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Last Updated: Tuesday, 10 February, 2004, 15:55 GMT
Viewpoints: Europe and the headscarf

The Islamic headscarf has become one of the most hotly disputed items of clothing in Europe. The French ban on headscarves in state schools comes into effect on 2 September, and politicians in Germany and Belgium want similar laws.

BBC News Online asked eight commentators for their views on imposing a ban on the headscarf. Click on the quotes below to read more and use the form to tell us what you think.

Alain Destexhe, Belgian politician

Fareena Alam, UK magazine editor

Amir Taheri, Paris-based Iranian writer

Rachida Ziouche, Algerian exile in France
Fanny Dethloff, Lutheran clergywoman

Alice Schwarzer, German feminist

Binnaz Toprak, Turkish academic

Tariq Ramadan, Islamic affairs analyst

Alain Destexhe is a Belgian senator who, inspired by developments in France, has proposed a bill that would see headscarves banned from state schools.

We are certainly not trying to stamp out multi-culturalism. But we are very anxious that the conflicts of the world are not brought into the classrooms, and that is why we support the French legislation and are trying to introduce a similar law in Belgium.

For one, public spaces should be neutral spaces, not places to spread a particular view of the world. Secondly we have a duty of care to children who enter the public school system, and there is certainly an issue that young Muslim women are often forced into wearing the headscarf by those around them.

Therefore while some allege that we are taking away their individual freedoms, in some cases we will actually be restoring it. We want individuals to be integrated, and we want Muslim women to be viewed and treated as equals.

I am not wholly confident that the legislation will pass in Belgium, as it has proved very controversial. What people seem to forget is that nobody is seeking to regulate what people do in their private spheres, merely to stipulate that in the public sphere, certain rules must apply. And it is better that these decisions are taken by a democratically elected government, than leaving the matter to individual schools to decide upon.

Fareena Alam is the editor of Q-News, Europe's leading Muslim magazine.

Modesty is only one of many reasons why a woman wears a scarf. It can be a very political choice too. I began wearing it at the age of 21, against the wishes of my family, while serving as president of the United Nations Students' Association at university. I wanted to assert my identity and counter common stereotypes about Muslim women. A woman who wears a hijab can be active and engaged, educated and professional.

Isn't it the fundamental secular standard - that one cannot demand that any individual surrender an unobtrusive religious observance?
Fareena Alam
There are many women, from Iran and Saudi Arabia for example, who have had very negative experiences with gender oppression in their home countries. They bring this vitriol to the debate about the hijab. This is not only unacceptable to me, it goes against their own secular principles of freedom and choice. Does this democratic society have any room for a British-Muslim woman like me who chooses to wear the hijab on my own terms? Isn't it the fundamental secular standard - that one cannot demand that any individual surrender an unobtrusive religious observance?

The terms of reference that define secularism can and must shift to remain relevant in a world that is constantly changing and diversifying. Isn't the idea of what it means to be French or British constantly evolving?

Amir Taheri is an Iranian author and journalist based partly in Paris.

The headscarf ban is a political move and I don't think the government is right. It has nothing to do with the broader issue concerning the six million Muslims in France.

At least three-quarters of the French Muslim population are North African Arab, who are experiencing the same problems as the Black-Americans in the US.

The proposed law is making a mountain out of a molehill
Amir Taheri
They lack opportunity and are mostly parked in huge Stalinist suburbs around large cities - it is almost like living in hell.

Rather than focusing on the issue of the scarf, the government should be focusing on these problems. You can't solve them by passing such a law - by standing outside a school gate and tearing the scarf off the heads of girls.

The law is making a mountain out of a molehill. Not that many Muslims wear it in France, or anywhere else for that matter. There are 1.8 million French Muslim school girls and, according to 2002 government statistics, only around 2,000 of those wore the scarf. Out of those, only 157 girls refused to remove when told to do so.

Rachida Ziouche, a journalist, is the daughter of an Algerian imam who has been living in exile in France since fleeing her homeland.

Where I live, in a small town in France, girls and young women are intimidated by Muslim men who oblige them to wear the scarf. These Muslim women are often isolated, and need some protection. The law to outlaw the veil goes some way towards addressing this need.

France wants its people to live together, celebrating their diversity, but it also has a secular tradition to protect
Rachida Ziouche
Of course there has been criticism - some people say that France is discriminating against its Muslim community, trying to stop them from being themselves. I simply do not believe this to be the case. France wants its people to live together, celebrating their diversity, but it also has a secular tradition to protect - one which seeks to keep religion from the public sphere. And anybody who says that it is removing their religious freedoms, I say this: do you really believe a four-year-old is wearing the headscarf by choice?

I strongly believe that people coming from the Middle East to live in Europe must adhere to the law of the land and respect the traditions of the country they have come to live in. Many of the people who come seem to think that the only person they have to obey is God.

Others say that the veil is the wrong target - that the real issue is the alienation of the Muslim community in France, poverty and unemployment. The two are not mutually exclusive. The government must certainly act on the economic issues, but it must also try to alleviate the oppression of young Muslim women.

Alice Schwarzer is a prominent German feminist.

This issue is about the constitution, and the division between state and religion - a hard fought for achievement of the enlightenment. The weakening of this division is utterly incomprehensible, particularly as it comes at a time when the worldwide offensive of the theocrats is not just making countries with Muslim majorities subservient to their inhumane "holy laws", but is also threatening democracies worldwide. Countries like France have long grasped the consequences of this.

The passiveneness of politicians leaves the majority of Muslim women in Germany powerless against the militant minority of fundamentalists
Alice Schwarzer
The Green politician in charge of immigrant affairs, Marieluise Beck has the cheek to warn of a "demonisation" of the headscarf, that a ban on headscarves in schools will "push Muslim women into the hands of Islamic fundamentalists". In fact the opposite is the case: the passiveness of politicians leaves the majority of Muslim women in Germany powerless against the militant minority of fundamentalists.

Fanny Dethloff is a pastor at a Hamburg church and is responsible for refugee issues in the community

It makes absolutely no sense at all to bar Muslim women from public places because they wear the scarf. This kind of exclusion prevents these women gaining access to jobs, stops them from being integrated. It does nothing for emancipation - indeed, by shutting out those women who are trying to better themselves, it has quite the opposite effect.

Cracking down in this way is only likely to lead to a sense of victimisation, which will fuel extremism, not reduce it
Fanny Dethloff
Of course we want to condemn fundamentalism, but we don't do that by punishing the women - it is not the women who are involved with pushing this kind of intolerant, politicised Islam, it's the men. At a time like this we need more understanding, more tolerance, not less. And indeed, cracking down in this way is only likely to lead to a sense of victimisation, which will fuel extremism, not reduce it.

It is also problematic to assume, as some people do, that women are forced into wearing the scarf by overbearing men. While it is certainly the case that some are pressured into putting it on, many Muslim who wear it do it quite self-consciously. We need to respect their wishes, not ourselves oppress them by trying to make them take it off.

Binnaz Toprak is a political science professor at Bosphorous University in Istanbul, Turkey, a secular country with a Muslim majority.

I think they have got it right in France. Civil servants and schoolgirls should not wear the veil. Personally, I am against it, it is a symbol of the inferior status of women in Muslim countries. In many situations, males have great authority over under-age girls and we cannot be certain that the girls are wearing the hijab because they want to or because their fathers and brothers are forcing them to. They should, therefore, be protected.

Personally, I am against it, it is a symbol of the inferior status of women in Muslim countries
Binnaz Toprak
In the case of civil servants, I think that when people refer to someone in government office, they should be able to feel that they will not be discriminated against because they do not share the same beliefs as that civil servant. A headscarf could be seen as a symbol of those beliefs.

The issue in Turkey at the moment is whether university students should be allowed to wear the hijab. Many students wear it for political reasons but others wear it for religious reasons and I think that choice should be respected.

Tariq Ramadan is a professor of Islamic Studies and Philosophy at Switzerland's Ecole de Geneve and University of Freibourg.

Muslims in France believe they are being targeted. They fear the law banning scarves in schools will open the door to all kinds of discrimination. The French debate about the issue is so passionate that Muslims fear a new type of Islamaphobia.

Many Europeans are afraid of losing their identity
Tariq Ramadan
The real issue should not be a question of law but of how to build a pluralistic society. This involves facing up to shared responsibilities. Muslims have to understand that the argument about protecting the secular nature of the state is something very specific to the French psychology.

They need to be more explicit in the way they present themselves and their religion and be fully involved in their society. At the same time, fellow citizens, need to understand that to build a pluralistic society they need to know more about others, to be ready to be out-centred from their values and principles.

It needs good will and education. This is not the feeling we have in France, or even Europe as a whole, at the moment. The reality in Europe is of a growing Muslim population, and many Europeans are afraid of losing their identity. The debate in France and other countries over the headscarf appears to be a manifestation of this, and it doesn't help.

Muslims should see the ban in France as a sign that the road ahead is not going to be easy but it is not the end of the road. It is just the beginning of the dialogue.

What are your views on the opinions expressed here? Read a selection of your comments.

The veil in itself is just a piece of tissue, what counts is what is behind it. These women who so insist upon it should be ashamed of not respecting and throwing away with their stupidity and narrow-mindedness all the hard efforts other women of their own culture, their own religion have made, very often sacrificing their lives to get a better life for ALL women.
Elize, Arlon Belgium

I really cannot understand what the fuss is about. Why is it always considered ok to wear less, but if someone likes to cover everyone becomes alarmed? After all this upheaval, one really starts to suspect that Western culture is indeed exploiting women as sex symbols, and not being allowed to do so by a small minority is perceived as a major threat?
Anna, Tehran, Iran

I cannot see any sense in the prohibition or ban on the Muslim headscarves. Is secularism the NORM, ideology and the "religion" of modern France or EU? Any one who does NOT conform to its "religion" of "laicite" or is it "laicism" has to be proscribed! Why? Is this not another form of fanatical intolerance in the guise of the so called secularism!
Eliseo Mercado,OMI, Rome, Italy

It is a symbol and a human right that is being banned. Remember the public labelling of Mentally & Physical Disabled, Communists, Homosexuals, and others in Nazi Germany? In a rights based culture that is the Free West, there is no place for persecution based on beliefs. Greater problems than merely clothing need to be addressed. Ridiculous.
Christopher Donovan, Perth, Australia

Does anyone really believe that this will stop women being forced to wear the hijab by their families and peers? If the law prevents them wearing headscarves in public, they will only be forced to cover up the moment they get home. This law will offend those who want to wear headscarves, crucifixes or other symbols of their religion, and only benefit those who are somehow offended by seeing the symbols of other people's beliefs in public.
Maria, Aldershot, UK

I'm afraid the ban will be seen to be discriminatory. After all, if the objection is to religious symbols, why don't the authorities ban Christians from wearing crosses on a chain around their neck? They say they will do so if the cross is too conspicuous, but that is unfair on Muslims and other religions; they suffer just because their religious symbols happen to be more visible.
Saurabh, Delhi, India

We live in a secular West. No headscarves in schools! The veil is to silence, to make invisible and to subjugate women. It is the mark of oppression.
Lili Ann Motta, E. Marion, NY/ United States

Yes, I strongly believe that the scarf should be banned. It is a symbol of female oppression and has no place in a modern society. Those who insist on wearing scarves should return to their native country.
R. Johns, Singapore

It is a shame that many ignorant people seem to feel that Muslim girls should have forced upon them the 'freedom' to be leered at like a piece of meat as many of our own daughters are before unromantic encounters in an alley on their way home from the club they just got wasted in.
Adam Ward, Bristol, UK

The idea that people should be forced to wear, or not to wear, any particular style of clothing by the state or by their religion is preposterous. This is a clear breach of the rights of the individual which I hope we will never accept in this country. To justify forcing people not to wear a garment on the basis that they are being forced to wear it, and therefore need to be forcibly freed from that, is just stupid and goes nowhere in addressing the real problems of this world.
Gabriel Lee, Hertford, England

What bothers me is how an "enlightened" "democratic" and secular society can dictate what women wear. Ironically, France is taking such a Patriarchal approach to the situation in the guise of Secularism.
Ahmad, Boston

The headscarf poses no threat to any social order but in fact encourages moderate behaviour.
Asim Mirza, Stoke - England

This entire debate is starting to border very close to the absurd. Legislating what can and cannot be worn within France's "secular" society and schools is at the polar end of the absurdity of compulsory veiling. What do about term holidays then? If France is so adamantly a secular nation, then perhaps they should centre their term holidays around random periods of the year, go to school on Christmas Day and Eid al-Adha, etc. How far can it possibly go? The headscarf does not threaten the achievements of the Enlightenment or national identity: what threatens the achievements of the enlightenment are governments who micromanage their citizens and feminists who are "allergic" to Islam.
Alexandra, London

If Muslim women and girls are forced to wear the scarf by male relatives and a law is passed banning it in public places, won't those same male relatives refuse to allow the women to leave the house if they can't wear the scarf? This law may have the effect of making their lives more restricted, not more open.
Sandra S., New York, USA


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