Some prominent politicians are calling for the hijab to be banned in schools. Rather than guaranteeing the separation of church and state, such a ban is more likely to alienate the Muslim community and harm multiculturalism.
As I was walking home and thinking about this article, I saw a large group of teenage girls making their way loudly down the street. Among the regular-looking Belgian faces were three that looked Arab, one of whom was sporting an Islamic headscarf. Her hijab made no apparent difference to this young lady's ability to joke and socialise with her mates.
Watching this crowd of friends pass casually by made me wonder how it was that a little square of cloth could cause so much fuss in two apparently tolerant and open-minded European societies. Although I am a Muslim, I am not personally in favour of the hijab. However, I believe that it is a matter of individual choice – an opinion that is not shared by several prominent politicians in France and Belgium.
Arguing that the separation of church and state required it, Interior Minister Patrick Dewael of the liberal VLD echoed a French parliamentary committee when he called for the banning of the headscarf – and other religious symbols – among teachers (as well as other civil servants) and pupils. The minister's comments drew harsh criticism from across the political spectrum, with the notable exception of the far-right Vlaams Blok.
Forbidding religious symbols makes sense when it comes to state institutions – the 10 commandments in a US courthouse or a cross in a school assembly hall – because it demonstrates government even-handedness when dealing with its citizens regardless of their religious background. But schoolgirls are not state property, nor are teachers or other civil servants.
Government officials are, of course, obliged to serve the public without prejudice. But dictating how they dress will not enhance their sense of justice. How does not wearing a cross, a star of David, a Sikh turban or a Hindu Tika improve a person's ability to do his or her job? People will carry their beliefs with them no matter what they wear. A good civil servant leaves his or her personal views – secular or religious – outside the door and there are plenty of laws to protect against discrimination.
If such a policy were to get the green light, it would raise some important questions about where the state ends and the individual begins. As critics of Maoist China – with its uniform blue or grey suits and bicycles – were all too keen to point out, people are not the same and their differences should not be buried. But purging individuality – a cherished European value – is precisely what these secular puritans are asking everyone to do.
Then, of course, there would be questions about what exactly constitutes a banned headscarf. There are several methods with which a Muslim woman can cover her hair, including – in increasing conservative order – hijabs, khemars and niqabs. Which will the government forbid?
What if a woman covers her head for non-religious reasons – such as a ‘bad hair day' or it becomes the latest Gucci craze? Many Muslim women seeking to stay true to their faith may cover their hair in a hood, a beret, a hat, or a shawl. Would these items of clothing then become religious symbols, too?
Minister Dewael claims that banning the headscarf will lead to the “emancipation of young people”. This holds when a woman is forced by family, spouse, peer pressure and the community to cover up. In such cases, she should have recourse to a social and legal support network to help her protect her individual rights. The government should perhaps work on making such services more accessible.
However, many Muslim women voluntarily don a headscarf and they do so out of a strong religious conviction. Forcing them to shed their hijabs against their will is just as much a “form of oppression” as Dewael claims the headscarf is. Those who do so will feel that they have been forced to compromise their faith, while other will choose not to enter places where it is banned. This will have the unwelcome result that, rather than empower Muslim women, it may actually cause them to feel victimised and to retreat – or be kept away – from mainstream societies.
This can be seen among religious Turks who are angered by the decades-old policy banning headscarves in Turkish government buildings. In addition to his iron-fist rule and corruption, the former Shah of Iran was despised by many in his country for forcing secularism down the throats of his people. Now, along with Saudi Arabia, Iran forces its women to cover up whether they want to or not. Most other Muslim countries leave it up to the individual.
This highlights the fact that the hijab – and its other variants – is also a controversial issue in the Muslim World, even among feminists. Some Muslim feminists see it as liberating because it effectively desexes their relationship with men in the public arena, others see it as tool of male dominance. Rifaat Hassan, a feminist from conservative Pakistan, recently told a Brussels audience that she regarded the headscarf as a non-issue because it was not expressly referred to in Islamic scripture. As if to illustrate her point, she let the top of her sari slip off her hair. It is men's attitudes towards women that are the problem, she argued – a microskirt can be just as subjugating or liberating as a hijab.
All this angst over covering hair may seem strange to non-Muslims but sweeping the issue under the carpet will not promote tolerance, since to be tolerant, people need to understand and accept their differences as well as their similarities. We should not pretend that we're all the same and we should learn to respect, or at least put up with, our differences. I say let Muslims, Christians, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus and atheists do their thing – it makes life more colourful.
This article appeared on Expatica in January 2004.