Is the Muslim veil a civil right?
by John A. Rakestraw Jr.
At this writing the French government is still proposing a ban on wearing conspicuous religious symbols in public schools. The ban is not limited to headscarves, but also includes such religious symbols as the Jewish kippah and large Christian crosses. French President Jacques Chirac argues that the ban is necessary to protect the country's secularism. “Secularism is one of the Republic's great achievements,” he said in a speech reported by the German newspaper Deutsche Welle . “It plays a crucial role in social harmony and national cohesion.”
Prominent Jewish, Muslim, and Christian leaders in France have spoken out against the ban, saying that the ban itself would threaten public harmony. Muslim women hit the streets of Paris in protest in December, contending that the proposed ban makes a mockery of basic French values. “Liberty, equality, fraternity—apart from women who wear the veil,” Fatima Boicha told the Associated Press at a rally, drawing 3,000 people. “The French state wants us to submit, to tell us what to wear and what not to wear.”
The headscarf is also an issue in Turkey, a largely Muslim country that has defined itself as a secular state for the last eighty years. Girls there are not allowed to wear the headscarf in public schools. But many women, including students at the University of Istanbul, are calling for religion to be more visible in the public sphere. The headscarf that many in the West see as an instrument of oppression has become for these women a rallying cry against oppression.
In Germany, a court ruled last fall that school officials in Stuttgart could not refuse to hire a Muslim teacher who insisted on wearing a headscarf in the classroom. Four German states responded by initiating legislation that would allow schools to ban teachers wearing headscarves. In December, a group of prominent German women rallied in support of Muslim women who choose to wear headscarves. “The decisive thing is not what's on the head, but what's in it,” the women said.This last slogan, of course, points to the crucial issue: If the individuals wearing the religious symbols have chosen freely to wear them as public expressions of their individual faith commitments, then others should accept them as expressions of faith, just as they accept an individual's spoken affirmation of faith in a public space. If the harmony is so fragile as to be threatened by such expressions, then a secular state faces challenges far more serious than the wearing of ostentatious religious symbols.