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The headscarf: human rights or individual freedom?

Since France banned the Islamic headscarf and other religious symbols from all state schools in 2004, the debate it sparked has resurfaced time and again over the last few years. It did so recently, at the end of June, when public schools in Antwerp decided to ban the headscarf from September 2009. Astonishingly public opinion is divided between two simplistic and inadequate positions to which adherents of either camp have pledged their unquestioning allegiance. On the one hand champions of cultural diversity and freedom of expression are aghast and want the ban lifted immediately. As an ardent advocate of freedom in any shape or form, this author has had to repress a natural tendency to join this side of the debate. On the other hand, nationalist preservationists have entered into an uneasy alliance with feminists and proponents of the separation of state and church, in defence of the ban.

On the face of it, it is much easier to sympathise with those who want the ban lifted in favour of freedom of expression; especially since the vast majority of those supporting the ban are blatantly motivated by racist convictions. It is frankly disturbing to witness the desperation with which people cling to their imagined identity and the fear they display towards anyone that does not fit in their narrow-minded conception of the world. However, these observations aside, the human rights aspect of the debate looms large and should not be ignored.

It is a very sorry state of affairs indeed when the powers-that-be start meddling in strictly private affairs such as their citizens' wardrobes. Imagine waking up to the following newspaper headline: “Under a new law designed to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace and in schools, women and girls will longer be allowed to wear mini-skirts or otherwise revealing clothing at work or in schools. Guidelines as to what clothing is deemed acceptable have been published.”

This fictional, but not so far-fetched paragraph would provoke waves of indignation across the “western” world. The vast majority of people would balk at the very idea and fiercely resist this outright infringement on their freedom. And rightly so... Democratic societies are, to a lesser or greater extent (that's an altogether different argument that will not be addressed here), built on freedom of speech and freedom of expression. Many are prepared to defend this hard-earned freedom with tooth and nail. One only has to recall the Danish cartoons controversy back in 2005, when the publishing of a series of unflattering cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed led to the violent uprising of radical Muslims across the world. In its response to these events, Europe stood (more or less) united in defending the rights of the cartoonist and the publisher to express their views, regardless of religious sensitivities or not. It is, in the humble opinion of this author, of vital importance that no amount of religious clamouring and whining should ever be allowed to result in the adoption of censorship or limited individual freedom.

However, many would argue that the issue of the cartoons and the fictional scenario where a government restricts women's freedom to wear mini-skirts are principally different from the headscarf ban debate. In one crucial aspect - and one only - they are right. Many girls, born into a family of Islamic faith, are simply not given the choice to wear a headscarf or not. Whether they privately renounce their faith (for, in many instances, it can be hazardous to do so openly) or whether they simply choose not to adopt the headscarf, their family will oblige or force them to wear it against their will. This, in itself, constitutes a violation of women's rights and goes against the “western” conception of freedom. An extremely dehumanising example of imposed clothing is the now well-known burqa, covering the women from head to toe, so no part of their bodies are visible to the outside world. More often than not, those who tend towards the individual freedom argument in the headscarf debate, will promptly change allegiance when the burqa is discussed.

But what if the women in question actively, and without interference, choose to wear the headscarf or even the burqa, be their motivation religious or other? Should these women, simply by virtue of the freedom of expression of other women, not be allowed to do so? It is exceedingly hypocritical to employ the freedom angle in order to defend the cartoonist and in defence of the girls who do not want to wear headscarfs, but to consequently abandon these principals when they are no longer suited to one's argument and when it turns out that some women actually want (religious motivation) to wear these items.

The cultural diversity card trumps all when it comes to defending, or tolerating, the indefensible. Criticism and condemnation of abhorrent practices and traditions such as genital mutilation, lapidation and forced marriages (to name but a few), are too often met with an indignant rebuke by the defenders, or perpetrators, of these practices, pointing out that these are matters of cultural sovereignty and not to be meddled with by outsiders. The argument from cultural diversity is devoid of meaning and merely serves the self-interest of certain factions in certain societies as well as that of those who want to perpetuate the cultural zoo of humanity for their entertainment. In the case of the headscarf or the burqa such arguments should equally be dismissed as irrelevant and of no significance in western society where adherence to human rights, the freedoms of speech and expression should at all times take precedence.

This said, both options on the table – 1. an outright ban of headscarfs and 2. a tolerance for headscarfs based on individual freedom – present us with innate difficulties. On the one hand, a ban sets the precedence for more government involvement and the continued restriction of individual liberties, creating more problems than it is actually addressing: Where should government involvement stop? Should the burqa be banned but the headscarf allowed? Should girls wear mini-skirts? Are crucifix pendants acceptable? And who decides what is acceptable or not? On the other hand, what about all these girls that are forced to wear a headscarf or a burqa by their families? What about their individual rights? The government might not be encroaching on their freedom, but their fathers and brothers certainly are... Should society not be protecting them?

Thus, it seems, mutual incompatibility between individual freedom and human rights considerations eliminates the possibility of a satisfying solution to the headscarf debate. Protecting the right of women not to wear certain clothing necessarily comes at the expense of individual liberty, whereas upholding western values of freedom leaves women at the mercy of vengeful and women-hating patriarchs. Are we to conclude that we are forced to choose between “handing over even more freedom to Big Brother” and “allowing women to be treated as second-rate citizens by deluded men who fear emancipated women”?

Thankfully, as it turns out, it is not a choice society has to make. There is another way of approaching the issue at hand. Whereas the choices outlined so far have been between action (a ban) and inaction (no ban), those on the side of individual liberty can drastically alter the argument by proposing a course of action that would go a long way in addressing all the issues at hand as well as an issue that has not been raised yet. It is important to realise that in the long run even a ban will fail to protect those girls who do not want to wear the headscarf, as Muslim families will simply send their children to private, or even Muslim, schools. Besides, after school they remain firmly under the control of their families.

Perhaps the answer lies, not in a compromise, but in a much more fundamental compliance with, and protection of, individual freedom... Rather than inaction and merely rejecting the headscarf ban, proponents of individual liberty should propose a proactive solution of their own. Instead of restricting individuals in their freedom by meddling with their choice of clothing, real help should be available for people who feel they are being thwarted in the pursuit of their own individual liberty. A channel should be provided enabling them to voice their concerns and have them taken seriously. Perhaps a loud and clear message should be sent out that any restriction by any person of any other person's individual liberty will be harshly dealt with and that the powers-that-be will take a determined stand in defence of those who find themselves in need of protection... in the name of freedom.

Dit opiniestuk werd door Arnaud Houdmont ingezonden.

Meer teksten van deze columnist op http://www.entropicbits.com/.

9 Reacties:

At 22:20 Anoniem said...

Ik deel grotendeels de analyse van de auteur.
Als oplossing zou er een uitweg moeten zijn voor meisjes die in een familie leven waarin zaken als een hoofddoek tot het regelen van een huwelijk opgelegd worden. Maar waar ga je die opvangen? En wie zal daarvoor betalen?
Op korte termijn zie ik geen oplossing die zowel de vrije meningsuiting als de vrijheid van die kinderen dient.
Op lange termijn moeten we er voor zorgen dat elk van die kinderen een goede opleiding geniet en de mogelijkheid heeft om verder te studeren, zodat het probleem bij de volgende generatie uitsterft.

 
At 20:37 Anoniem said...

Iedereen moet vrij zijn om het hoofddeksel van zijn keuze te dragen. Plus: ik twijfel aan de meerwaarde van een verbod. Vrouwen moeten voor zichzelf opkomen, en die verantwoordelijkheid niet op de staat afschuiven.

 
At 14:09 Marc Huybrechts said...

Naar mijn mening hebben kleding en/of kledingsvoorschriften weinig of niets te maken met "human rights", noch met "individual freedom", en ook niet met "scheiding van kerk en staat", noch met "vrouwenrechten". Wie "mensenrechten, religie, individuele vrijheid" laat afhangen van bepaalde 'kleding', zowel voor als tegen, heeft wel een zeer oppervlakkige interpretatie van rechten/religie/vrijheid.

Het 'probleem' van de islamitische hoofddoeken is allereerst een kwestie van wie(?) kledingsvoorschriften mag uitvaardigen, en waar(?). Kleding heeft te maken met gedrag, NIET met opinie of meningsuiting. Een hoofddoek dragen is geen opinie of een mening, maar het is wel een daad of een actie.

In elk politiek bestel, en ook in een democratie, is er een bevoegde overheid die kledingsvoorschriften moet kunnen uitvaardigen in de publieke arena om de 'goede orde' en de 'publieke zeden' te kunnen vrijwaren/beschermen. De kwestie is op welk niveau en in welke omstandigheden? In een echte democratie moet dit via democratische procedures gebeuren en doorgaans best op 'locaal' niveau. Het lijkt me ook absoluut noodzakelijk voor een democratische overheid om burkas (die herkenning in de publieke arena beletten) te verbieden, al was het maar om de publieke veiligheid te helpen verzekeren.

In een echte democratie moet ook elke private instelling (inclusief in het onderwijs) zelf kunnen bepalen welke minimum gedragsvoorwaarden (inclusief kledijvoorschriften) zij vereist van wie haar wil 'bezoeken'. Bijvoorbeeld, een winkel moet kunnen eisen dat men schoenen draagt, of dat men niet naakt binnen loopt, enz... Ook publieke onderwijs instellingen moeten zelf minimum eisen van 'uniform' en van andere gedragsvoorschriften (inclusief zowel een verbod als een goedkeuring van hoofddoeken) kunnen opleggen.

In een vrije maatschappij hebben vrije mensen de keuze van (a) zich te houden aan de minimum vereisten van private en publieke instellingen, ofwel (b) van elders (naar een andere winkel, school, of instelling) te gaan.

 
At 13:35 Anoniem said...

Children from minority groups, especially the Muslims, are exposed to the pressure of racism, multiculturalism and bullying. They suffer academically, culturally and linguistically: a high proportion of children of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin are leaving British schools with low grades or no qualification.

In the 1980s, the Muslim community in Britain started to set up Muslim schools. The first was the London School of Islamics which I established and which operating from 1981-86. Now there are 133 schools educating approximately 5% Muslim pupils. Very few schools are state funded.

The needs and demands of Muslim children can be met only through Muslim schools, but education is an expensive business and the Muslim community does not have the resources to set up schools for each and every child, and only eight Muslim schools have achieved grant maintained status.

This leaves a majority of children from Muslim families with no choice but to attend state schools. There are hundreds of state schools where Muslim pupils are in majority. In my opinion, all such schools may be designated as Muslim community schools with bilingual Muslim teachers as role models.

Prince Charles, while visiting the first grant maintained Muslim school in north London, said that the pupils would be the future ambassadors of Islam. But what about thousands of others, who attend state schools deemed to be "sink schools"?

The time has come for the Muslim community - in the form of Islamic charities and trusts - to manage and run those state schools where Muslim pupils are in the majority. The Department for Education would be responsible for funding, inspection and maintenance.

The management would be in the hands of educated professional Muslims. The teaching of Arabic, Islamic studies, Urdu and other community languages by qualified Muslim teachers would help the pupils to develop an Islamic identity, which is crucial for mental, emotional and personality development.

In the east London borough of Newham, there are at least 10 state schools where Muslim pupils are in the majority.

The television newscaster Sir Trevor McDonald is a champion of introducing foreign modern languages even at primary level in schools in Britain. The Muslim community would like to see Arabic, Urdu and other community languages introduced at nursery, primary and secondary schools along with European languages so that Muslim pupils have these options.

In education, there should be a choice and at present it is denied to the Muslim community. In the late 80s and early 90s, when I floated the idea of Muslim community schools, I was declared a "school hijacker" by an editorial in the Newham Recorder newspaper in east London.

This clearly shows that the British media does not believe in choice and diversity in the field of education and has no respect for those who are different.

Muslim schools, in spite of meager resources, have excelled to a further extent this year, with two schools achieving 100% A-C grades for five or more GCSEs. They beat well resourced state and independent schools in Birmingham and Hackney.

Muslim schools are doing better because a majority of the teachers are Muslim. The pupils are not exposed to the pressures of racism, multiculturalism and bullying.

Iftikhar Ahmad
www.londonschoolofislamics.org.uk

 
At 22:32 flippinheck said...

At one time I saw a Belgian MSM camera crew searching for Muslim teenage girls and adult women walking the streets, wearing a black hijab. Those reporters asked them the question: "Why do you choose to wear a hijab ?"

Here is what they got in reply: "Because I am a Muslim woman and proud to be one. By wearing a hijab I show the people I am very religious and adhere to religious values. I show my pride in being a religious Muslim woman."

This is by all means the standard answer they got. I happen to think this is a load of claptrap.

Think about this: how many of these women would give a reply to such a question by stating "I wear a hijab because my father / uncle / husband demand this of me at all times. And because I run the risk of being bludgeoned to death, decapitated or thrown from a balcony off the seventh floor of an appartment building, if I would defy their demands." Any woman wearing a hijab would not have to think twice about "the most sensible thing to say." After all:

1) they have been captured on camera, which means they would not be able to retract such a statement.
2) the whole Muslim community they live in would be aware of what she had said in public.
3) as a consequence, she would indeed single herself out as a potential victim of an honour-related killing.

Which means : niqabs, burqas and chadors are a symbol. A constant reminder of the control Muslim men exert on their women. A constant reminder which a Muslim woman carries with her every single moment of her life. A symbol of fear and oppression.

Islam is a patriarchal doctrine, what Muslim men says goes, or else...And that's why there is a clear difference between women wearing a headscarf and for instance secular female Turks.

Now, this ties in with my own personal findings.
I relocated to a city in Flanders where the vast majority of Muslim immigrants are actually Turkish. When you venture out to the city centre on an average saturday afternoon, you will often find many Turkish women shopping around. Most of them are:

1) on their own OR
2) walking around with shopping bags in groups of 2 to 4 women AND
3 both 1) and 2) are NEVER EVER chaperoned by men AND
4) both groups of women ALWAYS wear Western-style dress and NEVER wear a headscarf.

This is mainly because these Turkish women come from Turkish SECULAR backgrounds rather than religiously inspired ones.
(continues...)

 
At 22:33 flippinheck said...

(continued)

On the other hand, there is another group of Turkish women, which I call the traditionalists. You will mainly find them:

1) ALWAYS being chaperoned by a man (their husband or otherwise)
2) ALWAYS wearing a headscarf
3) NEVER or RARELY venturing out on their own, unless they are accompanied by their children
4) ONLY clustering in groups with other traditionalist females wearing a headscarf when they are not accompanied by men.

When I go to a local supermarket (or any supermarket for that matter) this becomes even more apparent. In that case, I have often found secular Turkish women and traditionalist Turkish women frequenting the same places, and the distinction between them still holds true.

The traditionalists always wear a heascarf and are accompanied by men or associate with other traditionalist women only, while on the other hand, the secular Turkish women always go looking for their groceries on their own !!!

1) Both can be found at the very same time AND
2) They NEVER mingle, aamof they ALWAYS keep their distance from one another ! (At least, I have never seen them talking to each other or making polite conversation with one another)

I have seen the televised news item of the Sportpaleis gathering celebrating the life of Mohammed on the VRT news a while ago, and I noticed something immediately:

1) NONE of the women shown in the report where donning Western-style dress, ALL of them were wearing headscarves AND were accompanied by men !
2) ONLY the men were interviewed about the gathering. Apparently these men wore Western-style dress, NONE of the women did, however.

Which seems to suggest to me that the men in particular are disseminating an image of being so-called 'moderates' while the women and the way they were dressed clearly demonstrated the TOTAL OPPOSITE !

It is quite clear to me that a Turkish secular woman would not be keen to go celebrating the birth of Muhammed, because these women are far more Westernized and liberated than their Islamic counterparts !!! And they wouldn't allow any man to pressure them to wear a headscarf, hijab or chador.

(ja, ik ben vlaming en ik had dit al elders gepost-ik had gewoon geen zin om heel de boel te vertalen)

 
At 05:10 Traveller said...

@ iftikhar

Can you explain to me what the advantage is to teach Arabic in Muslim schools with Pakistani and Bengali children?

Further please explain to me why you call your school an Islamic school?

Why are Muslim teachers better than other teachers?

 
At 13:51 Functional Delusions said...

Dear Mr Huybrechts,

The fact that you argue that the issue of “what clothing is deemed appropriate” depends on who can dictate clothing guidelines where, clearly demonstrates that the issue is very much connected to individual freedom and contradicts your statement that is has nothing to do with it. On a personal level you may not find it important to be told what not to wear (or for that matter, what to wear), but it clearly represents a limitation of a person’s individual freedom, no matter how you want to look at the issue.

Nor can I possibly subscribe to your proposal that wearing something is simply an act and not a matter of freedom of expression. People wearing certain items of clothing express a part of their personality, background and convictions. They make a statement. The headscarf is a very clear statement about one’s perception of religion, moral issues, womanhood, the concept of decency and way of life.

Your claim that this issue is not relevant to women’s rights (and therefore human rights) is also misguided… A girl who is forced to wear a headscarf against her will would beg to disagree. Wearing a headscarf in itself is an act loaded with implications and constitutes an outward sign to the world of adherence to a certain religion, a certain way of life, a denial of womanhood, and more often than not, an indication of female subjugation to the male patriarch. If this is forced upon a person, it is a clear violation of women’s rights.

To call upon the virtues of democracy in determining the dress code of the local population, is equivalent to allowing a majority to dictate on which music, literature, food and films are allowed or not, thus allowing for a dictatorship by the majority. Democracy is the best tool at our disposal for decision-making by the people, but it is important to refrain from handing over individual liberties to the whims of the majority. Reinforcing the existing nanny state by allowing for even more rules and regulations is not the answer and enlisting the population by asking them to decide on the importance or not of certain liberties is dangerous. As for security issues related to the burqa… only a convinced utilitarian would sacrifice individual liberties for this unconvincing perception of the greater good.

Best Regards,
Arnaud Houdmont

 
At 09:23 Dani said...

Volgens de traditionele Koranuitleggers is de hoofddoek er ter ‘bescherming’ van de vrouw omdat ze zonder hoofddoek de lusten van mannen zou kunnen opwekken.Meer liberale moslims, vinden dit overtrokken en menen dat de meeste moslims in het westen na verloop van tijd toch wel de westerse gewoonten en gebruiken zullen aannemen. Volgens hun interpretatie van de Koran schrijft, deze vrouwen ook nergens voor een hoofddoek te dragen. Jonge meisjes die de hoofddoek dragen, beweren soms dat zij die keuze in volle vrijheid genomen hebben. Ik heb geen reden om aan hun oprechtheid te twijfelen. Wanneer men dan te weten wil komen waarom ze die beslissing genomen hebben, antwoorden ze veelal:God vraagt dat van mij.Maar het probleem is hoe zij weten dat God dat vraagt.Zij zijn geen islamdeskundigen en kunnen moeilijk op eigen kracht tot dat inzicht gekomen zijn. Laten we dus niet langer die meisjes lastig vallen, maar ons richten tot degenen die ze geïndoctrineerd hebben: de godsdienstleraars of de imams of de ouders hebben wel een inbreng, maar ook zij kunnen meestal niet autonoom de teksten interpreteren. Op de vraag naar het waarom, antwoorden de imams dat het bevel tot het dragen van de hoofddoek in de Koran staat.Maar dat is in strijd met de waarheid. De Koran spreekt niet over een hoofddoek. Imams die letterlijk dat boek willen volgen, moeten dus aan de meisjes een van die twee types aanraden. Nu zie je soms een vrouw met een hijab en een nauwsluitend broekpak of een jeans. Dat is totaal in strijd met de geest van de Koran. Militante moslims eisen het recht voor hun vrouwen om overal een sluier te mogen dragen, ook in het onderwijs en in openbare functies en openbare diensten.Maar als ze volledig eerlijk willen zijn, moeten de imams aan de meisjes uitleggen dat God in de Koran ook het volgende zegt: God heeft de man boven de vrouw bevoorrecht (Soera 4, 34); de vrouw mag alleen met haar man seksuele betrekkingen hebben, de man met een onbeperkt aantal vrouwen (S. 23, 1-6); de man kan zijn vrouw verstoten, het omgekeerde is niet mogelijk (65, 1); de vrouw krijgt de halve erfenis van de man (S. 4, 176); een getuigenis van een vrouw is maar half zoveel waard als dit van een man (S. 2, 282); de vrouw moet gehoorzaam zijn aan haar echtgenoot (S. 4, 34); bij blijvende ongehoorzaamheid moet de man zijn vrouw slaan (S. 4, 34),etc…Hoofdoek is een symbool van afkeer, en protest tegen onze samenleving.Zo komen we tot de kern van dit hele debat.Deze /zeven discriminaties/ van de vrouw staan met een volstrekte duidelijkheid in de Koran; maar even duidelijk is dat ze radicaal in strijd zijn met de Rechten Van De Mens.Men kan van ons niet verwachten dat wij een godsdienst in onze tijd als respectabel beschouwen, wanneer hij deze zeven discriminaties in stand wenst te houden.Maar dat hoeft eigenlijk niet. Het zou goed zijn als de Islam zou moderniseren.Hoe en of dat gaat gebeuren zal nog blijken…

 

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