The huge Muslim anger that greeted French proposals to ban hijab in schools and other public institutions has shocked the French establishment. Whether the depth of anger demonstrated when French Muslims took to the streets on January 17 will be sufficient to force the government to rethink its plans remains to be seen. However, the episode confirms the deeply Islamophobic nature of French liberalism, and one can only conclude that even if French president Jacque Chirac does back down on this issue, it will only be to pursue the same agenda by different means. The issue totally destroys the claims on France’s behalf made after the Iraq war that it could offer Muslims a moderate alternative to the US in world politics.
Numerous commentators have pointed out that in fact the proposed headscarf ban is more in line with French precedent than any sympathy for Islamic causes. However, the proposed hijab ban also needs to be seen as part of another well-established Western tradition: that of targeting Muslim women in order to undermine Islam and Islamic values in Muslim societies.
One of the West’s proudest claims is to have liberated its women from the supposed restrictions placed on them by male-dominated traditional societies. The result is, we are constantly told, that women in the West are free to be educated, to work and to enjoy their sexuality. The reality of Western societies is very different from this image. In truth, Western women have become sex objects in a society which remains male-dominated. Thus western women are expected to meet men’s expectations in terms of sexual dress, behaviour and availability. Some women may well enjoy this ‘freedom’, and it is true that for some women Western society does provide opportunities in educational, career and financial terms. But at a price: for the vast majority of Western women, life is a struggle to meet impossible ideals of beauty and sexuality, for the opportunity to follow their maternal instincts in a safe, secure family environment and often to manage economically in a world in which traditional social institutions and safety nets are no longer valued. What is amazing is that so many Westerners still cannot understand their own reality, and the reasons why the vast majority of Muslim women cherish the respect and freedom that Islam generally, and hijab in particular, provides them.
Of course, these Western realities are well disguised; western culture is full of images designed to convince women of how well-off they are. And such is the sophistication and seductiveness of Western culture that many Muslim women see only the few freedoms and benefits it offers, rather than the huge costs of those benefits. This is part of the reason that the West is able to appeal to Muslim women to try to subvert Islamic values and culture, something which is far from a new policy, as Ali Waliken demonstrates in his article on France’s hijab controversy in this issue.
However, there are other reasons too, and among them is the undeniable reality that in many Muslim cultures and societies, unIslamic attitudes and practices deny Muslim women the rights and freedoms that Islam guarantees them. These range from the right to education and work, within an Islamic environment, to the right to a say in their own marriages and the rights for independent lives within the institution of marriage. In many cases, ignorant Muslim societies practise such appalling atrocities against women as forced marriage, honour killings and genital mutilation. The West exploits all these practices to discredit Islam, and the unfortunate reality is that ignorant and conservative so-called ulama are often actively or passively complicit in them.
Many Islamic movements today are understandably preoccupied with political and other issues concerning the impact and hegemony of the West over our societies. Indeed, the internal conservatism which is often a response to external threats is probably a factor making women’s situation worse, or at least preventing it from improving. However, Islamic movements must take a lead in addressing such social problems, not only because we cannot afford to leave the field open to Western organizations which are all to willing to exploit the understandable grievances of some Muslim women, but because addressing such injustices is the Islamically correct thing to do, and precisely the sort of action for which will be one day be judged.