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Can a headscarf be a symbol of oppression?

This article is over 20 years, 2 months old
HELEN SHOOTER asks why Muslim headscarves have sparked fierce debates
Issue 1871

THE TREAMENT of Muslim women who wear headscarves in France has erupted into a national debate, shot through with racism. The prime minister of France’s right wing government, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, launched an attack on Muslim women last week declaring his opposition to the wearing of the head scarf in school.

Nicolas Sarkozy is David Blunkett’s opposite number in the French cabinet, and even more right wing. Sarkozy enthusiastically backed the attack. Earlier this year he demanded that Muslim women bare their heads in photos for their identity cards. Two Muslim schoolgirls have been suspended from their secondary school in the suburbs of Paris for two weeks for refusing to remove their headscarves before lessons.

They now face expulsion. This move is part of the French government’s right wing agenda. The idea that a school student or a worker could be barred for displaying what religion they come from seems astonishing to us in Britain. But France has a long tradition of defending the separation of religion from the institutions of the state, including the education system.

Unfortunately the left in France has focused narrowly on this stance, and ended up siding with the right against Muslim women wearing headscarves.

One of the biggest far left organisations, Lutte Ouvriere, carried an article last month in its paper which declared the headscarf was ‘a sign of oppression, and, in that regard, it is an infamy’. It went on to urge taking action against wearing the headscarf, saying, ‘The first and most courageous step is to fight on your own doorstep, where we can immediately do something about it. Of course you cannot ban the veil in the street, but you have to fight it everywhere by propaganda and by pressure.’

Some in the other leading far left group, the Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire (LCR), have recognised the dangers of giving in to racism. But the majority of articles in its newspaper Rouge have stressed the line that ‘teachers have a complete right to refuse the wearing of the veil in schools’.

This is not just a French issue. In Germany the authorities in Stuttgart banned an Afghan-born teacher from the classroom because of her headscarf. It took an appeal to Germany’s top court to allow her to wear her headscarf in school. When Muslims are being demonised by politicians and the press worldwide after Bush’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, there is no room for confusion over what attitude we take to Muslims.

We absolutely defend the right of Muslim women to wear a headscarf. For some it is part of being able to practise their religion. For others, wearing a scarf is just as normal as wearing jeans and trainers is for those from different backgrounds.

For some, headscarves are a symbol of defiance in the teeth of growing racism that brands non-European people as ‘mad mullahs’ or ‘terrorists’. Activists in the growing movements against war and corporate globalisation have a responsibility to fight to maintain the impressive unity that has marked many recent demonstrations.

Only the right wing can gain if we fall for arguments that divide us. In France Le Pen is eager to capitalise on his high vote in last year’s presidential election. His National Front Nazi organisation has already demanded that ‘Muslims drop their veils’.

Many socialists are atheists. But we join with others who want to fight back against the bloodshed and oppression this system brings, even though we don’t share their religious views. Some who are not on our side in that struggle have the nerve to raise the question of the position of women in Islam.

Laura Bush and Cherie Blair claimed that their warmongering husbands had a sudden concern for the plight of Afghan women under the Taliban that justified bombing the country to oblivion.

But how liberated are women in Afghanistan-a country that the US brought death and destruction to-giving free rein to warlords or Iraq-without electricity, water or medical supplies and where 1,000 people are killed every week?

Equally the ‘liberation’ of Muslim women in France will not be achieved if the left gives the green light to the right and racists to go round ripping off women’s headscarves. One of the young women facing expulsion from school in France, 16 year old Alma, said, ‘We are being asked to decide between our religion and our education. We want both.’

A campaign that makes them remove their headscarves ensures they are forced to choose their religion above education. That should not please anyone who speaks up for the liberation of women.

Socialists defend their choice to wear a headscarf in the face of a racist backlash, and defended the Muslim women who chose to remove their headscarves during the revolution in Iran in 1979.

Some people say Muslim women wear scarves because they are dominated by men. But no one would dream of telling women who wear lipstick and miniskirts they dress like that just because a man told them to.

One of the best things about the anti-war movement is the confidence it has given to young women, Muslim and non-Muslim, to lead protests. It would be unforgivable to allow arguments that give in to racism to undermine this united, powerful movement.


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