Scarf Wars

The symbolic meanings attached to women's dress help explain the critical importance of the headscarf, which in recent years has become a key marker of religious and cultural difference. Once again, we see the importance of the year 1989 in symbolizing a new upsurge of Islamic militancy, a new self-confidence and willingness to engage in confrontational protests. Apart from the Rushdie protests in several nations, this was also the time when the principal of a secondary school at Creil, near Paris, decided to enforce official secularism by prohibiting ostentatious tokens of faith. Though he also targeted Jewish students observing the Sabbath, most of the public attention focused on his ban on Muslim girls, mainly Algerian, wearing the headscarf. This detonated a national controversy about assimilation and separatism, in which the UOIF first attracted national publicity and now became a major player on the French political scene. The 1989 debate also launched the subsequent Scarf Wars that have proved so divisive in French political life ever since. In 2004, the French government banned all religious symbols from French schools, a policy that was supported by some 80 percent of the French public but which attracted fierce opposition from Muslims in Europe and beyond.39

The rancor obvious from I'affaire des foulards (headscarves) must be understood in the broader context of French history, which was so long characterized by struggles between church and secularism, conflicts that on occasion came close to civil war. A century ago, France determined that its public life would be totally secular so that all citizens—regardless of religion or ethnicity—would become integrated into a secular and republican vision of Frenchness. The principle of laicite excludes all religious displays or manifestations in public life, especially in education. Christians cannot wear ostentatious crucifixes or other symbols of faith, and Muslim schoolgirls are forbidden to wear the hijab. French governments are anxious to avoid the curse of communautarisme, communalism, the creation of entities that attract the loyalty of citizens who should be wholly devoted to the state—though, as we will see, French policies toward Muslim organizations have sometimes veered in this direction.40

Over the past decade, official secularism has been repeatedly challenged by the seemingly unstoppable growth of Muslim self-assertion. In 2004, the French National Assembly overwhelmingly passed a law prohibiting the display of ostentatious religious symbols in public schools, a law that chiefly affected wearers of the headscarf. The law attracted protests across Europe and in many Muslim nations, though French Muslims were far from united in opposition, and demonstrations here were in the thousands, not the hundreds of thousands. The Muslim community opposed the measure by a strong but not crushing 53-42 margin, although French Muslim women actually supported it by 49 to 43 percent. The controversy dominated French politics for several months, frustrating Muslim political leaders who often wished that public debate would turn to matters of more immediate concern to largely poor ethnic communities.41

Though France stands out in the ferocity of its public controversies over the foulard, the issue has arisen in every west European country. Across Europe, the use of headscarves spread rapidly in the opening years of the new century and reached ever-younger girls. In Malmo, a center of the Swedish Muslim community, very few girls aged six to ten wore a scarf in 2003; by 2005, a heavy majority had adopted the fashion. In Russia's Muslim-majority regions too, women have insisted on the right to wear scarves in public and to be photographed wearing them on identity cards, a demand that generates French-style conflicts with the authorities. Germany has also moved in more repressive directions, and five of the nation's sixteen states now ban teachers and other public officials from wearing headscarves to work. Unlike France, most specifically forbid the Muslim symbol while permitting Christian or Jewish tokens. Bavaria, for instance, prohibits the scarf as "a symbol of fundamentalism and extremism." Though the German Constitution prohibits religious discrimination, the courts have justified such policies because their intent is primarily political in nature.42

Different countries have responded differently to the upsurge of Muslim identity, though few have treated the headscarf quite as severely as overwhelmingly Muslim Turkey, with its rigid tradition of state secularism. Some British schools originally tried to forbid the use of headscarves, generating media sympathy for the pupils and their religious rights, not to mention their right to individual self-expression. Schools subsequently found a pragmatic solution, permitting scarves that used the colors of school uniforms. Most nations, however, draw the line at the burqa or full face-covering. In 2006, British politician

Jack Straw created a lively controversy when he announced that he requested women constituents to remove their niqabs when visiting his offices. (His Blackburn constituency has a large Muslim minority). Though Straw was attacked for insensitivity and Islamophobia, Tony Blair supported his position, agreeing that the full-face veil "is a mark of separation and that is why it makes other people from outside the community feel uncomfortable."43

European critics of the hijab have some powerful arguments on their side. Conservatives condemn the custom because it is so conspicuously foreign and demonstrates a refusal to assimilate, making each scarf a symbol of colonization by an alien culture. In this view, it becomes a badge of tribal loyalties. Liberals or leftists see the scarf as a sign that women are accepting their ordained and thus inferior role in Islam, as well as a concession to a community's hypersensitivity about female modesty. And while the decision to wear any kind of Islamic dress is a personal decision, it also has wider consequences for other girls in a school or institution, who now find themselves marked out as less pious, less willing to conform to religious norms, and in some eyes, more open to lax Western morality. Peer pressure becomes insidious and even raises the prospect of violence against the nonwearers.

All these arguments have some validity. But even without accepting distinctively religious positions about women's role, we can find a more benevolent interpretation of the scarf affair. As we have seen, a faithful following of Islam offers women roles much more complex than mere subjection. But most important, the hijab represents the most powerful statement yet about the arrival of Islam in Europe, a way of asserting the Muslim presence in Europe and on one's own terms. That does not of itself constitute a rejection of assimilation, except in the crudest sense of that term. Assimilation would after all be a pallid concept if it just meant that people of another faith were allowed to live in a society, were permitted to worship and pray quietly, but only provided that they did nothing to attract attention to themselves and did not live, eat, or dress differently. That description could almost apply to the condition of Christians or other unbelievers in some repressive Muslim states. Challenging reports that Muslims refused to integrate, one Austrian journalist asked,

What's that supposed to mean? . . . That the Muslims in question don't want to eat pork schnitzel under any circumstances? That they wear a head scarf? Or perhaps that they force their daughters into arranged marriages? Or do they still want to say their prayers facing Mecca and refuse to convert to Christianity?44

In a multifaith society, different communities should indeed have the right to express their beliefs publicly, whether on their buildings or about their persons. The predominantly Protestant society of the nineteenth century U.S. faced quite similar dilemmas about conspicuous displays of religious symbolism by Catholics, particularly clergy and nuns. In a modern European context, the popularity of the hijab means that families are expressing pride in Muslim identity, but there is no reason why that should not be part of a European Muslim culture.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment