Clicking on banner ads enables JWR to constantly improve
Jewish World Review Jan. 16, 2004 / 22 Teves, 5764

Diana West

Diana West
JWR's Pundits
World Editorial
Cartoon Showcase

Mallard Fillmore

Michael Barone
Mona Charen
Linda Chavez
Ann Coulter
Greg Crosby
Larry Elder
Don Feder
Suzanne Fields
Paul Greenberg
Bob Greene
Betsy Hart
Nat Hentoff
David Horowitz
Marianne Jennings
Michael Kelly
Mort Kondracke
Ch. Krauthammer
Lawrence Kudlow
Dr. Laura
John Leo
David Limbaugh
Michelle Malkin
Chris Matthews
Michael Medved
Kathleen Parker
Wes Pruden
Sam Schulman
Amity Shlaes
Tony Snow
Thomas Sowell
Cal Thomas
Jonathan S. Tobin
Ben Wattenberg
George Will
Bruce Williams
Walter Williams
Mort Zuckerman

Consumer Reports

French fashion? | When Jacques Chirac announced his intention to unveil Islamic schoolgirls in France by barring the hijab, or head scarf, from state-run schools, he raised some provocative questions. Why would a French president whose power as a global broker derives from his close ties to the Arab-Muslim world (and distance from the United States and Israel) act to restrict Islam's burgeoning place in French society?

Why would the European leader behind the international opposition to the war in Iraq — dubbed by at least one Arab media outlet "the Western Saladin" — suddenly seek to sweep a big chunk of Islam out of the French public square?

Sure, Mr. Chirac took the ecumenical approach and barred Jewish yarmulkes and "obvious" Christian crosses from the schools as well, but it was the scarf-wrapped-girl multitudes in increasingly Muslim France that caused presidential concern. There hasn't been a good explanation of his decision, but the untamed uproar in the Arab and Muslim world makes it pretty clear that the priciest dates on sale next Ramadan won't be called (as they were this year) "Chiracs." Indeed, some analysts see hijab-trouble ahead for France, with Walid Phares predicting that "a myriad of jihads," both non-violent and violent, "can and will take place."

Donate to JWR

Meanwhile, does banning Muslim head scarves in French public schools infringe on freedom of religion? Most clergy, along with such watchdog groups as Freedom House and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, have already said yes, huffily. But here's where things get intellectually gooey. If the head scarf is a feature of Islam, and Islam has a history of repressing non-Muslims, then is the head scarf a symbol of religious repression? If so, how can Mr. Chirac be curtailing religious liberty by restricting a symbol of religious repression?

Also worth wondering is whether a head scarf is a religious "symbol" in the first place. This sounds like a question for the muftis on call at "Fatwa Corner" at, a fundamentalist Web site tracking every wrinkle of the hijab controversy. There, a reader learns that the head scarf is not a symbol of Muslim faith, but rather "an ordinance from Allah to protect [girlsī] chastity." In other words, unlike yarmulkes and crucifixes, the hijab doesn't function as a sign of piety, as so many assume. It is wrapped around a girl's head and upper torso to serve a purpose. As one Web site scholar puts it, "If a girl is approaching puberty, there is the fear that her not wearing hijab may cause young men to be tempted by her, or her by them ... The parent or guardian has to make her wear hijab so as to prevent means that may lead to evil or immorality."

Such a revelation should give the hijab a new look. It certainly offers insights into the ongoing culture clash. While most Westerners wince at the dowdy uniformity of the hijab, all the while hoping to convince themselves to accept it as a symbol of feminine modesty, Muslims regard it as a functional means of safeguarding young girls and women from the untrammeled sexual impulses of men. This belies a fairly unevolved set of manners and mores (not to mention an almost literal state of war between the sexes) that reflects the culturally entrenched repression and abuse of women in Islamic society. Little wonder that Turkey and Tunisia, two Islamic societies with a somewhat more modern bent, have long banned the hijab in public places.

Not too long ago, I received an e-mail from an American woman married to a "basically enlightened Lebanese husband." From him, she wrote, she was surprised to learn that "the concept of controlling lust, anger, etc., is not taught in the Arab world." Rather, what in the West are matters of self-control and personal responsibility, are in the Arab world outwardly and "socially controlled." Her husband has commented, she continued, "that some Arabs come to the U.S. and lose their manners — once outside the controlling environment they have none."

My correspondent offers one explanation of the enduring nature of the hijab, the abaya and burqa in Islamic society. But what about in France — not to mention Paris, the city of light, Balenciaga and Yves St. Laurent? Such uniforms reflect both women's second-class status within Islam, and Muslims' newly expanding place in the Western world. All of which may help explain why, despite my own hankering for a little more modesty (and a lot more style) across the board, the hijab remains a symbol of repression and extremism — a definite fashion-don't.

Every weekday publishes what many in Washington and in the media consider "must reading." Sign up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.

JWR contributor Diana West is a columnist and editorial writer for the Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

Diana West Archives


© 2003, Diana West