When a hijab becomes a Jihad

By Yousef Munayyer

Recent controversy brewing in France has spilled over into much of the rest of the world after the French government proclamation to enact legislation banning the “hijab,” a traditional Muslim headscarf, from being worn in public schools.

The hijab, which is not worn by all Muslim women, is a religious symbol hardly new to such controversy. Many religious scholars argue that the hijab must be worn as part of practicing the religion and others argue otherwise.

It has also been a political symbol through recent history, seen as anti-western, anti-modernization and anti-secularist. Governments of Islamic nations, like Turkey, Egypt and Iran, have banned and argued about banning the hijab. In Turkey this lasted for a short time. In Iran, however, the ban came under the regime of the pro-western Shah and was greatly criticized. After the Islamic theocratic revolution, many women took to the streets wearing the hijab. It is undoubtedly a sign of more than religion; it carries a political message and a powerful one at that.

The hijab has also been controversial because some argue it is repressive toward women. This argument, which is generally made by westerners who know little about the Muslim religion and do not care much to understand it, is widely disagreed with. I have talked to many women who wear the hijab, and they wear it because they want to. Some of the most liberal, powerful and politically active women wear the hijab, and this shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Today, the French parliament is set to conclude a week-long debates series regarding religious symbolism in public arenas. However, there are other recent events that led up to this.

Last July, French President Jacques Chirac formed a commission to make recommendations to promote secularism in France. What came from this commission, in a report a few months later, were recommendations to ban religious symbols in all public schools. It also recommended adding Jewish and Muslim religious holidays to the national calendar. Still, the issue of the hijab caused the most controversy. In September, two girls were expelled from school because they were wearing the hijab.

This complicates France’s relationship with the rest of the Muslim world. From Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 to the recent anti-war stance France took in the invasion of Iraq, French relations with the Muslim world have been complicated and delicate. This recent debate puts a strain on these relations because Muslims, which number nearly 4 million in France, are the largest minority in the nation. Also, nearly 50,000 French men and women convert to Islam every year.

This legislation is a step backward. At the most crucial time in the history of the world for the understanding of other religions, this legislation would set the progression of tolerance back years. It is particularly troubling because of the strong, xenophobic, nationalist movement, which has grown in France. This movement, organized in a party called the National Front, is led by Jean-Marie Le Pen. He, to the horror of many multiculturalists, made it to the second round of run off elections against Chirac where he lost despite gaining nearly 20 percent of the popular vote. Majoritarian movements, such as the National Front, believe that France is for the French. This however is not compatible with the modern world we live in which teaches tolerance, acceptance and multiculturalism.

We cannot allow this to be misunderstood as secularism. In fact this, not the hijab, will repress Muslim women. Have we in the so-called “western world” come so far in regard to personal freedoms only to take this step backward? What would the leaders of the French revolution, which brought us the slogan “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” think about such a violation on personal rights?

There should most certainly be a separation between church and state. However, it is more important to have freedom of religion. The first amendment to the Constitution of the United States, part of the Bill of Rights, guarantees certain freedoms and inalienable rights to people and protects the right to freedom of religion. Search the entire Constitution for “separation for church and state,” but you will not find it.

France has to understand the presence of a significant minority. It has to learn about Islam, as the entire world should to be educated about other people. Our lack of knowledge about other people is what makes us categorize them as others.

I only hope that parliament makes the right decision in France today. I hope they recognize that banning the hijab is not a step toward secularism, but a step toward separation. I hope the French Parliament realizes there is a fundamental difference between freedom of religion and freedom from religion.

Yousef Munayyer is a Collegian columnist.