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As long ago as 1959, the Algerian writer Frantz Fanon expressed puzzlement as to why non-Muslims are so preoccupied with the veil. Fanon wrote that most people know almost nothing about Islam or its practices, but seemingly know everything about Muslim women, and in particular stand ready to condemn the practice of covering one’s head on the basis of that knowledge.
Leslie Cannold, in On Line Opinion for example tells us she is not quite sure what to think about veiling, while quickly adding that the practice of veiling has the fixed meaning of conformity to a constricting traditional way of life.
For Cannold, veiling constricts female identity in a way similar to female genital cutting or foot-binding. This view is akin to the argument of a prominent group of French women intellectuals, actors and artists who wrote an open letter to French Elle in December 2003 urging the foulard, or head coverings, be banned from French public schools. The cover of that issue showed a model in a scanty red slip, inciting wry observations about the relative ostentation of getting one’s clothes off in public versus keeping them on for the sake of modesty.
Soon after, in February 2004, the lower house of the French parliament passed an Act to outlaw conspicuous display of religious affiliation by students in public schools. The law's proposers say it is meant to target any form of conspicuous religious dress at school, including veils, Jewish kippot (skullcaps), and excessively large crosses. Although the law is framed in neutral terms, however, it was sparked by and directed primarily towards the attire of Muslim girls.
The 2004 law was passed after two official commissions investigating the question of laïcité (secularism) in France: the most recent of those commissions, headed by Bernard Stasi, made recommendations about religious dress in schools. Although the Stasi report made other proposals, such as additional school holidays for Yom Kippur and Eid, only the proposal on religious dress was endorsed by French President Jacques Chirac and passed into law. Chirac characterised the foulard as a form of aggression and as a threat to the laïcité of French public life.
The presence of vibrant Muslim communities in Europe has been seen by some governments as posing a threat to secularism, the separation of religion and state. Public schools, especially in France, have in recent years become a stage on which this drama of secularism is played out. And at the centre of the drama are the head coverings of Muslim girls. The foulard has been a matter of bitter controversy in French public schools since around 1989, when three girls in Creil faced expulsion for refusing to uncover in class.
However, the criticisms made of veiling in France form rather a hodge-podge. The major criticisms of veiling are that it is ostentatious, signals an aggressive political extremism, and is connected to women’s subordination. But only religious practices are targeted by the French law. Non-religious practices or symbols that are ostentatious, extremist or subordinating go unmentioned. French girls do not get sent home from school for wearing purple mullets so as to please their punk boyfriends.
This same confusion, as to what exactly is the problem raised by girls who cover, can be seen in the reaction of some Australian public figures. In December 2003, and in the context of the debates in France, Reverend Fred Nile bemoaned the wearing of veils in schools. Nile argued that girls who veil create “barriers in the classroom and the playground” and foster “tension and confusion in the minds of non-Muslim children”. Where girls have been forced to cover their heads, Nile said, the veil also becomes “a potential weapon in a religious ideological battle”.
In late 2002, Reverend Nile had expressed another concern in the NSW Parliament in regard to veiling: that Muslim women in chador could be concealing weapons and explosives. Reverend Nile’s concern was echoed at that time by Prime Minister John Howard, who told John Laws that he was in favour of respecting people’s religious beliefs, “providing you’re not flinging it in somebody else’s face”. Mr Howard admitted at the time that he was no expert on “Islamics”, as he called Muslims, but he noted that Fred Nile had probably leafed through his copy of the Koran to check how central to the religion was the obligation to veil (as if the Koran is a Tom Clancy novel whose meaning can be just read off the page in a literal fashion).
In August this year, Victorian Liberal MP Sophie Panopoulos and NSW Liberal MP, the Hon Bronwyn Bishop entered the fray, calling for a “ban” on the wearing of headscarves in public schools. In an unguarded moment, Ms Panopoulos made a stand for women’s rights, asking why “one section of the community [should] be stuck in the Dark Ages of compliance cloaked under the veil of some distorted form of religious freedom” (The Australian September 6, 2005). Mrs Bishop offered her own interpretation of veiling as “a sort of iconic item of defiance”, and told ABC Radio that she was merely saying what other people were thinking. Both Panopoulos and Bishop have said that they do not have a problem with other religious symbols.
Like Nile, Panopoulos and Bishop, Leslie Cannold seems to have only a hazy idea of the meaning of hijab and very little familiarity with living, breathing Muslim women. Cannold admits that the meaning of hijab is “open to interpretation”, at the same time as she “knows” its meaning to be “a symbol of gender-based oppression”. Her argument for banning of hijab in public schools is that “rightly or wrongly [our emphasis], many Australians see the scarf as a symbol of gender-based oppression women suffer in many non-western countries”. If Australians are wrong to see the scarf in that way, Ms Cannold would seem to have a duty as an ethicist to draw our attention to the error of our ways, not to urge the making of public policy on the basis of that error.
If we want to find out the meaning of any practice, respect for others requires that we first ask those who cultivate that practice what it means to them. In discussing their reasons for wearing hijab, women are unlikely to say “I wear the veil out of a desire to create barriers, tension and confusion”, or even less, “I wear the veil as a potential weapon in a religious ideological battle”. In Australia, most women who veil are adamant that the choice to cover is their own. Indeed, some young Muslim women cover their heads against the wishes of their family, who may see the veil as old-fashioned, or fear that it will make their daughters the target of racist abuse. Turkish political scientist Yesim Arat has found that similar exertions of autonomy by young Muslim women are common in Turkey.
Besides mentioning their religious commitment, Muslim women often talk of wearing hijab as a way of expressing pride in their identity in the face of what can be at times a hostile society. Mrs Bishop can interpret this assertiveness as “defiance” if she wishes, but she can’t have it both ways. Young women who are assertive enough to wear hijab in defiance of intense social, media and political hostility do not seem the type to passively submit to the demands of a backward misogynist culture.
Moreover, many hijab-wearing women are very active in the struggle for female empowerment. They occupy leadership positions within their community. They run women’s educational and welfare programs. They reject misogynist interpretations of Islam that (for example) claim that Muslim men have a divinely ordained right to beat their wives. Some Muslim women who hold responsible professional positions within “mainstream” Australia may choose to cover partly in order to break down stereotypes, to show that Muslim women can be smart, independent, and successful - and wear hijab. It is also the case that Muslim women sometimes explain their motivations in terms that they think will be understandable to non-Muslims, without having to go into detailed theological discussions.
When the Taliban regime controlled Afghanistan, women activists used the burqua to conceal video cameras, in order to record Taliban atrocities, including beatings and executions. Broadcast by news agencies internationally, these recordings proved a far more potent weapon than any explosives. The veil was the central image in Western representations of Muslim oppression by the Taliban, but for many Afghan women, not being able to work, access medical care, or do the rounds of the police stations in search of “disappeared” male relatives all mattered a lot more than dress. Regulation of female dress was, of course, a central concern for the Taliban itself, just as now it seems to be for so many non-Muslims in our society. But it is a pity that so many of these voices aim to impose their own view of proper dress rather than to respect the choices that women make in trying to lead decent lives.
Helen Pringle is in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales. Her research has been widely recognised by awards from Princeton University, the Fulbright Foundation, the Australian Federation of University Women, and the Universities of Adelaide, Wollongong and NSW. Her main fields of expertise are human rights, ethics in public life, and political theory.
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