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Hijab and French values

Saturday, February 13, 2010 08:24:50 PM, Iman Kurdi

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THERE has been a storm of controversy in France over a candidate for the country’s regional elections. Ilham Moussaid is a candidate for the NPA in the Vaucluse, a department in the Provence region of France. The NPA is a new party and stands for Nouveau Party Anti-Capitaliste, or New Anti-Capitalist Party, a Trotskyist (yes, they still exist!) party led by the charismatic and popular Olivier Besancenot.


So why is the inclusion of the young Ilham Moussaid on the Vaucluse list so controversial? She wears a hijab or veil is the answer.


It is a first, it seems, not just for the infant political party but for France as a whole. Never before has a woman with a veil on her head appeared as a candidate in a French election, be it local, regional, presidential or European, none. The other parties have been quick to attack this apparent assault on French republican values. Martine Aubry, the leader of the Socialist Party, stated that she would not accept the presence of a veiled candidate on one of their lists. President Nicolas Sarkozy’s ruling UMP party has also attacked NPA’s choice with Prime Minister François Fillon calling it a “manipulation”.


It’s a polemic that is hard to understand from an outsider’s point of view. There is no issue with a Muslim presenting herself for election. Indeed there are a number of Muslim women candidates up for election. The issue is purely one associated with the hijab.


I find it rather amusing that Moussaid’s style of hijab is so French that it would not pass as acceptable in the Middle East. She would certainly not have her ID card approved in Saudi Arabia dressed that way. Her veil consists of a scarf tied over her hair, with her ears and the top of her neck visible. This is not niqab, just a modern interpretation of the hijab. It is similar to that worn by France’s best-selling rap singer Diam’s, who has also caused controversy by her decision to start wearing the Muslim veil. Diam’s veil was described by Fadela Amara last week as “a real danger for young women...because she is presenting an image of women that is a negative image”.


There is no denying that the hijab has a negative image in France. Moreover there is the implicit notion that the hijab is anti-feminist. When Olivier Besancenot responded to critics by saying that a woman can be a feminist, a secularist and veiled, it created hoots of derision in the press.


So can a woman who chooses to wear a hijab be a feminist and a secularist?

The secularist is more important in terms of the controversy over Ilham Moussaid. Secularism or laicité is a core value of the French Republic; it is enshrined in its constitution. Not only does it formally separate church and state by a law passed in 1905 but it firmly pushes religion into the private sphere.

“Religion is a private concern and has no place in the public sphere” is an argument that you will hear again and again. Hence it is argued that Ilham Moussaid is free to practice her religion in private, but when she wears a religious symbol on her head, she is taking her religion into the public sphere and cannot become a representative of the French state.


I can just about see the logic of the argument and yet when I hear Ilham Moussaid say she is committed to secular values, I find her credible. I don’t see why wearing the hijab is in itself contradictory to a view of the world where religion is considered a personal choice and where religious dictates are to be excluded from governmental decision-making.


Moreover, secularism is based on a strong assumption of equality. The idea that underpins it is that all citizens should be equal and that no citizen should be favored over another because of religious affiliation. Similarly, gender equality is also a core value of the French Republic. So can a woman who wears the hijab be a feminist? It is interesting how in parts of the West, and perhaps in parts of the Arab world too, the hijab is associated with conservative views and thought of, to quote Fadela Amara once again, as something which gives a negative view of both Muslims and women. At core the image of covering up is key. The mental image of forcing women to cover up implicitly assumes both a sense of shame in revealing female flesh and a sense of holding women back, of keeping them restricted. Intuitively wearing the hijab suggests a lack of freedom and consequently also a lack of equality.


But coming from the Middle East this question sounds baffling. In a country where it is the norm to wear the hijab, you quickly notice that it is shared between women of many different political persuasions. Hence you can come across an extremely conservative woman who believes men have superiority over women as easily as meeting a fiercely feminist woman who campaigns for equality between men and women yet wears a hijab.


In reality wearing the hijab is neither incompatible with feminism nor with secularism. When Olivier Besancenot says that a woman can be feminist, secularist and veiled he is right. She can be, though she might not be.


The truth is that the majority of pious Muslims are not secular by the very nature of what they believe in. Islam as a religion sets out an overt social and legal code that can negate the idea of religion as a purely private concern. Though you can be a Muslim who believes in the separation of church and state and who believes that all religions are equal, many are not.


Similarly wearing the hijab neither makes you a feminist nor stops you from being one. It is your beliefs and not what you wear on your head that determines who you are, even if you choose to wear a veil on your head out of religious conviction.


Courtesy: Arab News






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