19 juli 2009

The Headscarf Debate: Human Rights or Individual Freedom, Make Your Choice! (Arnaud Houdmont)

Since France banned the Islamic headscarf and other religious symbols from all French state schools in 2004, the debate it sparked has resurfaced time and again over the last few years. It did so recently, at the end of last month, when public schools in the city of Antwerp decided to ban the headscarf from the first of September 2009.

Astonishingly public opinion is divided between two simplistic and inadequate positions to which adherents of either camp have pledged their unquestioning allegiance. On the one hand champions of cultural diversity and freedom of expression (and obviously Muslims in general) are aghast and want the ban lifted immediately. As an ardent advocate of freedom in any shape or form, this author has had to repress a natural tendency to join this side of the debate. On the other hand, nationalist preservationists have entered into an uneasy alliance with women's rights defenders and proponents of the separation of state and church, in defence of the ban.

On the face of it, it is much easier to sympathise with those who want the ban lifted in favour of freedom of expression; especially since the vast majority of those supporting the ban are blatantly motivated by racist convictions. It is frankly disturbing to witness the desperation with which people cling to their imagined identity and the fear they display towards anyone that does not fit in their narrow-minded conception of the world. However, these observations aside, the human rights aspect of the debate looms large and should not be ignored.

It is a very sorry state of affairs indeed when the powers-that-be start meddling in strictly private affairs such as their citizens' wardrobes. Imagine waking up to the following newspaper headline: “Under a new law designed to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace and in schools, women and girls will longer be allowed to wear mini-skirts or otherwise revealing clothing at work or in schools. Guidelines as to what clothing is deemed acceptable have been published.”

This fictional, but not so far-fetched paragraph would provoke waves of indignation across the “western” world. The vast majority of people would balk at the very idea and fiercely resist this outright infringement on their freedom. And rightly so... Democratic societies are, to a lesser or greater extent (that's an altogether different argument that will not be addressed here), built on freedom of speech and freedom of expression. Many are prepared to defend this hard-earned freedom with tooth and nail. One only has to recall the Danish cartoons controversy back in 2005, when the publishing of a series of unflattering cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed led to the violent uprising of radical Muslims across the world. In its response to these events, Europe stood (more or less) united in defending the rights of the cartoonist and the publisher to express their views, regardless of religious sensitivities or not. It is, in the humble opinion of this author, of vital importance that no amount of religious clamouring and whining should ever be allowed to result in the adoption of censorship and a limitation of individual freedom.

However, many would argue that the issue of the cartoons and the fictional scenario where a government restricts women's freedom to wear mini-skirts are principally different from the headscarf ban debate. In one crucial aspect - and one only - they are right.

Many girls, born into a family of Islamic faith, are simply not given the choice to wear a headscarf or not. Whether they privately renounce their faith (for, in many instances, it can be hazardous to do so openly) or whether they simply choose not to adopt the headscarf, their family will oblige or force them to wear it against their will. This, in itself, constitutes a violation of women's rights and goes against the “western” conception of freedom. An extremely dehumanising example of imposed clothing is the now well-known burqa, covering the women from head to toe, so no part of their bodies are visible to the outside world. More often than not, those who tend towards the individual freedom argument in the headscarf debate, will promptly change allegiance when the burqa is brought into the discussion.

But what if the women in question actively, and without interference, choose to wear the headscarf or even the burqa, be their motivation religious or other? Should these women, simply by virtue of the freedom of expression of other women, not be allowed to do so? It is exceedingly hypocritical to employ the freedom angle in order to defend the cartoonist and in defence of the girls who do not want to wear headscarfs, but to consequently abandon these principals when they are no longer suited to one's argument and when it turns out that some women actually want (or are religiously motivated) to wear these items.

The cultural diversity card trumps all when it comes to defending, or tolerating, the indefensible. Criticism and condemnation of abhorrent practices and traditions such as genital mutilation, lapidation and forced marriages (to name but a few), are too often met with an indignant rebuke by the defenders, or perpetrators, of these practices, pointing out that these are matters of cultural sovereignty and not to be meddled with by outsiders. The argument from cultural diversity is devoid of meaning and merely serves the self-interest of certain factions in certain societies as well as that of those who want to perpetuate the cultural zoo of humanity for their entertainment.

In the case of the headscarf or the burqa such arguments should equally be dismissed as irrelevant and of no significance in western society where adherence to human rights, the freedom of speech and the freedom of expression should at all times take precedence.

This said, both options on the table – 1. an outright ban of headscarfs and 2. a tolerance for headscarfs based on individual freedom – present us with innate difficulties. On the one hand, a ban sets the precedence for more government involvement and the continued restriction of individual liberties, creating more problems than it is actually addressing: Where should government involvement stop? Should the burqa be banned but the headscarf allowed? Should girls wear mini-skirts? Are crucifix pendants acceptable? And who decides what is acceptable or not?

On the other hand, what about all these girls that are forced to wear a headscarf or a burqa by their families? What about their individual rights? The government might not be encroaching on their freedom, but their fathers and brothers certainly are... Should society not be protecting them?

Thus, it seems, mutual incompatibility between individual freedom and human rights considerations eliminates the possibility of a satisfying solution to the headscarf debate. Protecting the right of women not to wear certain clothing necessarily comes at the expense of individual liberty, whereas upholding western values of freedom leaves women at the mercy of vengeful and women-hating patriarchs. Are we to conclude that we are forced to choose between “handing over even more freedom to Big Brother” and “allowing women to be treated as second-rate citizens by deluded men who fear emancipated women”?

Thankfully, as it turns out, it is not a choice society has to make. There is another way of approaching the issue at hand. Whereas the choices outlined so far have been between action (a ban) and inaction (no ban), those on the side of individual liberty can drastically alter the argument by proposing a course of action that would go a long way in addressing all the issues at hand as well as an issue that has not been raised yet. It is important to realise that in the long run even a ban will fail to protect those girls who do not want to wear the headscarf, as Muslim families will simply send their children to private, or even Muslim, schools. Besides, outside of school hours they remain firmly under the control of their families.

Perhaps the answer lies, not in a compromise, but in a much more fundamental compliance with, and protection of, individual freedom... Rather than inaction and merely rejecting the headscarf ban, proponents of individual liberty should propose a proactive solution of their own. Instead of restricting individuals in their freedom by meddling with their choice of clothing, real help should be available for people who feel they are being thwarted in the pursuit of their own individual liberty. A channel should be provided enabling them to voice their concerns and have them taken seriously. Perhaps a loud and clear message should be sent out that any restriction by any person of any other person's individual liberty will be harshly dealt with and that the powers-that-be will take a determined stand in defence of those who find themselves in need of protection... in the name of freedom.

Guest Column For IFF
Arnaud Houdmont
Freelance Journalist


At 19/7/09 20:38, Anonymous Anoniem said...

Ik deel grotendeels de analyse van de auteur.
Als oplossing zou er een uitweg moeten zijn voor meisjes die in een familie leven waarin zaken als een hoofddoek tot het regelen van een huwelijk opgelegd worden. Maar waar ga je die opvangen? En wie zal daarvoor betalen?
Op korte termijn zie ik geen oplossing die zowel de vrije meningsuiting als de vrijheid van die kinderen dient.
Op lange termijn moeten we er voor zorgen dat elk van die kinderen een goede opleiding geniet en de mogelijkheid heeft om verder te studeren, zodat het probleem bij de volgende generatie uitsterft.

At 19/7/09 20:38, Anonymous Anoniem said...

Iedereen moet vrij zijn om het hoofddeksel van zijn keuze te dragen. Plus: ik twijfel aan de meerwaarde van een verbod. Vrouwen moeten voor zichzelf opkomen, en die verantwoordelijkheid niet op de staat afschuiven.

At 20/7/09 01:06, Anonymous Marc Huybrechts said...

Naar mijn mening hebben kleding en/of kledingsvoorschriften weinig of niets te maken met "human rights", noch met "individual freedom", en ook niet met "scheiding van kerk en staat", noch met "vrouwenrechten". Wie "mensenrechten, religie, individuele vrijheid" laat afhangen van bepaalde 'kleding', zowel voor als tegen, heeft wel een zeer oppervlakkige interpretatie van rechten/religie/vrijheid.

Het 'probleem' van de islamitische hoofddoeken is allereerst een kwestie van wie(?) kledingsvoorschriften mag uitvaardigen, en waar(?). Kleding heeft te maken met gedrag, NIET met opinie of meningsuiting. Een hoofddoek dragen is geen opinie of een mening, maar het is wel een daad of een actie.

In elk politiek bestel, en ook in een democratie, is er een bevoegde overheid die kledingsvoorschriften moet kunnen uitvaardigen in de publieke arena om de 'goede orde' en de 'publieke zeden' te kunnen vrijwaren/beschermen. De kwestie is op welk niveau en in welke omstandigheden? In een echte democratie moet dit via democratische procedures gebeuren en doorgaans best op 'locaal' niveau. Het lijkt me ook absoluut noodzakelijk voor een democratische overheid om burkas (die herkenning in de publieke arena beletten) te verbieden, al was het maar om de publieke veiligheid te helpen verzekeren.

In een echte democratie moet ook elke private instelling (inclusief in het onderwijs) zelf kunnen bepalen welke minimum gedragsvoorwaarden (inclusief kledijvoorschriften) zij vereist van wie haar wil 'bezoeken'. Bijvoorbeeld, een winkel moet kunnen eisen dat men schoenen draagt, of dat men niet naakt binnen loopt, enz... Ook publieke onderwijs instellingen moeten zelf minimum eisen van 'uniform' en van andere gedragsvoorschriften (inclusief zowel een verbod als een goedkeuring van hoofddoeken) kunnen opleggen.

In een vrije maatschappij hebben vrije mensen de keuze van (a) zich te houden aan de minimum vereisten van private en publieke instellingen, ofwel (b) van elders (naar een andere winkel, school, of instelling) te gaan.

At 20/7/09 21:56, Blogger Iftikhar Ahmad said...

Children from minority groups, especially the Muslims, are exposed to the pressure of racism, multiculturalism and bullying. They suffer academically, culturally and linguistically: a high proportion of children of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin are leaving British schools with low grades or no qualification.

In the 1980s, the Muslim community in Britain started to set up Muslim schools. The first was the London School of Islamics which I established and which operating from 1981-86. Now there are 133 schools educating approximately 5% Muslim pupils. Very few schools are state funded.

The needs and demands of Muslim children can be met only through Muslim schools, but education is an expensive business and the Muslim community does not have the resources to set up schools for each and every child, and only eight Muslim schools have achieved grant maintained status.

This leaves a majority of children from Muslim families with no choice but to attend state schools. There are hundreds of state schools where Muslim pupils are in majority. In my opinion, all such schools may be designated as Muslim community schools with bilingual Muslim teachers as role models.

Prince Charles, while visiting the first grant maintained Muslim school in north London, said that the pupils would be the future ambassadors of Islam. But what about thousands of others, who attend state schools deemed to be "sink schools"?

The time has come for the Muslim community - in the form of Islamic charities and trusts - to manage and run those state schools where Muslim pupils are in the majority. The Department for Education would be responsible for funding, inspection and maintenance.

The management would be in the hands of educated professional Muslims. The teaching of Arabic, Islamic studies, Urdu and other community languages by qualified Muslim teachers would help the pupils to develop an Islamic identity, which is crucial for mental, emotional and personality development.

In the east London borough of Newham, there are at least 10 state schools where Muslim pupils are in the majority.

The television newscaster Sir Trevor McDonald is a champion of introducing foreign modern languages even at primary level in schools in Britain. The Muslim community would like to see Arabic, Urdu and other community languages introduced at nursery, primary and secondary schools along with European languages so that Muslim pupils have these options.

In education, there should be a choice and at present it is denied to the Muslim community. In the late 80s and early 90s, when I floated the idea of Muslim community schools, I was declared a "school hijacker" by an editorial in the Newham Recorder newspaper in east London.

This clearly shows that the British media does not believe in choice and diversity in the field of education and has no respect for those who are different.

Muslim schools, in spite of meager resources, have excelled to a further extent this year, with two schools achieving 100% A-C grades for five or more GCSEs. They beat well resourced state and independent schools in Birmingham and Hackney.

Muslim schools are doing better because a majority of the teachers are Muslim. The pupils are not exposed to the pressures of racism, multiculturalism and bullying.
Iftikhar Ahmad

At 25/7/09 23:49, Anonymous traveller said...

@ iftikhar

Can you explain to me what the advantage is to teach Arabic in Muslim schools with Pakistani and Bengali children?

Further please explain to me why you call your school an Islamic school?

Why are Muslim teachers better than other teachers?


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