Thu, 12 Feb 2004

The dispute over Islamic headscarves in the West

Mohamad Abdun Nasir, Leiden, Holland

The presence of Islam in Western countries has had broad impacts, as Islam is both a system of belief and a way of life. It has inspired its followers to establish an environment in which they can observe religious activities and maintain their cultural identities. The establishment of mosques, Islamic schools, Muslim female dress and Islamic organizations in many Western states are concrete examples that support this hypothesis.

Although most countries in the West lay down the right to religious freedom in their constitutions, its practice invariably differs. The interpretation and the application of this right depend largely on the history of state and religion in each country. The current disputes over Muslim female headscarves, or jilbab in Indonesian, best illustrate the relationship between state and religion.

The jilbab -- commonly refered to hijab in the West and in academic debates -- is now considered the most provocative element of Islam in the West and has increasingly become a topic of controversy.

This holds true in such countries as the United States and especially France. In October 2003, a Muslim girl was suspended from an Oklahoma public school because her headscarf violated the dress code. During the same month, two young students were chased out of school in Aubervilliers, Paris, because they refused to remove their headscarves.

In spite of harsh criticisms from religious leaders, French President Jacques Chirac enthusiastically supported a proposal to ban all religious symbols in public schools. While Muslim students in the United Kingdom are allowed to wear headscarves -- provided that they are the same color as the school uniform -- headscarves in the Netherlands are permitted only at private, religious schools, not public schools.

These cases depict different viewpoints on and approaches to the jilbab. Some think that a jilbab is an expression of religious freedom -- as it is a symbol of religious belief -- and should therefore be protected by a nation's constitution. On the other hand, it is accused of representing inequality between men and women under Islam, which is incompatible with the Western concepts of female emancipation and gender equality. The headscarf is also considered a challenge to the modern, secular identity of the West.

Meanwhile, it is viewed as a reflection of the rise in problems of social integration among the Muslim minority in Western Europe. It is also feared that the jilbab signifies the emergence of religious fundamentalism and radicalism in the West.

In short, the Muslim headscarf is now at the center of discursive battles over religious freedom and human rights on the one hand, and debates on fundamentalism, social integration, secularism, and public and private spheres on the other.

The public presence of veiled girls as professional employees eventually challenges the Western notion that the jilbab is a symbol of limitation that relegates women to the domestic sphere.

The phenomenon of Muslim headscarves in Western societies therefore cannot simply be interpreted as religious practices transmitted from the previous generation that might indicate a return to a static tradition.

The jilbab symbolizes the emancipation of Muslim women in the West and thereby indicates a move toward the modernization of Islam.

However, the struggle for Islamic headscarves to be fully recognized and institutionalized seems to move slowly. In France, for instance, the challenges are much more complex than those in other Western European states.

The jilbab is no longer seen in France as clothing, but rather, is considered a political symbol when it is seen in public. By publicly revealing their affinity to Islam and claiming their right to cultural identity, the two girls were seen as challenging the established, secular French society.

In addition, France has adopted a specific social integration concept concerning immigrants, which bases social integration on individual assimilation and the prevention of social structures among ethnic or cultural minorities. Neither ethnic nor religious identities thus play a role in the public sphere.

This perception of ethnic, group or religious identity as a threat to secularism in France may explain the serial suspensions of girls wearing headscarves in public schools.

The dispute over the jilbab also goes beyond human rights discourse and touches upon the issue of fundamentalism. Although the jilbab in the West reflects religious conviction and female emancipation under Islam, it is widely believed that the jilbab is also a ideological and political manifestation of radical Islam.

Headscarves are alien to the native French, and is a foreign culture imported from Muslim states -- where Islam is sometimes abused by antidemocratic regimes. In addition, terror attacks by radical Muslims have been associated freely with Islam. Islam is thus equated with a fundamentalist approach that leads to radicalism, a discourse that has contributed greatly in deciding on the jilbab. Muslim headscarves are therefore interpreted to indicate the emergence of radical Islam.

This is the real problem faced by Muslims. Religious freedom as a human right is the only and last defense for the jilbab. Muslims in turn use universal human rights in order to justify their demands for maintaining their particular group identity.

Meanwhile, the discourses of secularism, public and private spheres, social integration and fundamentalism are lethal weapons against the Muslim headscarf.

The choice of action, whether based on idealism or realism, however, is in the hands of Muslims. The former entails everlasting endeavors to negotiate Muslim political and cultural allowances in French society until their aspirations are accommodated. The latter choice is less risky, and has been taken by a few Muslim girls who put away their jilbab at public schools, but don them outside of school.

In this precarious situation, Muslims should establish a priority between defending Islam in general and adopting the jilbab in particular. Of these, the lesser -- that is, the latter option -- should be left aside.

If Muslims insist on asserting their right to wear headscarves and the French government's reaction remains unchanged, the condition will likely end in uncertainty and tension, or even worse. We are waiting to see where the winds will blow, hoping that the best solution for this issue will arise.

The writer is conducting research on the Muslim headscarf in contemporary western Europe as part of his Masters program in Islamic studies at Leiden University, Holland.