It is better to avoid making hijab a major issue

Sat, May 31, 2008, 01:00

As a society, we need to discuss why we have particular rules, but be careful of how we do so

HOW CAN an innocuous piece of material like a headscarf stir up such heated and fearful debate? Of course, it all depends on whether your granny is wearing it, or whether it is the young Muslim girl down the road who wants to wear it to school. The hijab, as Muslims call it, conceals the hair, ears and neck. It is not to be confused with the niqab, which veils the face, or the burqa, which covers everything from head to toe.

Personally, I have no problem with the hijab in the workplace or the school, but would draw the line at the niqab and the burqa. As a society, we need to discuss why we decide to draw particular lines, but be very careful about how we do so.

The hijab has become a focus for fears about immigrants, and in particular, Islamic immigrants. Many Irish people resent even the request by others to be allowed to wear it in school, seeing it only as a potent symbol of the oppression of women. This attitude assumes that all Muslim women, or at least all young Muslim women, are being brainwashed into wearing the hijab, and that to tolerate it is to collude in their oppression.

Attitudes are betrayed by some of the arguments used by those opposed to it. For example, “the hijab signals that a woman’s attractiveness is not her own ­ only her husband can enjoy it”.

Firstly, the hijab does not hide the face or eyes, which even the most Neanderthal of men will notice at some stage. Secondly, how exactly does having her attractiveness or lack of it measured by every Tom, Dick and Harry who cares to gawk at her, make a woman’s attractiveness her own? Could it not be at least theoretically possible that a woman coolly reserving her attractiveness for her husband knows exactly what she is doing?

American feminist historian Joan Wallach Scott has studied France for 40 years. She wrote about this problem of patronising attitudes to Muslim women’s intelligence in her book, The Politics of the Veil. She believes that Muslim women presented too great a challenge to French perceptions of sexuality.

Feminists often declare that the sexual exhibitionism of western society is demeaning to women, but set that aside when faced with the hijab. Equality became synonymous with sexual emancipation, as defined by non-Muslim women.

There was an implicit belief, she insists, that freedom consisted of the freedom to sleep with as many people as you like provided that it is not just one, your husband. Yet uncovered bodies are no more a guarantor of equality than covered ones.

There may be strong elements of patriarchal values in the promotion of wearing the veil, but is western democracy immune from such patriarchy? France, which banned the hijab in public schools in 2004, only gave women the vote in 1945.

It is dangerous when a dominant community presumes that it can interpret a symbol better than the minority community itself can. For example, the more unionists interpreted the Tricolour as subversive, the more alienated nationalist communities became from the majority community.

Of course, I am falling into a trap myself by referring to a “community”.

Islam is not a monolith. There are marked cultural and religious differences. It is grossly unfair to see all Muslims in the light of the actions of the most extreme fundamentalists. I live near a mosque. Malaysians, Indonesians, Nigerians, Irish women and many other nationalities all go to pray there. I often see adult women together, with some in the same group wearing the hijab, and some not.

For something about which there is such a fuss, in most western democracies only a minority wear it. In France, only 14 per cent of women polled wore it in 2004, though 51 per cent said they were religiously observant. When the Netherlands debated banning the burqa, only between 50 and 100 of more than a million Muslims actually wore it.

The same was true of Britain, when Jack Straw sparked a controversy about the niqab. Mind you, sales apparently soared afterwards. People who feel under attack retreat further into their own communities, which is exactly what we do not want to happen.

It may seem to be undermining my case to suggest that even religiously observant Muslims do not always wear the hijab. I think it strengthens it. A girl who makes the request to wear it in school is likely to have thought about it, and be clear about what it means to her. She is doing something brave and counter-cultural. I for one would not like to suppress that. If we draw the lines of what we tolerate too tightly, we risk creating ghettos.

I feel quite impatient about debate focusing on the hijab. Schools tend to take it in their stride. There are more critical issues, such as inadequate language teaching for newcomer pupils, or support in communicating with parents who have no English.

It is far more important to discuss how we help people to integrate into our society. Of course every culture needs shared values, but just what are our values? We tolerate cultural trends that mean that after 40 years of feminism, what many teenage girls worry most about is their sexual attractiveness to boys. Yet we have a major problem with young girls from a different background asserting their right to express modesty.

Debate is important, but could we dump two particular arguments? Firstly, what is the point of saying that Christians do not experience religious tolerance in Saudi Arabia or Iraq? Do we want to model our behaviour on these countries? Secondly, those who seek to justify their opposition to the hijab on the grounds that this is a Christian country are suffering from a large irony deficit. As Christians, we should be to the forefront in respecting the stranger.

It would be easy for immigrant communities to begin to believe that their cultures and values receive no recognition or respect. In Britain or France, it is not immigrants themselves who have rioted; it is their children and grandchildren. Here, we have a valuable opportunity to be gracious and welcoming, and to defuse potential tensions before they arise. Let’s not waste it.