of life, rather than France accommodating their customs. Like all French citizens, the newcomers are expected to revere ‘laicite’ above all else, even their own religion. By donning their headscarves in the sacrosanct environment of public schools, Muslim girls were seen to be hindering France’s great cultural steamroller, posing a direct threat to the Republic.

Under the previous Socialist government the decision on whether or not to allow the wearing of the hijab was left to the discretion of individual school principals. However, a few years later, in the wake of 9/11 and an ever-growing number of  ‘headscarf’ incidents regularly grabbingthe headlines, anti-Muslim sentiments reached fever pitch in France. Conservative president Jacques Chirac seized this opportunity to propose a law banning all conspicuous religious symbols from schools, in the aim of wooing the voters who had voted en masse for National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen. Describing the Muslim headscarf as “aggressive”, Chirac declared that France “needed to act to head off danger to the nation’s foundations.” To garner support for his initiative the President asked Mohamed Sayyed Tantawi - the mufti of Egypt’s Al-Azhar University - to give his blessing to the proposed prohibition. This law created many strange political bedfellows: on the pro-side Chirac’s UMP are reluctantly joined by the Socialists who opted to champion the Republic over religious tolerance. Those against include the National Front, the Green Party as well as the UDF, the UMP’s coalition partners.

After the law was finally voted in the first week of February the leader of the UDF, Francois Bayrou, said that France “had just given Islamists and militant fundamentalists a massive gift of gold.” Revealing words! For what actually lies behind the headscarf controversy is not just a fear of Islamic fundamentalism, but also a fear of Islam itself, which may soon be the country’s foremost religion. With France’s population growing ever older, its only dynamic asset is the overwhelmingly Muslim immigrant community, who in the very near future will represent onethird of the French population. By stigmatising its Muslim population the French are unwittingly creating the type of national divisiveness the Republic and secularism were meant to render obsolete.

There is a growing feeling among those campaigning for the right to wear the hijab that something is undoubtedly rotten in France - over the past year a plethora of books and newspaper articles have exposed its state of decline. The powers that be remain in denial but the signs are everywhere. Unemployment is sky high, strikes and demonstrations are an everyday occurrence. The Minister of the Interior Nicholas Sarkozy has imposed draconian measures to battle against the wave of “insecurity” he claims is blighting the nation. Corruption is rife in the highest echelons of power: not long ago, Chirac’s heir apparent, Alain Juppe, was banned from politics for abuse of power. And perhaps more tellingly, France - the land of freedom and human rights - recently welcomed the president of China with open arms. It would seem that France’s principled stance against the war in Iraq was a last hurrah, from a once proud nation, fast becoming an international laughing stock. To overcome its present identity crisis France must to take a long hard look at its reality, and stop using little girls’ headscarves as a smokescreen.


What Women Want

Whilst many western women see the hijab as alien and oppressive, they do not deny a woman’s right to don her veil. One such woman Sanjana Deen speaks to is Natasha Walter, feminist and Guardian journalist. “I do find the hijab problematic,” she admits. “I’ve traveled to a couple of places where I’ve had to wear it myself and I felt extremely uncomfortable wearing it. I feel very troubled by the idea of women being forced to cover their hair and their body. A lot of our culture is just so bound up with the idea that we should be free to uncover ourselves, to express ourselves through our clothes and the look of our bodies. On the other level, I feel that if women are freely choosing to wear the hijab, then they’ve got to be allowed to. So, although I don’t like hijab myself, I’m very much against the law in France that would prevent women wearing it in certain places.”

Walter recognises that it is not just Islam that requires a woman to cover. “Not being somebody who has a religious faith myself, it’s hard for me to understand the idea of giving oneself to a religious faith that requires covering. Yet I know Jewish women who wear a wig on getting married, western women have long been accustomed to the idea that some western women choose to become nuns and cover their hair. I  hink it’s something that a pluralistic society has to accept - that people make choices that may seem to others peculiar or irrational, but yes I agree, it is a kind of oppression to tell people that they can’t make those choices.” In any culture, freedom is indeed the sine qua non of any life worth living, no question, but it must be remembered that freedom includes exercising one’s right, and that includes choosing to veil oneself from head to foot.

Is the veil problematic because it is seen to be imposed by men? “Yes, I don’t think there’s any doubt that in some countries that is the case, although I know that some Muslim women would argue against that point. But I’ve visited Afghanistan and Iran. I’ve talked to women who do feel that it’s an imposition which removes their human rights to dress as they please. And I think we in the west see that and think, well that’s what the veil’s about. It’s very hard for us to see the other side, that there are some women who choose to wear it. There have been reports from France how in some communities younger women feel they are being forced back into a more traditional culture than the one they’d like to live in. I feel very sympathetic towards that. Obviously if these women want to move out of the traditional culture they have to be helped, given the resources, the education they need to break with that culture, even if it means breaking with their families. But I don’t think they’ll be given those resources just by being told they can remove their headscarves in school. It needs a much more thoughtful approach about how these women can be helped to live independent lives.”

It is the fear that children will be withdrawn from schools that changed Walter’s opinion on the French law. “At first I was quite sympathetic to the law in France, I mean I’ve always felt that school uniforms can be quite a good thing, if they make all young people meet as equals,” she says. “Yet I think that this is the real problem; that children are withdrawn from schools and don’t have the width of syllabus or free learning that one might hope for. I think that’s half of the problem that this law might just exacerbate the divisions between different cultures rather than allowing them to learn from each other.”

Walter agrees that extremists could exploit the current situation. The hijab is the common currency of subjugation – or so the west considers it, and it is the yardstick of Muslim purity – or so some Muslims have conceived it. It is a pawn in the propaganda war between the major players in Samuel Huntingdon’s clash of civilizations, between those who demonize the west and those who demonize the east. “The rise of extremism in Europe from both sides I find very scary,” she says. “People are telling Muslims that they are not welcome to express their religion and culture and vice versa. I think it’s very ominous when Muslims are saying that they don’t feel comfortable and they don’t want to be part of the wider community. I just think that it’s a terrible message the west is sending out if we’re saying that we believe in freedom of expression, we believe in pluralism, but we’ll deny that to people who we disagree with. I do feel that if we’re going to be proud of our own real traditions in terms of pluralism and freedom of expression, then we’ve got to hold to that even when what’s being expressed isn’t something that we necessarily support.”

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