Banning the hijab

I didn’t have time to blog when Jeff Jarvis posted about this verdict by a Federal German court concerning bans on hijabs (headscarfs) in German schools, so I’m pretty late in responding to his post.

Jarvis thinks that such bans are stupid and answers a French commenter’s defense of such bans thus:

Olivier: You clearly are free NOT to wear a headscarf or kibbeh or cross. But what of those who do? They are not allowed to? That is not freedom of religion. That is the imposition of secularity. We Americans left Europe precisely so we could have the freedom to practice — or not practice — religion without government interference. The mixing of government and religion is always dangerous. Aren’t we learning that lesson all too clearly right now?

Besides Jarvis’ charge that the ban amounts to an ‘imposition of secularity’ there also have been claims (I have forgotten where I read those, it has been some time, so unfortunately I have no links to those) that Europeans are basically picking on schoolgirls because they don’t dare to confront the Islamists directly.

These arguments against the bans are misguided, though. Unlike the cross or the kibbeh (which are not banned in Germany, unlike France), the hijab is not a religious, but a political symbol invented quite recently by the Islamists to indicate the subjugation of women under male dominance. Many Muslim women, especially those having grown up in Western countries, do not wear it voluntarily and only do so under the threat of violence by their families and ostracism by the wider Muslim community. There are girls who think that it is their religious duty to wear it, but that is their own business, and the result of religious and political indoctrination anyway. That doesn’t oblige us to tolerate this totalitarian symbol in our public institutions.

As to the concrete case from the article Jarvis was linking to: Fereshda Lusin, a teacher who sued for her alleged right to wear the hijab in school, quite obviously was doing so to make Muslim girls vulnerable to pressure by their families to wear it. For after the first verdict by the German Constitutional Court that made it possible to wear the hijab for a while longer (on the grounds that this is a state rather than a federal issue) the number of girls wearing it in school has risen dramatically. According to this TV program for women the girls’ male family members are telling them that they expect them to emulate Lusin and fight for their right to wear the hijab. Since Lusin’s initial success in court, women who oppose the hijab increasingly receive death-threats. Among them are Lale Akgün, a Member of Parliament and Fatma Bläser, a prominent author (Bläser’s family had sold her to the highest bidder when she was 17 and the family already was living in Germany, her book about this experience has become a bestseller).

The most important point in the whole debate is that the hijab is just the beginning. Should they manage to get an officially sanctioned right to force Muslim women to wear the hijab, the next items on the menu would be demands to tolerate forced marriage (and by extension honor killings, the usual ‘punishment’ for girls who refuse to comply). Forced marriage already is quite widespread among Germany’s Muslim population, but hard to fight since Muslims tend to isolate themselves from German society, and there is little that can be done as long as no report about the offense is made to the police. Political correctness has also frequently made the authorities look the other way, and supporters of group rights at the expense of individual rights also used this issue as a welcome vehicle for the advancement of their cause. This is gradually changing:

In Germany, a few extreme cases, like that of a Kurdish woman murdered by her brother in 2000 because she had a German boyfriend, garner media attention. But activists say law enforcement and politicians continue to look at forced marriage as a cultural issue, rather than a human rights question.

That might change, however, as Germany begins looking more critically at its integration problems decades after the first immigrants arrived. German state and federal politicians are promising to take action.

“We maybe missed out on this subject, or overlooked it,” acknowledges Christian Storr, who heads the office of the Immigration Commissioner and Justice Minister in Baden-Wuerttemberg. Storr’s office is responsible for drafting a bill that would jail those involved in arranging marriages. “Maybe it will be a signal to these families, that we are aware of [the problem], and maybe it will stop some from doing it.”

People are gradually getting aware of what is going on, and these statements as well as the proposed ban are quite encouraging signs. A few years ago both wouldn’t have been possible.

There still is some way to go, though:

Such a law is long overdue, says Seyran Ates, a Berlin lawyer whose lobbying on the issue, together with Terre des Femmes, a women’s organization, brought forced marriages to the attention of German politicians last year. German courts continue to tiptoe around the problem, labeling it as a something best taken care within the community. Judges have invoked “religion” or “tradition” in explaining why they were reducing the punishment for men who abused their wives in forced marriages, she says.

“They don’t see it as a human rights violation,” says Ms. Ates, who fled her traditional Turkish home at the age of 18.

Here is another article with some more detail on this:

Most often, it’s the female victims of forced marriage who are not even permitted to finish their school education. Many of these women are sexually exploited and financially dependent on their husbands. Yet the right to choose one’s partner in marriage freely is explicitly included in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Nonetheless, forced marriage is still a taboo subject in Germany. Here, most of the victims are Turkish or Kurdish, for these form the two biggest ethnic minorities in Germany. Also affected are women from the Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia, Albania, Iran and India.

Sultana (not her real name), a young girl from Afghanistan, was not yet 15 when she leapt from the first-floor balcony of her parents’ flat and made good her escape. She had no intention of returning to Afghanistan and marrying the cousin who’d been chosen as her future husband. For some time, his mother had already been sending clothes to Berlin – in her culture, as Sultan explains, a clear indication of the family’s intentions.

In December 2002, after a legal case that caused a considerable stir, Sultana succeeded in having herself taken into custody and removed from her parents’ care. Today, her legal guardian is Berlin’s Youth Welfare Office (Jugendamt).

A year and a half from now, Sultana will turn 18 – and she’s worried. What will happen when she comes of age and loses the protection of the state social workers? The Berlin lawyer Seyran Ates heard about Sultana’s case and now wants to help her.

Ates is a woman lawyer of Turkish descent who campaigns actively for women’s rights. Forced marriage is a topic she has to deal with on a daily basis, for almost every third client in her Berlin office is affected by it; and Seyran Ates’ own professional experience confirms the results of a poll carried out amongst female Turkish immigrants in Berlin in 1996.

This study showed that 28.3% of the women questioned had been married against their will. Seyran Ates herself managed to escape this fate; in her youth, she too had ended up fleeing from her own family. She had arrived in Berlin-Kreuzberg with her family at the age of six, and she grew up there.

There are so many Turks in this neighbourhood that it’s popularly referred to as “Little Istanbul”. Seyran Ates begs to disagree; for when she walks through Kreuzberg today, it’s usually with a feeling of oppression.

“I was born in Istanbul; it’s a big, open cosmopolitan city”, says Seyran Ates; and she feels that Kreuzberg is just the opposite. Here, she says, Turkish families have remained fixed in their ‘immigrant’ status, though many have now been living in Kreuzberg for 40 years.

This is background for the debate about the ban of the hijab. It will take a lot of time and effort to correct these problems. A complete overhaul of the German immigration policies will have to come next.

9 thoughts on “Banning the hijab”

  1. I’m sorry to say I just discovered you “guys,” thanks to a link on Milt Rosenberg’s site. You’re doing a great job and I’ll check in regularly.

  2. So just because there is anecdotal evidence that some young women are allegedly “forced” to wear a veil, the state should ban it for all of them ?

    As usual, the whole argument to justify this is based around a claim of victimization; a few people are victims so the benevolent, all-knowing, well-meaning government must step in to “protect” them.

    And now that they can’t go to school, or have to choose between an education and a beating, how much better off are they, exactly ?

    Just more moral posturing and arm waving to demonstrate that European “nuance” is a big pile of steaming…something.

  3. Actually hijab was invented quite a while ago by the Turks. Apparently it’s pretty practical for keeping out dust and all when part of a migration across the steppes, for example going from summer to winter pasture or changing water source within summer pasture.

    It became generally accepted in the Islamicate world after the Ottomans came to power because, well, people do have some tendency to adopt many customs from the ruling class or ethnic group. So i guess one could consider it a relatively recent custom but “a political symbol invented quite recently by the Islamists to indicate the subjugation of women under male dominance” doesn’t fit the history.

    Arranged marriage is an ancient custom too, which has been practiced in Europe as well as Asia and the Mideast. It’s pretty practical in an agrarian or herder society but seems to slowly lose its function in an urban society.

    The hijab probably was invented after arranged marriage, as the Babylonians predate the Turks. I hold with Sylvain that trying to link the two is pretty specious.

    Matya no baka

  4. I agree with the ban in schools, too, bcause it’s not banned, period; it’s banned from an institution that is secular by law and by custom and is charged with inculcating all citizens with respect for this notion. In 2004, the discourse of fundamentalist Islam threatens a unified, secular France. Perhaps it is a clumsy effort, but what would be better, banning extremist imams? Deporting Muslims?

    Start small, start symbolic. I think it will work.

  5. PJ, I disagree. Symbolism and posturing is all this is about. Forbid the symptom to make it look as if you’re dealing with the problem itself. So what if someone wears a scarf or a kippa ? Is that going to make others convert ? And even if that was the case, is conversion to one faith or the other the business of the state ?

    Besides which, the rule is a practical farce; a Christian woman can wear a scarf on her head as a fashion statement – many women in Central Europe wear them every day – but an Arab woman can’t ? What about a young Lebanese Christian female, as opposed to a Lebanese Muslim woman ? How do you tell who’s what ?

    In the meantime, imams paid by organizations affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood preach and recruit in the very same high schools and universities the government is supposedly protecting by forbidding this token article of faith.

    But then if they went head on agains those hotheads, there would be real trouble and blood on the streets all right. Better make an example with young women; they can’t vote and after all, they don’t have it hard enough as it is at home, so we might as well make it miserable for them to learn and integrate with the rest of the community and, by extension, us evil westerners.

    Finally, I am adamantly opposed to the canard according to which all or most of these young women wear it only under coercion and for religious reasons. There is, to my knowledge, no hard, concrete evidence supporting that view.

    And this was brought home by a recent incident in my own family. Picture a lovely 14 year old who’s going through the usual stages; she wants make-up and the sexy clothes like the others at school etc. Except Mom – like any mother – has drawn a few strict lines. One of them being : no freakin’ g-string, over my dead body etc. So here is a free, educated, intelligent western woman who thinks that wearing a sexy piece of underwear – i.e. something you can’t see – increases the odds of serious trouble for her daughter. Every time the subject come up, it instantly veers into the media horror stories of gang rape and abuse in schools etc. I don’t think it’s rational but it’s easy for me to say; she ain’t my daughter. And if she was, I’d probably be sitting out on the porch with my shotgun as we speak.

    But somehow, we expect some poor, barely educated Moroccan family who came over to our dangerous suburbs from the foot of the Atlas mountains, people who grew up in a place where clan and tribe trump everything else, to let their daughters go around with their hair flowing in the wind, wearing our clothes, surrounded by people, a language and customs that are all alien to them.

    Excuse me ? It seems to me that their reaction is a lot more rational and normal than that of my relative.

    Except they’re being told by the supposedly benevolent and all-knowing and compassionate that they’re evil fanatical people for making their daughter wear a scarf and she can’t go to school if she doesn’t conform to what we see as normal.

    Thankfully, Europe is nuanced and sophisticated. That’s a relief. Imagine what it would be like if it wasn’t.

  6. Good arguments all, but the issue is not conversion or evilness but relegating religion to its proper place in a secular nation. There isn’t a perfect way to secularize Muslims or assimilate any immigrant without that person losing something of the old ways. But religion is a private matter; state education is part of the public realm. Christians and Jews are banned from wearing outward symbols of their religion, as well, at school or government offices. If Muslim girls wore something like the old time Catholic scapula inside their clothes, it wouldn’t be an issue.

    How do you manage all the grey areas? The same way you do with any school uniform or school rule: with as much sensitivity as a human teacher or administrator can muster. I haven’t read a whole lot on it, but the ban seems to have been peacefully upheld by almost all. Some families will sue; that is now taking place. Let the process play out.

  7. Back a couple of decades ago, when i was still willing to watch PBS, there was a movie called “Death of a Princess” that caused quite a stir. Rather than giving in to pressure and not airing it, PBS had an intro where a Muslim woman was interviewed and asked to discuss hijab and other sex based differences in Islam. I’m pretty sure it was Queen Noor of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

    She had a lot of interesting information, like the strong presence of Saudi women as owner – operators of small retail businesses.

    On the hijab, she made an interesting modern argument for continuing it as a custom. It hides your sexuality in daily affairs where sexuality is not appropriate. As a result, she felt it was a mistake to wear hijab in the west. As close to a direct quote as i can come:

    “In the west, wearing the veil draws attention to yourself as a woman, as much as not wearing it would in Saudi Arabia. I would no more wear a veil walking down Fifth Avenue than i would wear a bikini there. They are both immodest.”

    I think there are private and religious schools in France, though not as many as in the US, and in many cases not as accessible. I am annoyed by the arrogance of banning the religious symbols at school, but as long as there is an escape for the truly devout, i think the decision was more even handed than might have been expected. And i personally don’t believe that bringing the ancient nomadic customs to a western city is the best way to keep Islam in your heart.

    Matya no baka

  8. PJ…I have no idea what you are talking about. Relegating religion ? Why ? Says who ? We do not accept that people use a position of power to promote this religion or persecute that one. We accept that individuals cannot break the law because their religion tells them too.

    What else is there to it ? Why is a scarf so important and critical and threatening that it would threaten the institution ? You’re absolutely right : religion is a private matter. It’s none of the government’s business to tell me where and when I can silently display which one I believe in.

    If Muslim girls wore something like the old time Catholic scapula inside their clothes, it wouldn’t be an issue. A statement that vividly illustrates the arbitrariness of the whole situation. Why is it an issue ? If I tell you this scarved woman is a Polish Catholic, is it an issue ? Of course not. But I tell you she is German and converted to Islam, suddenly it becomes one because maybe she wears it for religious reason and prejudice associates this with fundamentalism.

    So I guess the issue is that the way Muslim women display their belief does not conform to our expectations.

    But hey, we’re the tolerant ones.

  9. I think we’re disturbing the other diners now. :)

    If you see it as religious persecution, then I guess we lack the basis for a discussion on the subject. Peace, Sylvain.

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