The French parliament – the lower house has passed a bill proposing to ban the use of headscarf- Hijab by the Muslim girls in public schools of France. It will now go to the senate and then to French president for signing. If the bill can get through the senate and President Jacques Chirac signs it, it will become a law.
The attempt to ban Muslim girls from attending public schools with headscarf- Hijab is not a new phenomenon. As back as 1989 Ernest Cheniere, who later became a member of French Legislative Body, first banned headscarf- Hijab wearing girls from his school in north Paris.
It is amazing that France that claims itself to be the cradle of civilization and the torch bearer of liberty, equality and fraternity doing something which tantamount to interfering the individual liberty. Indeed this is against the lofty objective of French revolution and very much unfrench. French role during the recent US war on Iraq was very much appreciated throughout the Muslim world and people thought that France has revised her policy towards the Muslims. People thought that France wouldn’t repeat her negative policy as she did in the case of Algeria where she supported the military junta against the aspiration of the people for a democratic rule. But the recent move to ban the use of headscarf-Hijab by the Muslims girls in public schools is really frustrating. It seems that France could not get out of her colonial mentality. France, in the past, ruled most of the North Africa and other colonies with great brutality.
To justify her action, France is telling that the use of headscarf-Hijab is a threat to her policy of secularism and nationalism. But this is far from truth. In fact secularism presupposes pluralism and multiculturalism in which every group has right to fashion its life to its liking. Every group and sub-group has right to preserve its own culture and therefore we see movement worldwide to protect even the culture of the aboriginals. It is well established that secularism and democracy mean genuine pluralism and diversity of faiths, cultures and life-styles. The ban on the use of headscarf by the Muslim girls is, no doubt, encroachment on fundamental rights, violation of human rights and indeed discriminatory. It seems that secularism has become more important to the French government than her three original well-known principles - liberty, equality and fraternity. France now needs to add the slogan of secularism to its three famous slogans of freedom, equality and fraternity, reported Le Figaro on 17 December 2003 in front page headline.
The religious freedom, including the right of a person to express his or her religious identity in a manner he or she deems appropriate is integral to the secular notion of human rights. The use of headscarf- Hijab by the Muslim girls in no way infringing the right of other religious community and their liberty and therefore using headscarf- Hijab cannot be termed as anti-secular.
In a democracy, every group has its rights to choose its own way, fashion its life and dress according to its faith, tradition and culture. The Muslim girls use headscarf- Hijab as a sign of modesty. The proposed law, no doubt, is anti-democratic for it attacks on privacy and life-style. It is violation of cultural rights, so to say cultural oppression and tyranny. It is sheer fascism and a form of cultural imperialism.
The proposed law is discriminatory for it allows the Christians to use small cross. It is hypocritical for even after the enactment of the law the Christians can use cross, for cross can be concealed, while the Muslim girls cannot use headscarf - Hijab for headscarf cannot be concealed and the French government understands it.
Moreover, in the absence of enough private Muslim schools and due to limited financial capability - the Muslims parents cannot withdraw their daughters from the public schools to send them to private schools, for private schools are very much expensive compared to public schools. The French government, fully aware of this situation, has proposed the ban of headscarf - Hijab only in public school.
France, the proud upholder of liberty, is trying to justify the ban on Muslims girls’ use of headscarf- Hijab, for what she says, to preserve national values arguing that such cultural symbols are against the spirit of national cohesion and harmony, integration and assimilation of different immigrant groups with the mainstream and a threat to national security. The fact is that ban on the use of headscarf- Hijab will only isolate the Muslim girls and weaken their chance for integration. Such an attitude is against the very sprit of democracy and fraternity and only depicts the intolerant attitude of the French ruling elite. It is very difficult to understand how a square meter cloth used as headscarf- Hijab can undo a nation like French.
The proposed law is a violation of human rights. Article 9 of the ECHR and Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights clearly states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance”. Denying the Muslim girls the right to wear headscarf- Hijab, dress in accordance with their conscience, faith and tradition is an attack on their right to privacy and life-style. There cannot be a more flagrant abuse of human rights in the name of secularism and nationalism.
This ban is not an attack on a piece of cloth but a direct attack upon Islam and the identity of Muslim women and a violation of religious rights. The proposed move to ban headscarf- Hijab is not an isolated incident and should be seen in the wider context of the issue of freedom of the Muslims to practice their religion in France. France has the largest Muslim community in Europe- around six million Muslims and the number of Muslims living in France is likely to be ten million if we include those who do not have papers and therefore she suffers from Islamophobia.
Islam is State Religion in Bangladesh, but we have not imposed any dress code on anyone. Everyone can go his or her way. She may cover with headscarf, she may not. She may veil- cover her face and may not. It is her business. We don’t interfere. This freedom is essential part of our culture and in no way threatens our national unity and cohesion. If we in Bangladesh can go without any strict dress code why France cannot? The Muslim belief is that there is no compulsion in religion – la ikraha fiddin [Surat Al Baqarah: 256].
We hope that good sense will prevail and France, the cradle of Western civilization, will not further proceed with its policy of cultural victimization and must not make Muslim women a victim of cultural aggression and will allow them to live in France as a peaceful community committed to preserve their cultural values, norms and traditions and practice their religion.
The French government possibly cannot force the schools run and managed by the Church to follow suit and definitely the French government cannot force the Christian Nuns to forgo the use of headscarf. Then what is the purpose of such legislation that will ban the use of headscarf- Hijab in the public schools by the Muslim girls. One may raise the legitimate question whether Mary (peace be upon her) with headscarf is also a threat to French secularism, democracy, national integration and its lofty ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity.
It is simply ridiculous to think headscarf- Hijab symbolizes sexual inequality and imprisonment of women while similar observations are not made about the Catholic Nuns who use headscarf.
The allegation that headscarf- Hijab is the symbol of oppression and the French government is banning headscarf- Hijab to liberate women is also not valid. If headscarf- Hijab is oppressive why so many Western women are converting to Islam? Islam is the fastest growing religion in the West and the number of women converts to Islam is more than men.
The West must not forget that it alone is responsible for the rise of extremism in the Muslim world. It is frustration that breads terrorism. France must realize that ban on the use of headscarf-Hijab by the Muslim girls will only antagonize the Muslims. Ban on the use of headscarf-Hijab by the Muslim girls is indeed a cultural aggression and a form of state terrorism by the French government. The West must not put the Muslim in a situation where the Christian West and the Muslims confront each other and make a situation where the clash of civilization seemingly becomes apparent. The West should adopt the policy of dialogue with the Muslims for that alone can make the world an abode of peace.
Article prepared on 21 February 2004 and presented as keynote paper at the RTC on “Practice of Human Rights in the Centre of Civilization” organized by the “Centre for National Culture” (CNC), Dhaka at the conference room of the National Press Club, Dhaka on Sunday 29 February 2004