Europe: Debates on Human Rights and the Hijab
Throughout Europe, over the past decade, there has been a loud - and at times openly xenophobic - debate about whether a Muslim woman should be allowed to wear a headscarf while on duty in a government job. Various types of bans have been enacted in several countries, including France, Germany, and Turkey.
Some feminists seek these bans in the name of helping Muslim women, whom they often see as uniformly oppressed. Anti-immigration politicians seek these policies because they see people who refuse to "fit in" as a threat to western society. But these arguments are detrimental both to women's rights and to peaceful integration, and the women most likely to be affected are rarely consulted.
"I suddenly felt like a stranger in Germany," one elementary school teacher said, describing her reaction to a ban in her state. "I will never forget that."
She was one of many people interviewed by Human Rights Watch in Germany, where 8 of 16 federal states have these bans for teachers (in two states the ban also covers other civil servants). Some of these laws are openly discriminatory, banning religious symbols, but excluding symbols of "Christian heritage." Other German bans appear to be neutral, but almost exclusively affect Muslim women.
To be sure, some women and girls are coerced into wearing the headscarf in the name of Islam, just as some are coerced into wearing long skirts, wigs, or other clothing, in the name of Judaism, Christianity, and other religions. The state is obligated to help its citizens avoid coercion. However, our experience and research tell us that oppression cannot be uprooted by a state itself coercing the victims, but rather through education, access to justice and economic opportunity. Women's rights are about autonomy. And real autonomy means freedom to make choices whether others like these or not.
Some supporters of these bans maintain that wearing a headscarf is inherently demeaning. They contend that a headscarf-wearing teacher is unable to promote gender equality and freedom of choice among her students. But these well-meaning arguments run counter to the very tenet of gender equality: women's ability to make decisions about their lives without interference from the state or others.
Indeed, our research in Germany shows that these laws do nothing to support the wearers' autonomy. All of the women we spoke to told us they had freely chosen to wear it. But the bans do them harm, leaving them unable to work in the jobs they had chosen, and causing them to lose financial independence.
The argument to ban the headscarf in the name of "cultural integration," is at times expressed as open hostility toward non-white, or non-Judeo-Christian, immigrants. A less offensive variant is based on deep concern for the rapidly changing cultural landscape in Europe and an attempt to address the very real problems these changes are generating.
But banning the headscarf is the worst possible policy response to the need to bring people into mainstream society. Our research showed that the ban serves to exclude, rather than include. Many women we talked to felt alienated by the bans, even though some had lived in Germany for decades or even their entire lives. Some left their home state or left Germany altogether, some took prolonged leaves, and some highly trained teachers left the profession. "They have now a promotional program for migrant women to study and become a teacher," one woman said. "Here I am, take me!"
The notion that a teacher wearing a headscarf cannot be a good example for the girls in her class is very far from my personal experience. About half the children in my high school in Tilburg, in the Netherlands, were Moroccan or Turkish. One of my teachers wore a headscarf, as did some of the girls. This teacher always explained that making one's own choices based on arguments and beliefs is essential. She made her choice regarding the headscarf and she urged the girls in class to do the same. I came away with a commitment to women's human rights and a sense of dignity that is part of who I am.
Gender equality and peaceful integration should be prime objectives for anyone concerned with public policy. These objectives are not met by excluding women who make a choice to cover their hair.
March 14, 2009
Ala Abbas reflects on her decision to stop wearing the hijab
Losing my hijab
The hijab has characterised my life from at least the age of nine and even before then.
In the religious sect my parents belong to, hijab is incumbent on girls from the age of nine and is defined as the covering of everything apart from the hands and face. The figure must also be hidden, but this is something that cannot be written in stone and measured, and is more a matter of the spirit than letter.
The letter can only specify which areas of the skin are to be hidden, which is why you get the phenomenon of the ‘muhajababe’: someone who follows the letter but not its spirit. So while they’re still dressed in accordance with Islamic law and wouldn’t be prosecuted in a country like Iran, they are by no stretch of the imagination dressed ‘modestly’.
I had egalitarian notions of modesty as a child and couldn’t understand the difference between a girl showing her legs and a boy showing his. I remember on a school trip once, a girl of probably around eight or nine took her top off in the scorching summer heat just like all the other boys were doing. The girl was reprimanded by others for having “no shame”. While I understood it was a rare sight, I felt this judgment was a little unfair, as her chest looked no different from the boys’. Becoming so used to wearing it, and living in a cosmopolitan city like London, I forgot I even wore something that set me apart from people around me
In my last year at this particular Church of England school, I decided to let my hair out (I had a lot to celebrate), which my mum had always put up in pigtails. When my mum saw my hair after school, she was horrified and told me I was too old to have my hair out (I was eight); I was coming too close to nine years, the age when I would have to cover everything. I was very upset that I couldn’t do something as simple as have my hair out, but the overriding feeling I had was that of shame; that somehow I was undignified, and had spent a whole school day that way.
I could never quite offer an explanation for why I wore the hijab other than religious reasons, but thankfully few children were interested in the complexities of Islamic theology and jurisprudence, so I didn’t have to explain myself much.
There was the odd stare, finger pointing and bullying, but on the whole I was accepted as just being different, foreign and ‘other’. When I was slightly older I would explain that I wore the hijab to hide my natural beauty, oblivious that this probably made me sound quite cocky.
My sister and I, being the only ones in the school who wore a headscarf, routinely addressed people’s curiosity (“Do you wear that in the bath?”, “Do you wear it at home?”, “How do you scratch your head?”).
Of course, there is nothing wrong with being different, but visually segregating your child from their peers for arcane religious ideas is not something I’m going to advocate. For the religious parent, however, the obvious solution is to get away from the ‘corrupting’ environment, and my parents did just that by putting us in a faith school for eight years.
Becoming so used to wearing it, and living in a cosmopolitan city like London, I forgot I even wore something that set me apart from people around me. It became second nature and a part of my skin that I would feel incomplete without.
In the 16 years I wore the hijab, I only ever went out without it on two occasions, mainly for experimental purposes, and I felt quite uncomfortable the whole time. Being without it made you feel naked; it was the stuff of nightmares. Women who were accidentally seen without it would yelp and flee for cover. If a US tourist in shorts walked into a Turkish mosque, women would panic and scream.
When a woman in hijab is told to take it off by a whole host of different voices with their own agenda, from feminists to fundamentalist Christians, they not only feel their intellect is being insulted as their individual choices aren’t respected, but they feel they are being told that the only way to gain full personhood is to show the attractive parts of their body
The hijab was a very black and white issue; you either wore it or you didn’t. Like the muhajababes, some would bend the rules by wearing tight clothes, or showing the front of their hair. You can bend the rules to ridiculous proportions, as many have probably witnessed, but in no way would a muhajababe match the perceived gall of a woman who walked into a mosque with head uncovered, or a woman who went from wearing the hijab to not.
If you go from being a non-hijabi to a hijabi, everyone loves you for your newfound piety. But I’ve never seen this happen the other way round. Once you wear the hijab, and everyone knows you for it, showing up without it somehow makes you feel even more naked than someone who never wore it in the first place. I can only speak for myself, of course, but it was partly due to the fear of these attitudes that I came to the conclusion that the hijab was unnecessary long before I made the decision not to wear it. I made this decision only recently, and it has been a shock to the system. Most of my old acquaintances have no idea, and I haven’t made the bold step of ‘coming out’ completely. I still remember how some of my mum’s friends were always at the ready to point out if I wasn’t covered properly. What would they think of my poor mum now?
Women’s clothing is perceived as completely tied to their sexuality, and their sexuality is considered firmly in the public domain, to be exploited or policed. When women exercise that freedom of dress by choosing to wear as little as they can, they are seen by society as inviting exploitation and voyeurism, and are not taken seriously. When they are covered, veiled and protected, with a nod of approval from a jealous husband or father, they are equally exploited as commodities.
You often hear analogies to precious stones and gems to justify the hijab: a woman is a pearl that is best hidden in an oyster shell, and so on. This is all well and good, and maybe some women find it flattering, but I find it ultimately insulting. I’m not a pearl, I’m a person; I don’t want to be hidden from the world. This rationale taken to its full conclusion would mean a gender-segregated society where a man sees no women other than his wife and female family members. Such a society would, of course, be male-dominated.
I understand the frustration of many hijabis (women who wear the hijab) and women generally who feel dictated to by fashion and feel they have to meet a certain criterion of attractiveness to find acceptance in society. When a woman in hijab is told to take it off by a whole host of different voices with their own agenda, from feminists to fundamentalist Christians, they not only feel their intellect is being insulted as their individual choices aren’t respected, but they feel they are being told that the only way to gain full personhood is to show the attractive parts of their body. I think it’s safe to say that any form of social diktat when it comes to women’s bodies, while they can have very different agendas, is misogynistic.
In no world should women be victimised, harassed and humiliated for being too ‘sexy’; an assault on her should never be justified because she invited it
Both the over-sexualisation, and the protection and hiding of women are unfortunate realities in a less-than-perfect world. For the many women who partake in these misogynistic constructs, it’s about survival: either selling sex to feed yourself, or covering yourself and obeying your husband so as not to get raped and killed.
The ideal society is one where women’s sexuality isn’t owned by men, where it isn’t a means for survival or the reason to fear for your survival. Both men and women ought to have equal life chances, equal access to education and work, and women to have just as much sovereignty over their bodies as men.
In no world should women be victimised, harassed and humiliated for being too ‘sexy’; an assault on her should never be justified because she invited it. A woman can only invite sex if she explicitly says so, and she can change her mind at any point.
In an ideal world the rules of modesty for women should be no different than those for men. But in the real world we will always succumb to the norms of modesty like any other social norm.
I’ll always wear the hijab in certain places: visiting family in Iraq, trekking in the mountains of Afghanistan. But while it is not required in Britain I don’t see why I should go about my life constantly attracting attention to myself and visually segregating myself for the sake of culture and tradition.
About the author: Ala writes for the Muslim News, blogs at pickledpolitics.com and has her own personal blog at www.ala-abbas.co.uk
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