Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Hijab in the West

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Hijab in the West

Article excerpt

The Railroad Starts in Paris

A new "hate wave" is crossing France folowing President Jacques Chirac's decision to ban Islamic headscarves from public schools, grant company executives the right to decide whether religious symbols can be worn at work, and prevent patients from refusing care from doctors of the opposite sex.

The ban is presented as a "reaffirmation for the long-established secularism" in France. The French government proposes to expand and liberalize the law of separation of church and state passed in 1905 which meant-at the time-confining religious observance to the private sphere.

A 1989 resolution issued by the French state council, the country's top judicial body, stated that, unless it was worn deliberately to offend others, Islamic headscarves did not violate secularism. Nevertheless, the new law, which the French National Assembly passed by a wide margin, is expected to be implemented in the 2004-2005 school year, which starts in September.

Since the debate over this law began, thousands of Muslim women and men have marched through the streets of Paris to protest President Chirac's proposal. Leading the demonstrators were schoolgirls, wearing French tricolor headscarves-the blue, white and red symbolizing France's most cherished values of liberty, equality and fraternity-and singing the French national anthem.

Appealing to their government and concerned fellow citizens, the marchers carried banners reading "The Veil Is My Choice," and chanted, "Don't touch my shyness," and "Beloved France, Where is my liberty?" Some held their identity cards above their heads or pinned enlarged photocopies of their voter cards on their chests to show that they are no less French than their compatriots.

While the ban on "the ostentatious wearing of any conspicuous religious symbols" include Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses, the Islamic headscarf is the center of this crisis. While banning the former also is an intrusion and a violation of personal freedom, the major difference with regard to the hijab is that the Islamic headscarf is functional rather than symbolic; the scarf serves to cover a Muslim woman's hair, neck, and the upper part of her chest, as a manifestation of the modesty perceived as obligatory by many adherents of Islam.

Unlike French Catholics and Jews, moreover, Muslims will not have alternative private schools or private Muslim companies to take them in when they are dismissed from the French community because of what they wear.

There are other aspects to this issue, however. This acute crisis is superimposed on the underlying "problem" of France's growing North African Arab community, comprising primarily Algerians. The few million brought to France as laborers three generations ago have grown into a community that today represents 10 percent of the French nation. With their increased visibility has come increased awareness of their different look, culture, and mentality. No longer merely imported laborers-even if that is how most of them earn their living-today they are citizens whose native language is French. Not surprisingly, they are demanding rights and inclusion into the fabric of French society.

A Feverish Media Campaign

Over the past few months I have been following closely the feverish French media coverage of the proposed law, and the resulting attention to Muslims and Islamic issues. The effort to stigmatize, isolate and stereotype Muslims, and especially Muslim women, has been relentless.

This intensive campaign against the visibility of Islam in France has been orchestrated by French mainstream papers, radio and TV, and by a few French intellectuals who set the norms for the French society. Not only do the French mainstream media not provide a stage for Muslim intellectuals who cherish their religion to speak out, but they also target, discredit and undermine those who attempt to do so-such as Tarek Ramadan, a Muslim scholar who is gaining popularity among Francophone Muslims. …

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