Debate & discussion: the hijab

Submitted by Anon on 25 February, 2004 - 1:27

The month the National Committee of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty voted to reaffirm our opposition to the hijab (Islamic veil or headscarf) as a mechanism of women's oppression, but also to oppose the new law in France outlawing the hijab in schools. Mark Sandell outlines a minority view and Martin Thomas argues for opposing the law.
Don't go soft on religion

By Mark Sandell

The debate about the hijab in schools has confused many socialists. Some see the hijab as an anti-imperialist revolt that should be supported; others oppose the hijab as a symbol of oppression but see the right for school children and teachers to wear it as important to defend.

The hijab, veil and burkha are public expressions of the ownership of women by men, fathers, husbands, brothers, laid down in muslim teaching. Socialists should oppose them. We do not support state bans on adults, but to confuse that with the case of schools is wrong.

While socialists are highly critical of capitalist education and its institutions, we support compulsory education for children. Within that we fight for the best education, the best syllabus and the best facilities. Support for compulsory education has to include methods of enforcement, preventing children from doing full-time work or just not turning up to school. We support using the law to enforce compulsory education. Surely this is the biggest "oppression" of children's rights, and we would not accept this form of compulsion for adults.

Given this approach to compulsory education, it is right that we argue against religious and private schools on the basis of equality and decent education for all. We argue too about what is to be taught in schools. It's not just being at school that matters, but what children learn, including things parents don't want them to be taught, like sex education, questioning the society they live in, and science, rather than medieval rubbish aka religion. We demand secular education. Parents have plenty of time to teach their children rubbish. We oppose the "parent's right" to restrict their children's education at school. The hijab, veil or burkha are religious symbols of women's oppression. Girls should be given space to learn they do not need to wear them, that they can take part in sports like swimming. If these girls "choose" to robe up out of school or after they leave, then so be it.

From this point of view, mainstream ideology on education is going in the wrong direction in Britain, Islamic activists supported by cultural relativist liberals are pushing for more control over "their" children's education, and they are winning.

I heard an interview with a French Socialist Party MP who made the point that if the Islamic activists win on the hijab in France their next demand will be to exclude "their" kids from sex education, science, sport, etc. From this I take it that in French state schools parents cannot exclude, or as some on the left would have it, eight-year-olds cannot choose, to opt out of sex education classes. On this France is right, and Britain, which allows such exclusions, is totally wrong.

My partner is currently training to be a primary school teacher. The ethnic minorities coordinator has said that teachers should in no way contradict parent's religious or cultural views when teaching children. Children should not be told the names of sexual organs or the facts of biology, cultural practices like arranged marriages are to be celebrated not discussed, she told the trainee teachers. This is on top of the right for parents to withdraw children from sex education. Many parents don't want their girls doing sport either.

The left simply does not care about this. While the SWP march around with fundamentalists supporting the "right" of 10-year-olds to cover their bodies and faces from head to toe, no one is protesting about the expansion of religious schools, and exclusion of children from sex education. The only way to understand this is that it isn't "our" children that are affected.

The French Trotskyist left have until recently been clear in their attitude to the hijab at school. Teacher members of both the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire and Lutte Ouvrière have fought to impose a ban in schools using the old law supporting secular education. Now they oppose the new law but do not call for the repeal of the law they themselves used to ban the hijab in schools. They are probably motivated in this by not wanting to support the political mainstream right in its racist use of the issue. This is a mess; socialists should not oppose the law but demand that it includes an end to religious schools in France. While the French right may be using the issue, the Islamists are too. A victory for them against the law would be a victory for the enemies of the left. We cannot support the French government's use of the issue to "unite republican France", we should expose their racism and nationalism, but neither should we give an inch to those opposing the law.

No to all religious education, no to the veil in schools, for a full education for all children.

No to the veil but don't back Chirac

By Martin Thomas

To take the growing popularity of the hijab among Muslim teenagers in France (or in Britain) as a welcome expression of anti-imperialist feeling would be utterly wrong.

Even to take the fact of so many girls and young women wrapping themselves up to leave only their face visible (no hair, neck or ears) as a harmless exercise of religious freedom would be foolish.

It would be to take individual decisions - which may be from teenage bouts of religiosity, confused politics, or the desire to affront authority - out of the social chain of events.

That chain starts with the veiling of women in Iran in 1979. At first, many Iranian women saw the veil as a harmless way of expressing solidarity with the battle against the Shah. Soon veiling was imposed by terror.

Fundamentalism revived across the Muslim world. The next link in the chain is fundamentalist militants, young men, riding round Algiers on motorbikes shooting at women on the streets who failed to wear the hijab.

The Muslim population in France mostly originates from North Africa. Among it, the hijab is mostly not a residue of old traditions from back home. It is worn by teenagers who are French-born, and more assimilated than their parents. Their defiance is "French", but also shaped by the rise of Islamism in the Arab world. It is a sort of "reactionary anti-imperialism".

At present maybe as few as 1,200 of the many hundreds of thousands of Muslim girls and young women wear the hijab in French state schools. If hijab-wearing becomes the norm, then the next step in the social chain of events is the withdrawal of Muslim girls from physical education, sex education, or even some science classes, and non-wearers being stigmatised as "indecent".

Whatever it is in an individual's mind, socially and historically the hijab is not just a token of religious ideas. It represents and embodies women's oppression. It defines the woman or girl who wears it as the property of the men (father, brothers, husband) to whom the right to see her unveiled is reserved. Wherever it becomes the norm, it is inseparable from the segregation and subordination of women.

Turkey is 98% Muslim and now has a (mildly) Islamist government. Yet it bans the hijab in schools. The ban is a legacy of the reforming, modernising drive of Turkey's bourgeois revolution-cum-enlightened-despotism of the early 20th century, using state power as the only adequately concentrated counter to the weight of entrenched tradition and institutionalised religion.

The demonstrations organised against France's new anti-hijab law by Islamists on 17 January - formally for "freedom", in fact for the hijab - were reactionary. Demonstrations of a few thousands against the law on 14 February were initiated by the secular Third-Worldist group Cedetim in an attempt to take the issue away from the Islamists, but I think French Marxists like the Ligue Communiste RĂ©volutionnaire (LCR) were right to refuse support on the grounds of the demonstrations' "ambiguity" on the hijab as such.

A feminist group based in the Muslim communities - Ni putes ni soumises ("neither whores nor slaves"), which is close to the Socialist Party - positively supports the new law, seeing it as an (inadequate) bulwark against the rise of Islamism in France. The social decay and chronic mass unemployment in many of the heavily-Muslim working-class districts of French cities, the consequent rise of the mosques as welfare institutions, the political implosion of the French Communist Party (which used to have some base in those districts), the failure of the revolutionary left to gain a base there, and, I guess, a loss of grip over French-born generations of traditional conservative organisations sponsored by home-country governments such as Morocco's, have combined to produce ugly results.

Yet the discussion forum on the website of Ni putes ni soumises shows militant feminist, secularist, young French women of Muslim background who regard the new law as counterproductive in their fight against Islamism and the hijab. Groups like the LCR and the teachers' union FSU take the same view. Why?

In this new law, legislated by this French government, in this way, to be enforced by this French state, the note of defence-reaction by secularism against Islamism is drowned out by chauvinist "noise".

The new law is more likely to help the (male) Islamist cadres than hinder them, by it blunderous criminalisation of thousands of teenage girls who may make confused gestures of rebellion or are simply victims of family pressure which they may be able to resist with sensitive help from schools.

Under existing French law, teachers press students to remove hijabs or wear less enveloping headscarfs, and many do. The choice is not between a new law or the deluge. Some girls and young women have been excluded from schools for wearing the hijab. They are reinstated on appeal unless they take hijab-wearing to the point of refusing to take part in physical education or other normal school activities, in which case the ban stands.

To take a stand on compulsory inclusion - to say, wear whatever strange garb you want when it does not interfere with education (though also listen when we explain why the hijab is not as harmless as you may think, and why we want to keep schools as areas where hijab-wearing is at most the exception), but you do not have the "right" to exclude yourself - is better than to throw thousands of miscellaneous stroppy teenagers into the arms of the Islamists.

Will the new law protect girls from Muslim parents' pressure? Sometimes, yes. Sometimes it will prevent them from going to school wearing the hijab in apparent obedience, and then quietly taking it off inside the school grounds.

Pressure is one thing. Criminalisation should be for definite anti-social acts, not for the social and historical implications of acts.

The controversy is about high schools. Hijab-wearing is not a problem in French primary schools. The best-known conflict about hijab-wearing in the run-up to the new law concerned two young women, Lila and Alma LĂ©vy, excluded from a high school in a Paris suburb for wearing hijabs.

They are 16 and 18. A ban on the hijab for them and their friends is not a matter of protecting young children, unable to make their own decisions, from family pressure. They live with their father, a Jewish atheist, and are estranged from their Muslim mother. Since their exclusion they have published a book about the affair. They recount that one of the other teenagers in their school who started the school year with them wearing the hijab but then, unlike them, agreed to remove it, did so partly because her Muslim father beat her severely when he discovered she was wearing a hijab.

What's needed, above all, is a political campaign against the hijab, one which also addresses the social roots of Islamist revival. For the activist left to carry the albatross of support for the right-wing government's blunderbuss new law round its neck when essaying that campaign would be to cripple itself.

The situation is untidy, and has gradually become more untidy since 1989, when the hijab in French schools first became a public issue. But tidiness is not everything.

The new law carries a vast amount of baggage with it which makes it impossible to equate it with, for example, the secularism of Turkey, which in the 1920s also got rid of the Caliph and expropriated mosque property. It comes from France's most aggressively right-wing, anti-immigrant, anti-refugee government for a long time, one which operates heavy, often blatantly racist, policing in the heavily-Muslim working-class districts.

The government is under vote-catching pressure from the fascist Front National, which ran second in the last presidential election. The FN really is Islamophobic, forever agitating about the danger of France's 5.5% (and mostly secular) Muslim minority transforming the country into an "Islamic republic". It opposes the new law, with half an eye to its devout Catholic supporters, but mainly on the grounds that it is pussy-footing and the real answer is even more repressive policing.

The government claims that the new law protects the tradition of secularism dating back to the great French Revolution of 1789-99. In fact the government continues to fund Catholic schools, and its supposedly even-handed ban on "massive" crosses (as if anyone much wants to wear them) is a fake. Schools can and should be secular, in their administration and teaching, while including religiously-minded students who argue with their science teachers about evolution, or for that matter wear crosses, crescents, or Hindu tilakas.

The traditions continued by the law are more those of Napoleonic centralisation (which, as Engels pointed out long ago, was a travesty and perversion of Jacobin revolutionism, not the continuation it claimed to be) and French imperialism.

Since 1803 France has obliged parents to name their children from a prescribed list of French names. Only as recently as 1993 did, for example, Basque names cease to be illegal. Teaching France's minority languages (Basque, Breton, Occitan, Corsican, etc.) was illegal until 1951, and 1974 for Corsican. Where in Britain we take it as uncontroversial that the state offers schools with Welsh or Scots Gaelic as the language of instruction, there are still no such minority-language schools in France.

The British tradition of imperialism by indirect rule - cultivating local elites in India or Africa as partners in rule - should shame us, both in its historical record and in its contemporary sequel, which today gives us at least one British (Muslim) state school where the burkha is school uniform (Independent 16 February 2004). But the different French tradition of imperialism by direct rule and rigid cultural assimilation is not our alternative. France has great revolutionary traditions, but it is also, after all, the country that gave the world the word "chauvinism".

The new law will "show" some right-wing voters that Chriac is "firm" against Islamism. But it strengthens the Islamists - thus increasing the pressure on girls and young women to wear the hijab on the streets of heavily-Muslim districts - and will get thousands of Muslim girls segregated into new Muslim schools, into Catholic schools (untouched by the new law, and teaching many of the same reactionary ideas about women's role as the Islamists), or into their homes.

No to the veil - but no to the new law, too!

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