Alma and Lila are teenage sisters from the lower-class suburbs of Aubervilliers who were expelled from their school in 2003 after they defied the French law requiring them not to wear headscarves. Their father is a Jew who does not believe in God and a lawyer who works for an anti-racism group. He does not like the veil and is opposed to it but believes that his daughters have a right to wear the veil. Lila and Alma’s mother was born in a Muslim family but never practiced. The girls started practicing Islam when their non-religious parents separated. The story started after the French legislative council on March 14, 2004, outlawed religious symbols and clothes in public schools which mainly targeted the Muslim hijab and the headscarf or the veil. This particular legislation was widely supported throughout France especially among non-Muslims. The sisters Alma and Lila started having problems with their teachers who refused them to attend classes with their headscarves on. They were thus required to take off their scarves if they were to be admitted into their classes. The girls were taken to their principal when they defied the directive, who then forwarded the case to the disciplinary committee.
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The Lycee Henri school disciplinary committee did not hesitate to exclude the girls from the school in accordance with the law. Their story triggered a heated argument in France. The Stasi committee, which recommended the ban, argued that the dress code is imposed by parents on their children. The Alma and Lila case were different since they had not forced the teenagers to wear hijab and they were not even Muslims. The father was actually opposed to the veil but stated that his daughters reserved the right to wear the hijab. Lila, in an interview with Islam Online argued that it was their own personal choice to wear hijab and those rights are stipulated in the freedom of religion chapter in the human rights convention. Laurent Levy, their father became worried about their future stating that at times they were confined to the house (Pipes, p. 17).
The word hijab basically means to cover, veil, or shelter. The word is currently used to refer to a modest dress that usually covers the whole body except the face and hands worn by women. The hijab has also come to be taken as a symbol of Muslim consciousness, morality, and identity. The term hijab has also added a range of new meanings like morality, modesty, and privacy. The Qur’an requires a Muslim, man or woman to dress in a modest way. According to the 31st verse of Surah an-Nur, Muslim women are supposed to wear head coverings, not to display their ornaments and if they do should be only to their family members or close slaves. Some Muslim scholars like Javed Ahmed Ghamidi, while recognizing the symbolic relevance of hijab among the Muslim women; state that they are not necessarily obliged by the law to wear it. According to Ghamidi for instance, the Qur’an gives no specific command for women to wear the hijab but rather directs them to wear it in specific situations. Liberal Muslims such as Leila Ahmed even argue that the term hijab was only applied to the wives of the Muslim prophet Muhammad and that Muslim women started wearing that kind of dressing only to emulate those wives.
The Sunni Muslims consider the whole woman’s body as (except the face and the hands) a part that should be covered in a public sector or during prayers. They also guide their women to wear loose and less fitting garments as opposed to fitting ones while those in a Western setting should wear long skirts and shirts. Some scholars advocate for covering the face arguing that it is mandatory while others are opposed to it. The majority of scholars say that a woman should cover her body when in the presence of someone of the opposite sex and not walk or dress in a way that would attract sexual attention. Liberal Muslims also argue that it is not necessary to wear a head covering citing that it is a cherished tradition but not a compulsory requirement. (Scott, p. 26) Most of them also advocate that the holy book should be interpreted with the regard to the contemporary and surrounding society. Some governments today legally force or persuade women to wear the hijab while others feel that it should be mandatory as part of Sharia Law. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the ousted Taliban regime, and the Islamic Republic of Iran all enforce the wearing of the hijab. Some regimes such as the Taliban forced women to cover their faces with a veil arguing that the face is a source of corruption especially to men not related to the woman (Gohari, p. 109).
Some Muslim women do not have any problem wearing the hijab and even the face veil, they even embrace the concept wholeheartedly and are opposed to those women who don’t. Other women are simply opposed to the rules and wear them whenever they think necessary. The Republics of Tunisia and Turkey are so far the only Muslim nations where wearing of the hijab is outlawed by the government in schools, universities and government buildings. (Hessini, p. 51). France outlawed symbols and clothes that conspicuously display ones religious affiliations in all public primary, middle and secondary schools. This ban was specifically aimed at the wearing of the hijab in French institutions. The wearing of hijab has attracted considerable amount of controversy in secular nations with Muslim minorities like the United Kingdom and France. Western cultures have depicted the hijab as a symbol of oppression and backwardness. In predominantly Muslim societies, the hijab has taken the symbol of Islam self assertion, resistance to Western colonization and the rejection of Western cultural hegemony (Ahmed, p. 48).
The Alma Lila sisters scenario is a case where a young person is forced to make a choice between her religion and her studies. This is an extremely difficult choice especially for a young mind since one is being forced to abandon something that you have believed in your entire life or face exclusion from your normal routine (school) and even humiliation. In my opinion, it is unfair to subject young people in such a catch 22 situation. The legislators passing such a law had narrowed their minds only to the veil or the hijab without looking at the broader picture or the cultural and religious significance of this dress code to Muslim women and society as a whole. Even if it is the parents who force their daughters to wear the hijab, don’t they realize how hard it is for a teenager to independently decide whether to adhere to the government’s directive, the parents’ or her own heart? This means that she is faced with three scenarios which do not present a compromise but three exclusive situations. She either wears the scarf or she does not, not there between. The situation becomes harder when you consider that the most affected people by this ban are teenage girls who happen to come from a minority grouping. This makes the burden heavier for the girl when she realizes that she is being discriminated against due to her own or parents’ beliefs by a society that she considers to be part and parcel of. This will result to feelings of confusion and humiliation. According to the French League of Muslim women, most girls would prefer to wear the scarf and face the humiliation rather than attend public schools without them. This in a way reveals how deep or meaningful the practice of wearing the hijab is to the Muslims. This may be taken for granted by non Muslims and thus lead to arguments or debates for or against the hijab. The Alma and Lila sisters decided to study through correspondence and with a tutor once a week hoping that they will be allowed back to school (Pipes, p. 18).
Since 1989, the French government directive only barred ostentatious religious symbols that could threaten public order or affect students’ learning. Interpretations were left to individual schools to decide what should be worn and what should not. The debate took astronomical proportions after the United States September 11 bombings. Even if it is estimated that only a few number of girl students wear them (2000-5000 out of more than two million students) the hijab controversy became the focal point of the debate on individual rights versus the secular ideal. On July 2003, Jacques Chirac created Stasi commission(also known as the friend of Islam), aimed at studying the hijab issue in public schools. On February 10, the French parliament voted 494 to 36 to prohibit religious symbols such as large crosses, yarmulkes and head scarves in public schools. The law bans Muslims, Jews, and Christians from wearing large crosses, skullcaps and head scarves. Though on the face it seems the law does not discriminate against Muslims, I think it would be fair to say that the main motivation behind the legislation was to outlaw the wearing of the hijab. On its side, the French government argued that it was doing this in an effort to uphold the secular nature of the French state. This is in an effort to ensure that the French state is separated from any religion so as to eliminate religion’s influence on its people’s lives. This prompts me to ask if really the wearing of head scarves by young Muslim women constitutes to an act capable of dramatically influencing people’s lives. In addition, does the case of Muslims joining private schools and learning through correspondence segregate one or does it uphold French secularism (Ahmed, p. 47).
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Interviews with non Muslim youths in France suggest an opinion of indifference towards the issue partly showing that fellow students are not particularly bothered by the head scarves (Taber, p. 2). There is a major concern on the future of young Muslim girls after studies suggested that most of them would prefer to keep their head scarves. This is disturbing since studies also indicate that at least seventy percent of the girls who enroll with correspondence courses drop out within two years. This in my view is a worrying situation taking into account that there is only one Muslim high school in France. This kind of situation will serve to isolate and humiliate a section of the society while at the same time making these girls’ future bleak. Reacting to those that suggested that the head scarf was a symbol of oppression, Alma stated that if one wanted to defend an oppressed woman, he/she should not do so by subjecting the same woman to another form of oppression in the guise of freeing her. In my opinion, this law is an infringement to ones human right to practice religion and dress freely. This law may exclude and isolate Muslims further from the French society rather than integrate them. They will be forced to open their own schools and by this they will be facilitating their segregation from the French society. Mostly, when people are challenged in this manner, when their values and beliefs are put to question, the result is that anger and radicalization. That is not good news to anyone, especially in this current age of terrorism. Muslims in France and the whole world protested the move terming it as religious persecution. Even most Muslim women who did not regularly wear the head scarf started to wear it more in public (Taber, p. 2).
The head scarves debate gave the xenophobic debate a new dimension and life. Western countries, especially France have in the recent future expressed their concerns over the issue of immigrants. Whenever a minority group or immigrants gain a substantial number of people visible in the society, certain fears come up among the residents. The French are not only faced by xenophobia towards the Muslims but also ethno phobia toward people of North African descent who also happen to be predominantly Muslim. The motivation behind these laws in my opinion is not the overwhelming need of the French government to uphold secularism but rather the rising fear of Islam and Muslims that is being witnessed globally.
In conclusion, the issue of hijab is bound to raise more debate now and in future owing to the important questions asked by both sides that touch on very fundamental issues concerning individual liberties and a country’s secular agenda. I think it is important for empathy to come into play when these kinds of issues are being concerned. Is it justified for a group of people to judge that such and such behavior is primitive and oppressive when those people have never had real experience of what they are criticizing? What right do I have if I am a Muslim, to prohibit a Freemason showing his symbols; or as a Catholic what right do I have to prohibit a Jew from wearing his skullcap.
- Ahmed, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992 pp. 45-67
- Gohari, M. J:The Taliban: Ascent to Power. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000 pp. 108-110
- Hessini, L.Wearing the Hijab in Contemporary Morocco: Choice and Identity: Reconstructing Gender in the Middle East: Tradition, Identity & Power, New York, Columbia University Press, 1994 pp. 48-56
- Pipes, Daniel”‘ A Woman’s Right To Choose’.” 2004. pp. 3-11
- Pipes, Daniel. “Keeping Muslim Girls under Wraps in France.”New York, Columbia University Press, 2003 pp. 15-27
- Scott, Joan. The Politics of the Veil. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2001 pp. 24-30
- Taber, Kimberly–We News: Isolation awaits French girls in heads carves.