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Anthony Giddens, who stepped down as director of the London School of Economics in December, is the intellectual "guru" for British Prime Minister Tony Blair's Third Way politics. He is author of "Beyond Left and Right: The Future of Radical Politics."

By Anthony Giddens

LONDON -- At first sight it looks a purely French affair. President Jacques Chirac's government proposes to ban the wearing of the Islamic headscarf or veil, the hijab, in French schools. Other "conspicuous" religious symbols are to be outlawed, too, including the Jewish skullcap and what are termed "large Christian crosses." But the hijab is the prime focus of debate. Previously it was left up to schools to decide whether girls could wear the headscarf in the classroom. The result was a series of rebellions in schools that opted to forbid the practice, leading to the expulsion of some girls. The government hence felt the need to rule on the issue.

The decision that was reached was not an arbitrary one. It followed a report by France's secularism commission, which held public sessions for a period of months from July to December 2003. The commission, headed by former government minister Bernard Stasi, heard evidence from a range of individuals and groups, including from Muslim women who wear the hijab and from others who do not. The whole thing might look specifically French because the tradition of secularism is much stronger there than in most other countries.

That tradition, of course, dates back to 1789 but was given particular force by a law passed in 1905, enforcing an absolute separation between the state and religion. How strong this emphasis remains is indicated by the fact that the French census contains no questions at all about the religious affiliations of respondents. As a consequence, the numbers of Muslims in France can only be guessed at. They probably amount to between 5 to 7 million, giving the country easily the largest Muslim minority in Europe.

Yet the battle over the hijab is actually in no sense a peculiarly French concern -- it is happening in many countries and has a lengthy history. Some of the Lander in Germany, such as Bavaria and Baden-Wurtenberg, are proposing to introduce similar legislation to France. Wearing the hijab is banned in Turkey, as was the case in Iran at the time of the Shah. In Suharto's Indonesia, Islamic dress was regarded as a sign of ignorance and backwardness and actively discouraged in schools until the early 1990s. In Oklahoma, in the United States, an 11-year-old girl was sent home from a public school because her headscarf contravened dress codes originally introduced to prevent the wearing of gang insignia.

Even a cursory glance at the Internet shows dozens of testimonies from Islamic women across the world giving their reasons as to why they either wear the headscarf or refuse to wear it. Most "refusniks" use feminist arguments to justify their decision. For them the veil symbolizes the subjugation of women in Islam. Others, including converts to Islam in countries ranging from the United States to Japan, use parallel arguments to justify a contrary stance. In their view, the wearing of the veil liberates women from the sexual gaze of men. Men treat women more as equals if all visible signs of sexual attractiveness are removed.

The debate about the hijab is intense, emotional and truly global. Are we therefore talking about a clash of civilizations here -- a global fault line between Islam and other, more cosmopolitan cultures? I don't think so. Rather, the connecting thread everywhere is the changing position of women.

Women's identities are on the front line in the new global environment in which we live. Femininity -- how a person defines herself as a woman -- is no longer a given but has become something that is fought over. An insistence upon the purity of women, a strict division of labor between women and men, and the traditional family is characteristic of fundamentalist movements not only in Islam but in other religions, too. For this reason the hijab has no unitary meaning. It reflects the diversity of women's experience and aspirations around the world.

Certainly in many Islamic cultural contexts it expresses the continuing subjugation of women. But it has many other nuances and contradictory meanings as well. For instance, it can be, and often today is, a fashion item, while still carrying residues of its religious origins. Thus the main online hijab shop offers an array of fabrics and colors that "help you change your look and can be used with different outfits."

In some countries -- such as post-Suharto Indonesia -- affluent women have taken to wearing headscarves together with full makeup and a variety of fashionable and often figure-hugging clothes. In contemporary Iran, where wearing the hijab is enforced by law, many younger women have taken to wearing the smallest possible piece of cloth on their heads. The whole society, like most other traditionalist states, is changing: for instance, girls now make up more than 60 percent of university students in the country.

How does all this bear upon Chirac's ban? The answer is, very directly. The policy is likely to be counterproductive precisely because the headscarf has so many different meanings, both to those who wear it and to others around them. Girls whose parents force them to wear it are likely to be withdrawn from the state sector and sent to single-faith schools once the ban comes into operation. They may find themselves married off at an early age to a partner deemed suitable by their parents, and perhaps with several children by the time they are in their 30s. Such an outcome can hardly be regarded as desirable by anyone who wants greater freedom for women. If girls from such backgrounds are to have more of a chance actively to decide upon their futures, only education in a wider cultural setting will provide that chance.

To others the hijab is a sign of ethnic identity and self-assertion in a society where Islamic communities are a large proportion of the poor and the excluded. They may reject the idea that the emancipation of women consists in the wearing of mini-skirts or the baring of midriffs, but still be concerned with promoting the further equality of women. And they should be allowed to pursue such paths.

To seek to ban religious symbols in schools is not the right policy. A universal ban has an echo of the very fundamentalism that it wishes to oppose.

(c) 2004, Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Tribune Media Services International.
For immediate release (Distributed 1/5/04)