The French Ban on Hijab Sends the Wrong Message

While history has always fascinated me, European history puzzles me. The latter is a history of violence and intolerance against the ‘other’ people, irrespective of whether or not the victims lived inside or outside Europe. It is a history of Crusade, Inquisition, pogroms and holocaust. Like the sand dunes in a desert, the killing fields of victims have often shifted, but the root cause of violence against the ‘other’ people has always remained the same. Like many students of history, I expected Europe, especially after the crushing defeat of Hitler’s Nazi and Mussolini’s Fascist forces in 1943-5, to evolve into a pluralistic, multi-cultural, civilized society: a society where the basic rights of all human beings, irrespective of one’s religion, language, color, culture, ethnicity, caste and creed are respected and protected. But my expectations have always been viciously choked.

Truly, who would have thought that mankind would witness so much of ethnic cleansing –” uprooting of a people from its ancestral homes simply because of his/her religion or ethnicity, some fifty years after the end of the Second World War? Yet, that is what happened in the former Yugoslavia in the last decade. A quarter million Muslims – the ‘other’ people – were brutally murdered, and another million displaced from their ancestral homes (some still living as refugees elsewhere). Not a single Muslim home, school, office or mosque was spared from willful destruction. Europe let this monstrous crime against humanity, a calculated genocide, happen in its backyard! Here again, as much as it was true during the Jewish Holocaust, Europe was guilty of non-assistance to the ‘other’ people. It imposed a criminal embargo that rewarded the aggressors and barred the victims from defending themselves. In all fairness, Europe may be accused of wanting to sign the suicide notes for Bosnia and Kosovo had it not been for the resolve of the ‘other’ people to fight to the end.

Looking at the rising tide of Fascism, anti-Semitism, anti-immigrant movements and the ever-increasing violent crimes against Arabs and Muslims, it seems Europe is still not ready to take the necessary giant step forward towards a genuine civilization. The seeds of racism are so deeply rooted in their subconscious mind that most European people are unaware of it until it emerges when put to the test. As much as the English people were historically notorious for their racism in matters of color, the French were equally notorious for their cultural racism. To them: everything is kosher/civilized when it is done French-style.

Most French people have long been traumatized for being kicked out from Algeria 40 years ago. French conservatives, in particular, regard Islam – the religion of the Algerian people – as their enemy and hijab as its icon. They raise chauvinistic slogans that hijab-clad Muslim women are ‘trying to destabilize the country,’ that ‘they (Muslim immigrants) bear a grudge against the values of the French Republic,’ and that ‘they want France to no longer be France.'[1] It is an old ‘blame-game’: you are uncomfortable about public admission of your hatred or bigotry against your neighbor, so you complain about the dress he wears, or the food he eats, or the color of his house, or something else. Similarly, what these French conservatives (like their counterparts – Christian Right, neo-Conservatives – in America) are truly against is pluralism or multi-culturalism – the presence of ‘other’ people in their midst. The rising number of incidents of violence against immigrant Muslims is a testimony to the fact that 9/11 has further strengthened these xenophobic, racist, anti-immigrant and neo-Fascist elements within the French society.

It is, therefore, not surprising that France, the Republic that gave us the modern slogans of ‘liberty, equality and fraternity,’ has now shown her real identity. She has officially banned Muslim veils (hijab) and Jewish skullcaps and "conspicuous" Christian crosses from its public schools. In so doing, France has opted to ignore the basic fact that many Muslim females wear hijab as part of their religious obligation when they are outside their homes. Lumping the hijab with the cross and skullcaps (as if they represent similar things) is, therefore, illogical, if not criminal.

This official ‘hijab-ban’ decree will further isolate her Muslim subjects more than any other religious group simply because there are too few Islamic schools in France to cater to their needs. [This, in spite of the fact that France, a nation of sixty million, is now home to nearly five million immigrant Muslims, mostly coming from the former French colonies in North Africa.] What is more disconcerting is that the official ban sends also a wrong message that the French leadership is univocal with its bigoted elements: (saying) no to Islam, no to religious tolerance, no to pluralism or multi-culturalism.

It is a shame on France’s secularism that it could not accommodate religious diversity; it had to go after the icon. Even mainstream French politicians insist that loyalty to the French state and its secular ideals comes before any religious observance. Funny that while Christian holidays are observed, there will be no Jewish and Muslim holidays. So much for ‘equality’ and ‘fraternity’! MPs of the ruling party assert that ‘most Muslim girls are forced by fundamentalists’ to wear the hijab, i.e., they did not wear the hijab freely.[2] That is, the ban will ‘liberate’ Muslim girls. Even the French progressives consider hijab to be demeaning to women. Too often, the hijab is dismissed as the preserve of Muslim fundamentalists, bent on destroying the West. But they are wrong. This official xenophobia is out of place in a modern, multicultural state. It ignores the basic fact that there are many Muslim women and girls who of their own free will believe that they should wear hijab. They believe that they are being wrongfully discriminated by the state and being denied their right to freedom of religion.

Interestingly, traditional societies have always demanded modesty in dressing for both the sexes. That was how they distinguished themselves from barbarous people. While the form of the dress did vary somewhat depending on the geography, there was always a remarkable resemblance in the dresses worn by respectful women from various religious communities, when they were outside their homes. Such dress codes personified the dignity and superiority of noble women. They also represented a woman’s inaccessibility as a sanctified possession of her husband. In Christian tradition, e.g., Paul (of Tarsus) ordered the veil for women. [See, 1 Cor. 11:3-6 and 1 Tim. 2:9-10.] Until the Sixties, no woman would be seen in an English church (and rarely in the streets) without a hat and gloves. This ruling is still followed quite religiously by the Catholic nuns around the globe and Amish people living here in the USA. Many oriental Sephardic and occidental Hasidic women of the Jewish faith also use some forms of headscarf or veil to cover their hair. [See, The Jewish Woman in Rabbinic Literature: A Psychosocial Perspective by Menachem M. Brayer (Hoboken, N.J: Kitav Publishing House (1986); Women In Islam Versus Women In The Judeo-Christian Tradition: The Myth & The Reality by Dr. Sherif Abdel Azeem.] Hindu and Sikh women are still expected to cover their heads with sari or dopatta (headscarf) for their honor.

History also provides many evidences that those traditional and modest dresses did not hinder many of women folk to excel in their fields. So, in early days of Islam, for instance, we find women in the battlefields, trade and commerce, teaching, and debates. A’isha and Umm Salamah (RA), the wives of the Prophet Muhammad (S), taught thousands of first and second generation of Muslim males and females (sahaba and tabiun). Many of the ahadith in the Sunni hadith books were related by people, like Hisham b. Urwa, who were their students’ students. A’isha (RA) even led a mutiny with Talha and az-Zubayr (RA) in the Battle of Jamal against the Amir-ul-Mu’mineen. Many of the Islamic rulings are based on ahad (single) hadith, narrated from women like A’isha, Fatima and Umm Salamah (RA). Many relators or narrators of hadith were also women. One women, who excelled in Fiqh, corrected Caliph `Umar (RA) publicly. Umar (RA) came back to the minbar and took her correction and spread it among all the Muslims.

There were women commissioners, judges, poets, and rulers. One of the great scholars of Islam, Ibn `Asakir (6th century AH) claimed that he had 400 female teachers. And all these Muslim women, from Khadija/A’isha/Umm Salamah to Sultana Razia to Begum Rokeya, were modestly dressed women, who followed the rulings of the Qur’an (24:30-1, 33:59).[3] There are millions of Muslim women professionals today who proudly display their hijab. Hijab has often empowered them. They know their power and value in the Muslim societies that they live in.

In recent days, the decision, by the French Government to ban hijab in Government-run public institutions, has opened a plethora of debates in the media about hijab. To most women living in the West, the hijab is looked upon as a stain on womanhood, symbolizing female oppression, subjugation, slavery, etc. However, there are others, even some non-Muslims, who look at it as an expression of freedom, status, liberation, fashion, etc.[4]

Let me conclude by echoing what the editor of the Toronto Star had said, “Embracing French Muslims, and other groups, as full citizens with full rights is the surest way to a cohesive society. Suppressing minority religious practices will only alienate people, and legitimize those who preach separation, and conflict. The revolutionary nation of liberté, égalité, fraternité should be confident enough of itself not to fear a pious child’s headgear.”[5]


[1]. Editorial: France’s unholy fuss, The Toronto Star, December 15, 2003

[2]. See the remarks of Jacques Myard of the governing centre-right UMP.

[3]. The Qur’an mentions the subject of hijab in the verses 24:30-31 and 33:59, where the terms used are Khimar and Jalbab. For meanings to these terms, one may consult Lisan ul-Arab.

[4]. See, e.g., the article in the Telegraph, UK,
xml=/news/2003/12/31/wscarf131.xml, written by a Catholic woman from UK, who wears hijab and likes it.

[5]. The Toronto Star, op. cit.