A press conference on 17 January to oppose the introduction of Shari'a law in Iraq, called by the Organisation of Women's Freedom of Iraq (OWFI) followed directly on from a counter-demonstration to the Muslim Association of Britain's protest against the French headscarf ban. The discussion was somewhat dominated by that issue.
It might seem contradictory that the OWFI should oppose the freedom of women to choose to wear the hijab. As some Stop the War Coalition placards rather disingenuously declared, it is a "Woman's Right to Choose", echoing the slogan of the pro-choice abortion movement (which many on the MAB contingent would not support).
If you oppose the forcible veiling of women shouldn't you oppose their forcible unveiling? If it is wrong for women to be denied education unless they wear the veil, how can you defend girls being sent home from school for wearing it?
The OWFI comrades put forward two main arguments, which in my view contradict each other: that it is a question of children's rights to be protected from abuse, and that it is not a question of religious freedom but of fighting the resurgence of political Islam.
The hijab is a form of child abuse. It is forced on children by their parents. It is a way of impressing on Muslim girls from an early age their subordination. The state has a responsibility to intervene to protect children. Socialists support even the bourgeois state in its defence of children.
The problem with this argument is it is contradicted by the facts. In the actual case of the two girls sent home, the Lévy sisters, they were not compelled to wear the hijab, they went to great lengths to insist on their choice. Indeed, their father, whom they live with, is a secular Jew.
And socialists should be extremely wary of branding a whole community as child-abusers. Islamophobia is an accusation thrown casually at those who politically oppose reactionary anti-imperialism, but in this case I think there is a real danger. The logic of the position is, if the hijab in itself constitutes a form of child abuse, then the state should intervene not just in school but the home also. Nobody is suggesting that, but that is what you should favour, to be consistent.
Do we really believe all those hijab-wearing extremely vocal young women on the anti-war demos are cowed victims of parental authority? And does it strengthen their autonomy to tell them the state should dictate how they dress? Would you seriously argue that any young person from any other background should accept the authorities telling them how to dress?
The second argument, which rather contradicts the first, is that the hijab is not primarily a religious requirement but a symbol of militant political Islam. Political Islam is scary. The separate (separatist) demo on 17 January by Hizb-ut Tahrir, all-male, militantly anti-secular as opposed to the MAB's co-option of the language of choice, gave me the creeps, much as a BNP rally would.
But if we see the hijab as a political rather than a religious symbol (rather like the fascists' adoption of the Cross of St. George) this makes the ban even more problematic. Do we really want Chirac banning political symbols? The same Chirac, whom we argued against voting for even in opposition to Le Pen? Socialists have no faith in bourgeois politicians safeguarding democracy. We don't concede an inch to their democratic credentials. Indeed we know that any political ban will inevitably rebound on the left and the labour movement, Chirac's natural enemies.
If you argue that these are only children, thus incapable of independent political choice, it takes you somewhere you'd really rather not be. Do we really want to stand on the side of the bourgeois state, indeed a particularly rightwing and corrupt president, against young people's right to political expression?
Insofar as the hijab is a symbol of women's subordination (and that's clearly why Hizb-ut Tahrir support it) rather than a religious requirement, socialists should oppose it by argument and persuasion. It seems entirely paternalistic to want to liberate women against their will. You can't force liberation on unwilling people, you can only make it the most desirable option. And standing for choice, against any repression, religious or otherwise, is the way for socialists to win these young women.
I think the comrades of the OWFI, for entirely commendable reasons, have ended up supporting a move that is anti-democratic and will not further the cause of women's freedom. It is true that the SWP and its hangers-on are hypocritical in their support for the freedom to wear the hijab and their silence on compulsory veiling, but the OWFI are mirroring that inconsistency in supporting the ban.