To Veil or Not to Veil?: Hijab and Muslim Women’s Rights in Afghanistan and France Part I
Part II: France
In 2004, a law passed in France that prohibited the wearing of religious symbols in public schools (Wing & Smith 2006: 745). Although this law “affected Jewish yarmulkes, Sikh turbans, and large Christian crosses, its main effect was to ban the wearing of headscarves, or hijabs, by young Muslim girls” (745). Private schools in France were not subject to the ban, nor was the ban targeted towards adult Muslim women at large – those in the street or university students (Scott 2007: 106). Furthermore, this law was not as strictly enforced against Jewish boys wearing skullcaps or Sihks wearing turbans (107). The principle behind this legislation was France’s “commitment to secularism” and the interpretation that “separation of church and state no longer accommodates the wearing of religious head coverings in its secondary schools” (Wing & Smith 2006: 745). In order to understand if the French ban on headscarves infringes upon freedom of religion for women, it is critical to examine the principle of French secularism, which ironically was initially set up to protect freedom of religion.
In the French Constitution of 1946, the principle of the separation of church and state was instituted and implied that “France is an indivisible, laïque (secular), democratic and social republic” (Laborde 2005: 308). France’s secularization has come about after centuries of dispute between the Catholic Church and the state. According to Political Scientist Cecile Laborde, the principle of religious freedom was first adopted during the 1789 Revolution where “in the wording of Article 10 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, ‘no-one should be persecuted [inquiété] for their opinions, even religious ones’” (309). After a century, in 1905, the Law of Separation was adopted in order “to embod[y] a classical ideal of liberal separation between state and religion, underpinned by an individualistic and egalitarian conception of justice as best pursued through state abstention from religious affairs” (308). One component of the separation law is the libertarian principle (Laborde 2005: 308). The libertarian principle asserts that “the state permits the practice of any religion, within limits prescribed by the requirements of public order and the protection of basic rights” and that the state should not be involved in promoting, combating, or interfering in the religious beliefs of an institution (309). With freedom of religion embedded in the French constitution, then under what justification was France able to ban the headscarf?
According to Laborde, there are five different ways in which the headscarf violates the neutrality of and “civic purpose” of schools (327). One claim is that the headscarf introduces religious identity into public schools, which should be a domain protected by secularism (327). Under this concept, the headscarf “can be considered an illegitimate act of propaganda and an aggressive act of proselytism” (327). A second reasoning that constitutes the ban is that the headscarf symbolizes the refusal of Muslims to separate their identity as citizens from their identity as religious adherents (327). Thus, the ban on headscarves would be a signal to the French Muslim community that they, like other religious communities have done, need to put their faith in line with French secularism (327). The third justification is that the headscarf infringes upon the equality between individuals, by automatically dividing individuals as “believers and non-believers…‘good Muslims’ and ‘bad Muslims’, and men and women” (327). Fourthly, proponents of the ban claim that the headscarf “undermines the civic mission of schools” (328) because it is accompanied by other requests such as exemption from participation in physical education courses or biology (327). And finally, proponents of the ban cite that “headscarves undermine the overall scheme of religious freedoms” because “Muslim pupils infringe on the liberty of conscious of others” (328). Laborde explains that “it is crucially important that children, at an age when they are particularly vulnerable, not be exposed to the ostentatious religious behavior of others, lest their freedom of conscience be infringed” (328). Besides Larborde’s explanations, another justification was that the girls were forced by their male relatives and the community to veil, thus it was the governments duty to intervene for girls who had no ability to resist. It is peculiar how despite the fact that some Muslims girls considered the veil to be liberating, the National Assembly study group insisted that the majority of the girls felt it was oppressive (Scott 2007: 129). To reach the conclusion of banning the headscarf, there were no statistics used to back up this claim, only the “opinion of ‘experts’” who already agreed with the government proposal (129). Now that the background on the origins of freedom of religion in French law has been provided and the peculiar arguments advocating for the ban have been examined, it is next critical to evaluate why this ban constitutes an infringement on French Muslim women’s human rights.
The French government has determined that the best way to integrate Muslims into society is to focus on schools as the place where French citizens are created (Wing & Smith 2006: 756). France’s focus on schools as a means to “Frenchify” individuals goes back to Frenchification efforts in the colonies where the French focused on educating young girls “as a way to pass on the French republican values to their future sons and husbands, as well as their fathers and brothers in the present” (756). So this ban on headscarves in 2004 was nothing new in light of France’s history. According to Human Rights Watch, “international human rights law obliges state authorities to avoid coercion in matters of religious freedom, and this obligation must be taken into account when devising school dress codes” (Human Rights Watch). So in this regard, France has violated international law by enforcing the removal of the headscarf by underage school girls. Human Rights Watch goes on to state that “the proposed prohibition on headscarves in France, as with laws in some Muslim countries that force girls to wear headscarves in schools, violates this principle” (Human Rights Watch). This statement adds significant weight to this argument, as this respected organization is clearly stating that both extremes – enforcing veiling or unveiling – constitute a violation of human rights. Furthermore, Human Rights Watch explains that under international law, states can only inhibit a religious practice if it is detrimental to public safety and if it “impinges on the rights of others” (Human Rights Watch). This organization concludes that any religious garment “do[es] not pose a threat to public health, order or morals; they have no effect on the fundamental rights and freedoms of other students; and they do not undermine a school’s educational function” (Human Rights Watch). As a violation of the anti-discrimination provisions of international human rights law, this ban fell disproportionately on Muslim girls, forcing many parents to withdraw their children from school. Despite the non-binding nature of international law, spectators in the international community have not kept quiet about these violations.
Claims of human rights violation have come from the European Parliament of Human Rights and Civil Liberties Committee, with one member asserting that “‘banning the wearing of religious symbols is a clear human rights violation’” (Wing & Smith 2006: 757). Furthermore, the United Nations’ human rights experts have criticized the ban as being intolerant towards Muslims (757). Reactions from Muslims around the world resonate these sentiments, an example being that “Saudi Arabia’s highest religious authority called the headscarf ban “an infringement on human rights” and rebuked France “for being more concerned with the rights of nudist than of Muslims” (757). At the end of the day, despite these charges against the French government, French legislators ruled overwhelmingly in favor of the state, which also enjoyed a 70% approval from the public to instate this ban. However; it can be argued that the headscarf ban is part of a larger problem with Muslims in France, and the possible motivations behind this law affirm this claim.
In order to discuss the issue of the banning of the headscarf in public schools in France, it is critical to understand underlying motivations that may have catalyzed this violation of international law. France has the largest population of Muslims in Europe, with about five to ten percent of the entire population ascribing to this faith (Wing & Smith 2006: 752). The influx of Muslim immigrants from predominantly Middle Eastern countries has alarmed some of the French public, who often view these groups as foreigners, even after they gain citizenship (752). Thus, in the years prior to the ban, the Muslim population in France had been politically and culturally rejected, with some French fearing that the building of mosques and Islamic calls to prayer “represent a ‘clash of civilizations’” (753). These fears of the creation of a “Eurabia”, meaning the further Islamization of Europe, have only spiked after 9/11 and the War on Terror, with many governments perhaps choosing to vilify the Muslim community as a response to the terrorist attacks done in the name of Islam. Yet, policies such as the ban on headscarves, the total ban on niqab, and the banning of building minarets in Switzerland have pushed some members of the Muslim community to the fringes, sometimes fueling religious fundamentalism and radicalism (753). Overall, fears of immigration and the rise of Islamophobia in Europe may be plausible explanations for the motivations behind the ban. Regardless of motives, this legal action has undoubtedly touched off a vigorous conversation in Europe about the place of religion in a secular society, and without a doubt these issues are not yet resolved.
Through out the ages and in every inhabitable land on this earth, women’s human rights have frequently been violated. The issues within women’s rights are huge, but as these articles have demonstrated, something as simple as the clothing worn by a woman can be used to violate her rights as a free agent. This has been the case in Afghanistan and France, two countries that reside on the extreme ends of this issue. In Afghanistan, the protectionist law of veiling that is enshrined in Islamic law has been employed by some in the Taliban as a tool to subjugate women. Some factions of this regime, which controlled Afghanistan prior to 2001, strictly enforced the veil over the women in that country, with punishment exacted on those who violated this dress code. In France, the decision to enforce a ban on headscarves in public schools negates the freedom of religion that is embedded in French law and international law. Under the pretext of protecting these girls from their families or the community that may be forcing them to wear the garment, the French government expressed its supposed good intentions for Muslim girls and its desire to maintain secular schools. Regardless of its intended good, by passing this law, France has violated international law on the freedom to practice religion and it may have inadvertently contributed to the further radicalization of a vulnerable population.
Diversity of opinion and pluralism should be embraced by all nations of the world, but both France and Afghanistan have opted out of this calling by limiting women’s rights in their countries. Currently, the Taliban is technically out of power in Afghanistan, but they still hold influence in the country and improvements on women’s rights to education, and employment have yet to occur even under US occupation. With Europe being evermore gripped by the rise of right-wing parties, and with increasingly radical policies towards Muslims being adopted, it does not appear as if France will reverse its ban any time soon. The increase in these anti-Islamic laws leads one to question whether Europe will be an accommodating place for Muslims in the future. Needles to say, this contentious issue occupies an integral role in the struggle for women’s rights around the world.
Human Rights Watch News (2004) “France: Headscarf Ban Violates Religious Freedom,” Human Rights Watch, http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2004/02/26/france-headscarf-ban-violates-religious-freedom (accessed 9 November 2010).
Laborde, Cecile (2005) “Secular Philosophy and Muslim Headscarves in School,” 13 The Journal of Political Philosophy 305-329.
Scott, Joan W. (2007) The Politics of the Veil. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Wing, Adrien K., & Monica Smith (2006) “Critical Race Feminism Lifts the Veil?:Muslim Women, France, and the Headscarf Ban,” 39 U.C. Davis Law Review 744-790.