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Published in the 16-31 Jan 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Hijab controversy in France
By Asghar Ali Engineer

Again a controversy has been ranging in France on the question of wearing hijab i.e. head-scarf in schools by Muslim girls. This controversy erupted a few years ago but had died down. Again France is agitated as some Muslim girls, particularly the Algerian Arab girls insist on wearing head scarf in schools too, apart from wearing it at home or in private functions and public places. Though the government authorities have no objection to these girls wearing hijab in public places, it wants to ban wearing it in schools as the French government maintains it has to protect its secular traditions. It is going to ban wearing of crosses by the Christians and skullcaps by the Jews in schools. The French Government feels these are religious symbols and hence should not be allowed to be worn in schools.

This issue needs to be discussed at different levels and should not be treated as mere threat to secularism. We would like to throw light on various aspects so that one can understand the real issues involved. Firstly, one has to decide whether wearing a head-scarf really threatens secular tradition of France? What does secularism mean in a modern democratic multicultural society? Is religion a threat to secularism? Is wearing hijab a religious or a cultural practice? Even if it is religious practice (actually it is simplistic to treat it as a mere religious practice) should it be banned? In fact like other things the concept of secularism should also not become a mere dogma. It should remain as dynamic political and social process to be continually discussed, debated and updated.

The European societies are changing very fast and are attracting people from all over the world. These societies were almost mono-cultural before World War-II but today are highly multi-cultural. Secularism in multi-cultural societies cannot be same as in Christian mono-cultural societies. Today America has also evolved a different multi-cultural identity model. Until recently America took pride in melting pot model of identity as almost all migrants to USA were from western countries. But today when migration to USA has been taking place from all over the world including Asian and African countries, this model has become outdated and new model known as mosaic model of identity has emerged. Now white Americans no more take pride only in American identity. 

The American whites have adjusted themselves to multi-cultural model and recognise other identities. For example the blacks are no more referred to as blacks in America but as African Americans. Those who have migrated from India are called Indian Americans and those from Arab countries as Arab Americans and Chinese Americans and so on. But it seems France is yet to come to terms with its growing multi-culturalism and still sticks to its mono-cultural model.

In post-modern societies pluralism and multi-culturalism has been accepted by all social and political theorists. In fact cultural pluralism is the norm and not exception in the post-modern society. The notion of secularism in multi-cultural society is bound to differ from that of mono-cultural society. Unfortunately France is still stuck with its mono-cultural model of nineteenth century and has, therefore, adopted rather rigid and dogmatic approach towards secularism.

France had a predominantly Catholic Christian population when it adopted its secular model. Its culture was certainly influenced by not only Catholic Christianity but also by elements of western society. There is no doubt that French Culture is quite rich but this does not mean it is the only culture in France today. There is large number of Arabs from Algeria in addition to people of other countries and France, like any other European nation is a multi-cultural nation.

The notion of dress varies from culture to culture. Covering head is more of a cultural than religious practice. In Eastern cultures hair is considered sexual stimulant and covering head is a common practice in many Asian and African countries. In India even Hindu women cover their heads with saris in presence of elders and strangers. The Qur’an also suggests covering head though it is not very clear whether it is reccomendatory or obligatory. The Muslim theologians of course consider it as obligatory. It is also not true that all Muslim women wear headgear even in Muslim countries except in Saudi Arabia and some gulf countries. In Syria, Egypt, Algeria, Pakistan, Bangladesh and some other Muslim countries many women go about bare-headed and consider wearing head gear as either sign of ‘backwardness’ or simply unnecessary. In France too all Muslim women do not wear hijab.

Also, all multi-cultural societies take very liberal view of secularism. India has been multi-religious and multi-cultural for centuries and here understanding of secularism is much more liberal and far from anti-religious as in France. Here of course secularism has been weakened as a result of onslaught from Hindu rightist forces. But secularism as such is quite liberal and tolerant of religious and multi-cultural practices. Who wears what, is hardly a question in India and its educational institutions? We see several Muslim women in hijab covering not only the head but also the whole body and no one bothers about it. Similarly many girls wear dresses of their own choices without attracting any adverse notice. The RSS and VHP boys tried to prescribe their own dress code but was never accepted by people in general. It was never adopted.

In fact secularism is always considered quite liberal and tolerant and concedes full freedom to all individuals. Generally orthodox religion is dubbed as intolerant of individual freedom. It is beyond ones comprehension how few Muslim girls wearing hijab can threaten overwhelming secular society of France. In fact any such law banning wearing of hijab would promote religious fundamentalism among those Muslims who want their female children to wear headgear.

Turkish military too imposes such rigid and dogmatic form of secularism. There too women wearing scarf are dismissed from service or even disqualified from membership of Parliament. But this made Islamist forces more popular in Turkey and the reformist party came to power. In a modern secular and democratic society to impose anything from above including the dress code would prove self- defeating.

The Shah of Iran also tried to impose western dress for Muslim women and failed miserably. In fact to defy the ban even those women who had willingly taken to western dress started wearing Islamic hijab. Even their mothers who used to wear western dress were shocked to see their daughters wearing hijab in defiance of Shah’s order. By imposing any dress code we violate individual rights and even sense of dignity. It is quite against notion of human rights in a liberal democracy. 

There is yet another dimension, which has to be taken into account. Every community—religious, ethnic or cultural—has certain identity symbols visible and invisible in a multi-religious and multi-cultural society. And those communities, which are in minority, guard their visible symbols of identity more jealously. They feel overwhelmed by majority religion or culture and deliberately make their identities visible. Hijab too is a part of visible identity for Muslim women.

The UK today is better disposed off to put up with these symbols of religious and cultural identities. It tried to ban Sikhs wearing turban while on duty. But the Sikhs resisted and the Government of UK had to eventually accept their headgear as part of their religious duty. The UK has a large Indian community—Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims and Buddhists. They all are free to wear their respective cultural dresses. 

In fact in France too Algerian Muslim girls have been wearing head-scarf for some time now and not that it has really threatened French secularism. The reason why the French Government is trying to ban wearing of hijab (cross and skullcaps to balance banning of hijab) is more political. The right wing party is gaining more popularity and is likely to get greater percentage of votes in coming elections. This right wing party is attacking foreigners and foreign cultures. The French Government wants to stem the tide of right wing popularity. 

Thus the controversy about wearing hijab has to be seen at several levels. The right wing parties always oppose foreign immigrants and their culture. It is a universal problem and every government has to work out its own strategies to face this challenge. While understanding these political compulsions one would insist that the fundamental principles of multi-religious and multi-cultural society should not be compromised.

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