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Saying 'Non' to Religious Repression

By May Habib

Secular countries everywhere, beware: your most menacing threat has been identified—a danger capable of intimidating an established democracy 200 years in the making. Its name, according to the French government? The bandanna. And you thought it was just a fashion statement.

France stepped up its foolish campaign against freedom of religion yesterday when Luc Ferry, its education minister, said that bandannas worn as religious symbols would be included in a proposed ban on headscarves, large crucifixes, turbans and skullcaps in public schools. This latest lunacy illustrates the utter contempt the French government has for religious expression—students can wear bandannas to show their gang affiliations, for example, but not for their religion. The education minister’s laughable clarification comes after some leaders of France’s Muslim organizations advised French women who wanted to continue wearing the headscarf to wear small bandannas instead.

The ban on religious symbols is an attack on the rights of citizens to practice their religions—a right that is protected in France’s constitution. By restricting freedom of religious expression, the ban threatens to make the headscarf what it was never meant to be: a political symbol. Stigmatizing the headscarf will turn what is supposed to be a sign of devotion to God into a symbol of defiance for young, alienated women—just as not wearing a headscarf in some Muslim countries is a symbol of defiance.

Mohammad Tantawi—the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar Mosque in Egypt and one of Sunni Islam’s highest authorities—has publicly stated that Muslim women must obey the laws of the non-Muslim countries in which they live, even if it means not wearing the headscarf. Of course, French Muslims must obey French law, but Tantawi is missing the point of the public uproar. What if they protest the ban not as Muslims living in a non-Muslim country, but as French men and women rejecting a law that infringes upon the freedoms of all citizens? The French women who participated in the mass demonstrations held across France Saturday wore red, white and blue headscarves for a reason.

Though secularism is the tradition and law in France, other countries, such as the United States and Britain, have been able to separate church and state and still guarantee the rights of citizens to freely practice their religions. France should be ashamed to be included now in U.S. Ambassador for International Religious Freedom John Hanford’s list of countries that abuse religious freedom.

French President Jacques Chirac might not have had religion on his mind when he backed the ban. Perhaps he was thinking about the unity of France and how to integrate its North African Muslim community, estimated at five million. This is a community largely ghettoized and with a myriad of social problems—there is high unemployment and rampant drug use, poverty and crime. Chirac is right to be concerned about the problems in this community, but the ban on headscarves is not going to solve it.

First of all, integration has nothing to do with the headscarf. They are simply unrelated issues—women who wear the scarf have a wide variety of relationships to French secular society. I would be deeply offended if my fellow American Muslims were called “un-American” simply because some of us choose to wear the headscarf. But even if the headscarf does indeed represent a segregation of communities, the ban will do nothing to help integrate France. In response to the ban, Muslim parents may take their children out of public schools and place them in private Islamic schools—not exactly a move towards assimilation. Even worse, parents may decide to pull their daughters out of school entirely, though Islam emphasizes learning and knowledge. Ultimately, the unwise ban proposes to treat the effects of social disintegration rather than the cause: France’s failed assimilation and social policy.

Some of the headscarf’s opponents have said that it should be banned not because of integration problems, but because it is supposedly archaic and a symbol of the oppression of women. But Muslim women choose to cover their heads to obey God’s command of modesty, which applies to both men and women. If a woman freely chooses to wear the headscarf, it is not oppression. It is simply a matter of obeying a religious law.

A more realistic fear is that some Muslim girls are forced by family members to wear the headscarf. But customs cannot be changed by government decree. This problem, where it exists, must be tackled by education—undertaken by both the state and, more importantly, the mosques. Islam is a religion based on a personal connection with God, and a forced devotion is no devotion at all.

If France makes the ban law—as it is expected to do as early as February—it will have sacrificed a long democratic tradition for a quick fix to the much larger issue of immigrant integration. It will have traded citizens’ right to freedom of expression for political expediency. France’s secularism was founded upon liberté, égalité and fraternité. Restricting liberté cannot turn France into a more unified country. A bandanna should not be the undoing of a democracy.

May Habib ’07, a Crimson editor, lives in Grays Hall. She is a member of the Harvard Islamic Society.

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