A question of religious freedom: France determined to 'liberate' Muslim women
Thursday, January 08, 2004 12:15 pm
Winnipeg Free Press, 1/7/2003
(Shahina Siddiqui is a CAIR-CAN board member)
Once again the Muslim woman's hijab, the head covering as it has been commonly come to connote, has become the focus of international discourse, due mainly to France's attempts to ban the wearing of hijab in public institutions such as public schools. The last time so much attention was granted to this issue was when the world was mesmerized with the Afghani women's "burqa." Then, however, it was a matter of the Taliban allegedly forcing women to observe the Afghani style hijab which had been worn by most Afghani women.
The outrage expressed by the West on this oppression of forcing women to dress a certain way in public was the battle cry for the liberation of Afghanistan. The events of Sept. 11, 2001 became the catalyst for the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan and the toppling of the Taliban regime. Perhaps it was also hoped that the so called "liberation" of Afghanistan would lead to secularization of Afghani women.
Now, once again, Muslim women are being saved from their wretched, oppressed state by being barred from wearing the head scarf in public institutions. This time however, these are Western women and their liberator is the secular government of France. In both cases it is the Muslim woman being told what is good for her and is being dictated to by a sexist, ethnocentric and racist mindset. Here, too, she will be denied access to medical treatment by refusing her the choice of a female physician and health-care professionals; as well, her right to education will be hampered by this ban.
The arguments being made by the French and other Western supporters of this outrage is that this will ensure equality of gender and the egalitarian and secular nature of French society. The fact that this argument is being made with such moral indignation and ideological superiority sharply brings into focus the similarities of the Taliban regime and the Chirac government. Both claim to be preserving the fabric of society from social and moral decay and both claim to know what is best for these poor, mindless women who need to be rescued from themselves.
In case of the Taliban, the supporters argued that being an Islamic state, Afghanistan has the right to impose Islamic law, albeit in exclusion of all other prerequisites and conditions, making the application of shariah a weapon rather than a healing balm. The spirit of Islamic law is squashed and its interpretation and application left in the hands of religious bandits with rudimentary knowledge of shariah and a cultural bias towards women.
In the case of France, the interpretation and application of the French constitution and secular democratic principles is unfolding in an environment when Islamophobia is at its all-time high and racially motivated hate crimes against Muslims are on the rise, as has been reported in various human rights reports. "We were amazed at excesses we heard about," Khalil Merroun, rector of the large Evry mosque outside Paris, told the daily Liberation after meeting regional Muslim leaders. "They told us about veiled women being yelled at on the streets, banks that turn them away because they wear a headscarf and a doctor who put up a sign in his waiting room saying, 'I refuse to treat veiled women.'" Add to this mix the French colonial legacy in Muslim lands, and the growing Muslim French population that is now reported as the second largest religious community in France. Lost amidst all this is the true teachings and nature of Islamic law and the sincere devotion of Muslim women and the respect they have for their faith. Why, I often wonder, are Muslim women not consulted, considered or counted in the many debates, discussions and laws passed in their names and supposedly for their good? The arrogance with which Muslim women are dismissed is malicious and cruel. Why is it so difficult for people to fathom that there are women who knowingly, with deep understanding and reasonable intellectual rigour choose to dress modestly as a right and a privilege?
Islam recommends women to wear loose, non-transparent clothing that covers their entire body except the face and hands when in public. Some Muslims believe the face should also be covered. The fact that some Muslim women do not observe this tenet of their faith does not render this rule any less essential or important.
Surely there are some women who do not wish to wear the hijab but do so under pressure from family and community (not just their men). However, this should not reflect upon the sincerity of those of us who choose to submit to our Creator by fulfilling this aspect of our faith. By denying me the right to practise my faith, or by coercing me to conform to certain aspects of my faith that are not crucial to my confirmation as a Muslim, I am reduced to a sub-human status, and this is an insult to all women.
Gender apartheid is wrong, no matter how it is packaged. I believe the mothers of feminism must be turning in their graves at the sorry mess of gender politics that keeps targeting women's dignity as a free and independent agent. Prophet Mohammed stated in his last sermon while addressing the men: "The rights of women are sacred. Make sure that they are maintained."
What is also threatening about this proposed legislation that also has the backing of the French president is that it is having a snowball effect; there have been two recent attempts by French authorities to violate Muslims' right to practise their religion. The mayor of a French suburb refused to marry Muslim girls wearing the veil. "The state does not have to adapt to Islam today just as it did not adapt to Judaism and separated itself from Catholicism 200 years ago," the mayor of Nogent-sur-Marne east of Paris, told the daily Le Figaro. He banned the veil at civil weddings in November. In another instance a mayor also from Parisian suburb insisted that pork and wine are French products and Muslim shopkeepers should be forced to sell them.