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Hijab (The Headscarf)—Yes; The Burqa—No By: Phyllis Chesler
Pajamas Media | Tuesday, September 15, 2009


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Banning the burqa in the West might be one way to ban Islamist fundamentalism and the barbaric subordination of girls and women in certain immigrant communities. For this reason, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and French Minister Fadela Amara have again called for this ban. Earlier today, French immigration Minister, Eric Besson, called the burqa “debased.”

I would hope that the French take their argument further. In the past, they have mainly cited security concerns: Burqa wearing women might be “racially” attacked or burqa wearers themselves might be terrorists or criminals who are planning to attack or rob civilians.

I would hope that the French also argue for such a ban on women’s rights/human rights grounds, as I have already proposed. Thus, clothing which completely covers the face and head in a way which muffles speech, hearing, and vision, which limits or prevents all human communication and identification, and which, in effect, functions like an isolation chamber is, by definition, a violation of human rights.

None of this applies to hijab, the Islamic headscarf, which has already been banned in France in school and which is the subject of protest and controversy across Europe.

With all due respect for the good intentions of the French, perhaps Western governments should not automatically or necessarily ban hijab for women; the matter is tricky and complicated for girls as we have seen, as city after city across Europe has discovered. Indeed, this is a complex and challenging matter.

Today, in Holland, in the very country that is putting the sober and very brave parliamentarian,Geert Wilders on trial for exercising his political free speech—another bright Dutch light, Trouw historian Tineke Bennema has called on “women who were born in the Netherlands to voluntarily put on a headscarf ‘out of solidarity’ with the hijab wearers.” You know, like the Danes allegedly once wore the yellow Jewish star.

Bennema: This is not the way to atone for all the Dutch Jews who were so cheerfully handed over to the Nazis.

One can argue that looking “different,” wearing clothing that represents only one religion may, indeed, arouse prejudice and fear and lead to ostracism, especially among children. Visually representing one’s religion in the public square may also interfere with one’s ability to be seen neutrally in a courtroom, (as a judge, a witness, a plaintiff), classroom, hospital, (as a nurse, doctor, or patient), office, etc. For this reason, an American judge told a priest to remove his clerical collar before testifying in a court case.

However, in order to ban hijab in an even-handed way, one would also have to ban the Catholic hijab worn by nuns, the Jewish headscarf worn by ultra-orthodox and Chasidic women, and the various Hindu and Sikh head coverings. Doing so might interfere with the separation of religion and state that many Western governments hold dear.

But there is another reason to consider not banning hijab for adults. I spent last week in Rome, at the International Conference on Violence Against Women, An Initiative of the Italian Presidency of the G 8. I am deeply grateful to the Italian government, specifically to the Italian Minister for Equal Opportunities, the Honorable (and beautiful) Maria Rosaria Carfagna for this opportunity. Here is where I spent time with a dynamic, truly amazing group of religious and secular Muslim feminists. Three wore hijab, two did not, and one wore it sometimes, but not always. Most agreed that headcovering is more of a custom than a religious commandment and that one can be a very good Muslim without it.

My point: They are all modern, eloquent, high achievers; smart, strong, strong-minded, pro-Western, pro-integration, and pro-women’s rights. They have won my heart and I view these Muslim feminists who are fifty years old or younger as the true descendents of Second Wave Western feminism. They, too, believe that women’s rights are universal, not culturally relative: They cannot understand why so many western feminists and academics are willing to sacrifice this principle. And, religious or not, they also believe in the importance of separating religion and state.

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Dr. Phyllis Chesler is the well known author of classic works, including the bestseller Women and Madness (1972) The New Anti-Semitism (2003) and The Death of Feminism: What’s Next in the Struggle for Women’s Freedom (2005). She has just published a new edition of Woman's Inhumanity to Woman (2009). She is an Emerita Professor of psychology and women's studies, the co-founder of the Association for Women in Psychology (1969) and the National Women's Health Network (1976). Her website is www.phyllis-chesler.com.


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