Veiling the issue: sexism, racism and religion

Wednesday, January 28, 2004 - 11:00

Susan Price, a Socialist Alliance member who is in the Democratic Socialist Perspective, argues that feminists and socialists should oppose state-enforced bans on women wearing hijab, or Muslim headscarves.

In December 2003, more than 3000 protesters hit the streets of Paris in opposition to the plan to introduce a law in France to ban the wearing of the headscarf and "other ostentatious religious symbols" in French state schools.

Tens of thousands then rallied across the world on January 18, as part of an international day of protest against the ban. The bill is to be put before the French cabinet on January 29, before an opening debate in the National Assembly on February 3.

Pressure is mounting for a "no" vote — or at least abstention — by the major parties on the bill.

Union opposition

The French trade union movement is divided on the issue. According to a December article written by Luc Bronner and Martine Laronche in Le Monde, the United Trade Union Federation (FSU), which represents 45% of teachers in France, is hostile to the introduction of such a law, but believes if introduced, it must address the contradictions in French secular society.

Snuipp-FSU, which covers the majority of the primary schoolteachers, has not taken a formal vote on opposing the ban. But its general secretary Nicole Geneix declared the union hostile to the law, as is Sgen-CFDT (the French Democratic Confederation of Labour's affiliated teacher union) which covers 11.4% of teachers.

Other union federations covering teachers have come out in favour of the ban, including UNSA-Education (affiliated to the National Confederation of Independent Unions, covering 14.4% of teachers) and the Union Confederation of National Education (CSEN), which represents 6.1% of teachers. The Workers' Force, which represents 7.1 % of teachers, declared in favour of a very partial revision to the legislation.

The debate hit the headlines after two teenage women were expelled from a high school for wearing headscarves. This follows other such exclusions over the last two years in France. According to Reuters, on a visit to Tunisia in December 2003, French President Jacques Chirac commented to pupils at the French High School that he saw "something aggressive" in the wearing of traditional Muslim veils.

The Stasi Commission, given the task of looking into the possibility of a ban by Chirac, recommended that "oversized crosses" and the Jewish kippa should be banned along with hijab.

Agence France Presse reported on January 21 that education minister Luc Ferry (who drew up the text of the law), told the National Assembly's social affairs committee on January 20, that Sikhs could be persuaded to wear "invisible nets" on their heads instead of turbans.

Ferry then went even further: "One can invent religious signs from mere hairiness. When a beard is transformed into a religious symbol it will fall under the law. Creativity is infinite in the matter."

However, although the law may affect many in France badly, its main intention is the social regulation and control of young Muslims, who bear the brunt of the neoliberal government's racist attacks.

The law has majority support amongst the French public (figures range from 57-70% in polls) and has even drawn strong endorsement from feminists and mainstream women's organisations and media.

Elle magazine carried a public appeal to Chirac to introduce a ban on what it termed a "visible symbol of the submission of women". The appeal has been signed by several high profile French women.

The revolutionary left has responded in different ways. The Revolutionary Communist League's (LCR) Rouge newspaper carried a cover page calling for "Neither the discriminatory law nor the oppressive veil". Lutte Ouvrier (LO) supports the ban.

The main arguments to justify the ban in France have centred on defence of secularism and women's rights.

Secularism?

Secularism has a deep historical basis in the founding of the French Republic. The official separation of church and state was achieved in 1905. State regulation of religious dress and behaviour, however, has a less clear history. In 1937, under the Popular Front government formed against the threat of fascism, schools were instructed to keep religious symbols out.

Fifty-two years later, in 1989, the French Council of State ruled that "the wearing ... of signs by which ...[students] intend to express their membership of a religion is not by itself incompatible with the principle of secularity."

This remained the case until 1994, when schools were advised by the education minister that they could ban "ostentatious religious symbols". In 1996, the Council of State again ruled that the school ban transgressed the principle of freedom of expression.

The uselessness of trying to impose secularism by banning individual religious expression in public institutions such as schools is proven by the experience of Turkey.

In 1999, Turkey banned headscarves in schools, universities and public offices on the grounds that they symbolised a politicised form of Islam. Three-hundred teachers who refused to follow the new policy were fired. An MP who wore a headscarf was expelled from parliament.

Turkey's tradition of secularism dates back to the 1920s. Mustapha Kemal, also known as Ataturk, pursued a program of "Westernisation". Sharia (Islamic law) was abolished in 1926 and Islam was removed from the constitution as Turkey's official religion in 1928. Kemal championed legal equality for women, introducing a range of progressive reforms. However, secularism was forcibly imposed, crudely elevating Western dress, music and etiquette.

Islamic forces campaigned against the 1999 ban by condemning the violation of their democratic rights. Alongside popular resentment at the repressive enforcement of "secular" policy, a deep resentment of the arrogance of the corrupt "secular" elite propelled the Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP) into government in the November 3 general election.

One of the AKP's first pledges was to lift the ban on headscarves, although four years later the ban is still in place in universities, higher education and Islamic colleges. It has resulted in three women involved in the 1999 campaign being repeatedly arrested since then and then jailed this year in Istanbul.

Turkey's experience reinforces the point that separation of church and state is about allowing for freedom of thought — not outlawing religious behaviour in the name of secularism.

Defence of religious freedom is fundamental for the progressive movement. Monopolising religious ideas is one way that the ruling class can seek to justify oppression, and entrench its rule.

In 1905, at the time of the democratic revolution in Russia, Vladimir Lenin wrote in Novaya Zhizn, that religion must be declared a private affair as far as the state is concerned. "Everyone must be absolutely free to profess any religion he or she pleases, or no religion whatsoever... Discrimination among citizens on account of their religious convictions is wholly intolerable."

Feminism?

Some argue that to allow the wearing of hijab undermines the cause of those young women who are fighting against being forced to wear the veil.

Many women, Muslim and non-Muslim, have criticised the pressure placed upon women to cover their hair, bodies and sometimes faces, in the name of honouring a god. Feminist writers such as Fatima Mernissi, have pointed out the connection between women's isolation from public life and the wearing of the veil.

But the veil and headscarf are not the source of women's oppression and inferior social status. Simply banning women from wearing symbolic clothing will not change their status or the underlying pressures upon them. For real equality, women must win economic independence and the ability to make a full range of choices about the way they live their lives.

First World governments have gone on a racist frenzy since 9/11, seeking to persuade First World populations that Muslims are opposed to freedoms and rights these governments falsely claim are enshrined in Judeo-Christian societies. This makes it even more vital for socialists to put forward alternative ways of combating sexism, rather than calling on governments to regulate religious practice.

It is not surprising that France's right-wing government has launched this offensive while the revolutionary left is making gains. The wedge-politics of racism has always been used to divide the working class, which in France pulled off spectacular rolling strikes against the government in 2003.

The current attack must also be seen as part of a continuum of racist policies which go back to the mid-1990s and the "Fortress Europe" policies of the major European capitalist governments, particularly (but not limited to) Germany and France.

The policies of "Fortress Europe" were an attempt by bourgeois parties to appeal to the support base of Jean-Marie Le Pen's right-wing National Front (FN). During the mid 1990s, FN-controlled local councils sought to censor library collections and ban the serving of hilal and kosher meals for Muslim and Jewish school students. Many of those policies have since been co-opted by the ruling elite.

The ban on the hijab should be opposed. The best way to fight sexism, like racism, is to encourage women to fight to defend their rights through collective action of the oppressed. It is such collective action, between muslims and non-Muslims, that Chirac is trying to avoid.

From Green Left Weekly, January 28, 2004.

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From GLW issue 568