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14.2.04

Who Does The Hijab Hurt?

As you can see from the comic a couple posts down, I'm pretty set against France's decision to ban the wearing of the hijab in schools. The comments to a recent Crooked Timber post provoked me into taking a more in-depth look to see how well justified my conclusion was. The overriding question is: who does wearing the hijab hurt, and does the ban alleviate this problem?

Muslim Girls: I've addressed this question briefly before. I understand, and share, the concerns that the hijab custom is often (but hardly always) used as an instrument of oppression against Muslim women as well as being an expression of the idea that women are inferior. I can see that for some girls the law may provide an excuse to avoid the custom, as in the example of dueling laws referenced on Crooked Timber. However, it will do little for the situations in which the hijab is most firmly entrenched (the very ones that most need to be reached). Conservative families may decide that if their daughter can't cover her head, she can't go to school. The girls themselves, making the reasonable assumption that right or wrong they have internalized the hijab requirement, would feel emotional distress at being forced to go without it (hardly something adolescents need more of). The outcome would be to reinforce the idea that strict observance of Islam is incompatible with French culture. If the core worry is about the persistence of oppressive customs and Muslims' failure to assimilate, that's not a choice you want to force French Muslims to make. Since religious identity is incredibly strong while they often haven't yet picked up a firm attachment to France, they will choose Islam. This will exacerbate the cultural split and make it harder for West-friendly Muslims to cross the divide. The only way to make the decision consistently fall in favor of assimilation would be a Stolen Generations-style scheme that I trust is completely out of the question.

French Non-Muslims: This is the weakest argument for the ban. French officials claim that wearing the hijab is a form of proselytizing. Their commitment to secularism or Christianity or whatever must be remarkably weak if the acknowledgement by others of their Islamic faith is tantamount to proselytizing. The argument reminds me in a way of the "keep it in the closet" school of thought about homosexuality, in which people say they aren't opposed to homosexuality, but they don't want it "forced" on them by such behaviors as publicly acknowledging the existence of a same-sex relationship. Stefan in the Crooked Timber comments says the French "are very tolerant of other religions as long as they don’t flaunt it."

Perhaps in some schools with an overwhelmingly conservative Muslim student body there might be strong peer pressure on non- or liberal-Muslim girls to conform by wearing a hijab. But dealing with that by banning the hijab falls into the same trap as all attempts to correct peer pressure by banning the activity that kids are pressured into -- it fails to get at the underlying disease of insider/outsider distinctions in children's socializing patterns, which will then simply manifest itself in a different way.

The French State: Ginger in the Crooked Timber comments lays out the argument that France has a right to enforce public observance of French cultural values, and that contrary values -- particularly those that promote an identity other than the individual and French citizenship -- can be considered a threat that the state can defend against (emphasis in the original):

[France] is making it absolutely clear that those views of women as something to be covered up, and of religion as something that sets people apart in contradiction to basic principles of gender equality and laicite is no longer going to be tolerated in a state school setting.

... What matters first of all to the state is that collectively, whatever individual reason behind embracing/submitting to them, the physical and behavioural display of those views disrupt the basic foundations and workings of state education as the French have envisioned it.


I'm troubled by this idea that the state may not only take sides on cultural questions (that much is often inevitable), but also actively work to force compliance with the national culture. Freedom of expression deserves a broad range and generous benefit of the doubt, compromised only by an imminent threat of lawlessness.

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