Jewish World Review Jan. 16, 2004 / 22 Teves, 5764
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
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
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 www.islamonline.com, 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
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