Hijab hysteria: France and its Muslims

About the author
Svend White is the secretary and a board member at the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy(CSID) in Washington, DC. He is also an internet consultant specialising in e-government and multi-lingual software development. His intellectual and public interests include Islamic thought, conflict resolution, interfaith dialogue, and human rights and economic justice in American foreign policy. The views expressed here are his own.

The escalation of the long-simmering headscarf affair in France in the early months of 2004 should be cause for concern among all who cherish freedom, regardless of creed or nationality.

Patrick Weil, a member of the presidential commission that recommended the banning of religious apparel in French schools, argues for the government’s policy in openDemocracy on the basis of the country’s secular tradition and its need to adapt to new circumstances, especially pressure - some imagined by nervous French officials, and others real - to force Muslim girls attending school to cover their hair.

I remain opposed to the ban, both as a democrat and as a Muslim

As a democrat, I believe that the ban calls into question a pillar of democratic governance around the world and needlessly antagonises Muslims of nearly every persuasion – and at a time when dialogue is desperately needed between the west and the umma (Muslim community). It is an anachronistic and discriminatory edict unworthy of one of history’s great laboratories of liberty, not to mention a counter-productive social policy likely to undercut the already frayed social compact binding French Muslims to their compatriots in the Fifth Republic.

Also in openDemocracy:

It is right that Muslims around the world should defend a girl’s right to cover her hair if she so chooses. At the same time, they should also ponder how the hijab is sometimes exploited within Muslim communities in the west in ways that undermine Muslim women and ultimately pervert the principles for which hijab stands. Many Muslim leaders, in short, will need to get over their own “hijab hang-ups” before they can be part of any solution to empower Muslim women.

A fractured society

France’s tradition of laïcite (secularism), and its current daunting social problems of social integration and exclusion, make the authorities’ anxieties about fragmentation of their society understandable. All this is well explained by both Johannes Willms and Patrick Weil in openDemocracy.

However, even if one accepts the French elite’s approach in its own terms, the authoritarian ban on the headscarf is wrong both legally and ethically. It may violate the international juridical codes, like the European Convention of Human Rights, to which France has subscribed. In its heavy-handed overreaction to the growing pains of an increasingly diverse society that runs counter to the Zeitgeist of post-war European political and cultural life and which is ironically reminiscent of the Taliban, who also denied women basic human rights for essentially making the wrong fashion choice. As the Christian Science Monitor dryly observes: “Other western democracies allow the display of religious headgear and jewellery, yet survive.”

Moreover, headscarves are a distraction from what should be the real concerns of President Chirac and the French government. As French writer Alain Duhamel once pithily said: integration is broken (en panne). This is a society where formidable and highly visible barriers to social solidarity are deeply entrenched.

Even a brief visit to one of the numerous cités (housing projects) and banlieus suburbs) where most French Muslims reside – over a generation since “guest workers” from North Africa started to arrive in large numbers – reveals a world set apart from the centre of French life. Their communities are plagued by crime, poverty, and disproportionately high unemployment.

As the Christian Science Monitor comments, “bigotry and lack of opportunity, not head scarves, are the threat to France.” There is a profound and widespread sense of alienation among Muslims, especially within the young generation of the Beurs – children of immigrants who, having been born and raised in France, find their economic and social exclusion even more bitter.

The Algerian-born novelist Leïla Sebbar describes starkly the plight of the Beurs in France. She presents their history with France as one of “love mixed with hate, perverse and frequently murderous. They are not truly of their native land, France, nor that of their father and mother.”

The presence of millions of Muslims in France is a reminder that the country is no longer – if it ever was – ethnically and religiously homogeneous, and that economic, social, or racial differences just as “conspicuous” as the headscarf are visible throughout everyday life.

For example, class distinctions are alive and well in French schools, even though these are contrary to the French republican ethos. As in most countries, the socio-economic background of a student in France can often be identified by his or her dress, yet President Chirac is not calling for a mandated student uniform that would conceal divisive signs of material wealth or status.

After all, even a rigorously republican educational environment will not soon erase the social boundaries between a Senegalese boy or a Vietnamese girl and their classmates who are Français de souche (French by extraction). The idea that a typical Muslim school student in the Parisian suburban ghetto of Vitry-sur-Seine differs from her peers in the well-to-do Latin Quarter primarily by her choice of headgear is naïve in the extreme. Is social harmony not better promoted by embracing and managing unavoidable differences?

Seen in this light, the headscarf ban seems rooted in a utopian vision that is remote from basic demographic realities in post-colonial France in the era of globalisation.

A crossroads, not a crusade

Muslims are hardly alone in challenging the cultural status quo in France. This Kulturkampf is but one scene of a larger drama that is unfolding around the world as societies become increasingly complex and borders become an abstraction. Thus, if there is any “clash of civlisations”, it is not between Islam and the west, but between the modern world and the 19th century. In a period of bewildering diversity and intense scepticism, cherished nationalist verities can no longer be taken for granted. Old notions of citizenship, ethnicity, and belonging are under siege in most societies, as new hybrid identities emerge. France is no exception.

Bernard Stasi, head of the presidential commission on the application of secularism in France (on which Patrick Weil also sat), has claimed that Muslims who support the headscarf “want France no longer to be France”. Perhaps he is right in a different way than he intends: French Muslims do not want to live in France as it has been, but rather in the rich, dynamic society that they already know and want it to remain.

Were Honoré de Balzac or Emile Zola chronicling the variety of French life today, many of their tales would undoubtedly take place in the shadow of minarets and shawarma stands. Muslims want France to live up to the ideals of its republican tradition and adapt to the times instead of forcing on them utopian norms that are rooted in a bygone, if not mythical, social order.

Muslims’ hijab hang-ups

There is, however, another side to this complex story. Muslims standing up for rights of Muslim women today would do well to concede that not all of the French concerns about hijab are unfounded. For just as French policy-makers need to understand that the headscarf is not the banner of Islamic fundamentalism or ethnic separatism, so must Muslims face the fact that the hijab, as practiced and envisioned in much of the Islamic world, is far from the badge of women’s liberation that many assume it to be. When chosen freely, it is indeed a badge of empowerment, a radical blow against a world that objectifies women; but when hijab is coerced, it is a brand used by benighted reactionaries to hijack the Islamic tradition in their ceaseless efforts to control women.

The reality for Muslim women is complex. Many certainly choose to wear the headscarf freely and because of conviction; others make that choice under coercion; yet others are penalised harshly for making the “wrong” choice. It is not unusual for women who abandon the hijab to be subjected to character assassination, ostracism, and (in the case of many Islamic organisations) blacklisting within the community.

Discrimination within the Muslim community against women who don’t wear the hijab is so commonplace that it is easy to overlook. The social penalty for not conforming, even if one does not agree with the traditional interpretation – and not all Muslims do – falls particularly heavily on unmarried women.

A lot of progress has been made in the Muslim community in recent years, both in majority Muslim countries and in the west. Many Muslim leaders are now openly addressing difficult subjects like ijtihad (religious reform), religious freedom, democracy, women’s rights, and interfaith dialogue. But hijab remains the proverbial Achilles’ Heel of many an otherwise sophisticated and open-minded Muslim thinker.

Islam enjoins modesty, on both sexes, but there is something reminiscent of Emperor Nero to some Muslim scholars’ fixation with hijab in the context of western life. Muslim citizens today must contend with immodesties and social problems far more threatening than the occasional alluring hairdo – the glorification of crude, loveless sex; ubiquitious nudity or near-nudity; rampant narcissism and materialism; numbing violence – yet the focus remains constantly, relentlessly on hijab to the exclusion of nearly all else.

This inordinate emphasis almost makes hijab a sacred cow, an idol (sanam in Arabic) that distracts a believer from worshipping God (indeed, some Muslims act as if the hijab were one of the five pillars of Islam). In the process, Islam is reduced to a glorified dress code, a dry litany of rules and obsessions that belittles women, exempts men from their responsibilities, and offers believers no warmth, camaraderie or genuine spiritual sustenance. This is a mockery of Islamic values, as outrageous as it is tragic.

Muslims should remember the fact that, even if all hijab-wearers were banished from schools in the land of Voltaire, Muslims in France would still enjoy freedoms and other basic democratic protections that are the envy of the Muslim world. It is sobering to consider that even with this benighted ban in full force, France will offer more religious freedom to Muslims than any so-called “Islamic” country today grants its non-Muslim minorities.

Thus, as Muslims denounce this violation of religious freedom in France, we must also defend on principle the rights of non-Muslims – whether they be Copts, Jews, Bahai’s, Sikhs, Chaldeans, Parsis, and others – to live and practice their religions unmolested in Muslim societies.

Finally, even with its flaws it is also true that we Americans might be able learn from France’s handling of the affair. Wrongheaded though the hijab ban may be, it has at least been enacted through a transparent, democratic process and widely debated in French society. By contrast, a stealthy and ultimately more dangerous campaign against Muslim civil rights in the name of a nebulous “war on terror” has been waged on American soil by the Bush administration over the last two years with barely any protest from the media or political establishment.