Reflections on the Banning of Hijab in France

Question and answer details
Reflections on the Banning of Hijab in France
Please can you help me to understand the issue going on in France about banning Muslim girls from wearing their hijab in public schools. Are the French anti-Islam, which I doubt, or do they have a good reason for this?
Sahar El-Nadi
Salam, Maryam.

Thank you for your question. It is indeed a confusing situation and to understand its implications, one has to examine both sides’ point of view fairly and objectively.

The French Point of View

The French official explanation for banning the Islamic headscarves in French public schools and government facilities is “upholding the secular nature of the French state,” a tradition that goes back to 1905 legislation and to the principles of the French Revolution. Basically, it is to keep the state separated from any established religion in order to eliminate the influence of religion and religious leaders on people’s life. The law prohibits Muslims, Christians, and Jews from wearing headscarves, large crosses, or skullcaps. So, on the surface, it seems as if it is not discriminatory among followers of various religions.

The Muslim Point of View

Actually, the law has violated the spirit of the French state secularism. It’s a blunt governmental intervention in the right of individuals to express themselves freely. It is perceived as targeting Muslim women in particular, since a devoted Muslim woman is instructed by God to dress decently, including covering the head, just like the case with Catholic nuns. Wearing the Islamic headscarf or hijab is mandatory and is not a “dress tradition” or “religious symbol,” as falsely represented by the secular media. And so, preventing a Muslim woman from wearing hijab is interfering with her human right to practice her religion freely and to dress as she pleases.

President Jacques Chirac said that this law is “meant to protect the country’s strictly secular state from the perceived threat of Islamic fundamentalism.” The headscarf is not a sign of Islamic fundamentalism. Throughout the Muslim world, average Muslim women cover their heads in obedience to religious instructions.

This law is discriminatory against Muslims only—and Muslims women in particular—since Christians are not required by their faith to wear crosses, nor are Jews required to wear the Star of David. To say the ban includes these Christian and Jewish symbols, too, is misleading. That’s why this law is considered an assault on Islam and Muslims.

The Negative Effects of the Ban on French Society and Social Values

This French law is leading to the exclusion of at least some Muslims from the larger French society, instead of integrating them. Muslims generally will be more alienated. And if they open their own schools, they will be segregated from the larger French society. When people are challenged in their own core values and beliefs, they usually accept the challenge. The effects are always negative in the final analysis; it is coercion, not integration.

Islamic Reactions to the Law in France and Worldwide

Muslims all over the world, including in France, protested the law as a religious persecution. Most French Muslim women are unhappy about the prospect of being coerced to observe it in schools and government facilities. However, many of them wear it more in public than ever before, as a reaction. Starting next school year, many Muslims may take their daughters out of public schools and send them to private Muslim schools. If this happens, it will represent a counterpunch to French secularism.

The Human Rights Point of View

In France, there are about five million Muslims, many of whom came originally from North Africa during the colonial era. In Western countries receiving immigrants, certain fears surface whenever immigrants or minority groups acquire a visible presence. Those are the fears of the right-wing French citizens who would rather exclude immigrants from their society. But these fears are unfounded and baseless simply because most of these Muslims are now French citizens who do not know any other country than France. It is a regrettable case of xenophobia toward immigrants and ethnophobia toward fellow French who have a North African origin.

The international press has observed a rise in racism since the previous elections, when Le Pin and his National Front right-wing party won a considerable number of seats. Ever since then, the right-of-center de Gallists, headed by Jacques Chirac, have been trying to combat the influence of Le Pin by appealing to the fears of the right-wing French citizens. Observers speculate that the real reason behind the ban is competition with the extreme right-wing groups for votes. It is so sad that the French ruling party is using the same racist tactics to gain more support and consequently increasing racism in society. Another factor that made this anti-Islamic law possible is the overall aggressive attitude of Western governments towards Islam and Muslims in the world.

The Ban Is Spreading to Other Western Countries

Those xenophobic fears are not unique to France; the debate has already expanded to Germany, which has a considerable number of Muslims. Most of these Muslims came originally from Turkey at the end of World War II, when they were most needed for reconstruction that followed the war. Some German provinces are already debating imposing such restrictions on Muslims. The debate reached the degree that the German president interfered in defense of Muslim women’s right to wear headscarves as a personal freedom.

The president’s position provoked angry reactions from German right-wing groups. So, we may be seeing the first stage of compulsory assimilation of Muslims in European societies, which is synonymous with religious persecution. It happened before in Europe after the collapse of the Arab Muslim state in Andalusia, Arab Spain, in 1492. Muslims who remained there were forced to convert to Christianity in the first stage. Then, many Muslim men were sent to Central and South America to serve in the New World Spanish colonies.

At the moment, a number of European countries are initiating laws to ban or restrict the wearing of the Muslim headscarf. Such legislations question the foundations of tolerance and equality in societies that champion pluralism and freedom of religion.

Muslim Students in North America Protest the Ban

In reaction to French President Jacques Chirac’s decision to ban religious insignia from schools, the Muslim Students Association (MSA) of the United States and Canada has called upon people of conscience to join them in protesting this infringement upon liberty and religious tolerance. The MSA issued a statement saying:
    The MSA believes that President Chirac’s ban on religious wear—which specifically targets Muslim females who wear hijab—signals one of the greatest setbacks for freedom and democracy in France since it became one of the democratic powers of the world. To deny a woman her God-given right to freely practice her religion does not only constitute a violation of her personal freedom, but it defies the very concept of secularism. By officially prohibiting religious practices that have no correlation with state functions, President Chirac is leading France down a dangerous path of banning the acts of the religiously devout in the name of secularism.

    The MSA is calling upon President Chirac to rescind his order, which jeopardizes the religious rights of all schoolchildren in the state of France to dress according to their religious mandates without discrimination, fear or legal persecution. By curtailing the religious rights of its citizens, France is consequently jeopardizing the most cherished and fundamental principle of its foundation, liberty. A woman’s decision to wear hijab is a personal and private matter, which reflects her commitment to God and her desire not to expose her hair and body to strange men. To claim that a woman’s decision to dress modestly in public somehow infringes upon the rights of others around her defies common sense and raises questions as to the real motive behind this proscription.
The Veil in Islam and the Judeo-Christian Tradition

Some in the West consider the modesty of head covering practiced by Muslim women as the greatest symbol of women’s oppression and servitude. Yet there is a similar custom in Judeo-Christian tradition.
    The Veil in Judaism Is Mandatory and a Sign of Nobility
According to Rabbi Dr. Menachem M. Brayer, Professor of Biblical Literature at Yeshiva University, in his book The Jewish Woman in Rabbinic Literature, it was the custom of Jewish women to go out in public with a head covering which, sometimes, even covered the whole face leaving one eye free. He quotes some famous ancient Rabbis saying “It is not like the daughters of Israel to walk out with heads uncovered” and “Cursed be the man who lets the hair of his wife be seen....a woman who exposes her hair for self-adornment brings poverty.” Rabbinic law forbids the recitation of blessings or prayers in the presence of a bareheaded married woman since uncovering the woman’s hair is considered “nudity.” Dr. Brayer also mentions that “during the Tannaitic period the Jewish woman’s failure to cover her head was considered an affront to her modesty. When her head was uncovered she might be fined four hundred zuzim for this offense.”

Dr. Brayer also explains that the veil of the Jewish woman was not always considered a sign of modesty. Sometimes, the veil symbolized a state of distinction and luxury rather than modesty. The veil personified the dignity and superiority of noble women. It also represented a woman’s inaccessibility as a sanctified possession of her husband. The veil signified a woman’s self-respect and social status. Women of lower classes would often wear the veil to give the impression of a higher standing. The fact that the veil was the sign of nobility was the reason why prostitutes were not permitted to cover their hair in the old Jewish society. However, prostitutes often wore a special headscarf in order to look respectable.
Jewish women in Europe continued to wear veils until the nineteenth century, when their lives became more intermingled with the surrounding secular culture. The external pressures of the European life in the nineteenth century forced many of them to go out bareheaded. Some Jewish women found it more convenient to replace their traditional veil with a wig as another form of hair covering. Today, most pious Jewish women do not cover their hair except in the synagogue. Some of them, such as those in the Hasidic sects, still use the wig.
    The Veil in Christianity Is Mandatory and Mentioned in the Bible
It is one of the great ironies of our world today that the very same headscarf revered as a sign of “holiness” when worn by Catholic nuns is reviled as a sign of “oppression” when worn for the purpose of modesty and protection by Muslim women. It is well known that Catholic nuns have been covering their heads for hundreds of years, but that is not all. St. Paul in the New Testament made some very interesting statements about the veil:
    Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is just as though her head were shaved. If a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off; and if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or shaved off, she should cover her head. A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. For this reason, and because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head. (I Corinthians 11:3-10)
St. Paul’s rationale for veiling women is that the veil represents a sign of the authority of the man, who is the image and glory of God, over the woman, who was created from and for man. St. Tertullian in his famous treatise On The Veiling Of Virgins wrote: “Young women, you wear your veils out on the streets, so you should wear them in the church, you wear them when you are among strangers, then wear them among your brothers.” Among the canon laws of the Catholic Church today is one that requires women to cover their heads in church. Some Christian denominations, such as the Amish and the Mennonites, keep their women veiled to the present day. The reason for the veil, as offered by their Church leaders, is that “the head covering is a symbol of woman’s subjection to the man and to God,” which is the same logic introduced by St. Paul in the New Testament.

Islam Didn’t Invent the Veil, It Only Endorsed It

From all the above evidence, it is obvious that Islam did not invent the head cover. However, Islam did endorse it. The Qur’an urges the believing men and women to lower their gaze and guard their modesty and then urges the believing women to extend their head covers to cover the neck and the bosom. The Qur’an says what means:

*{Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty...And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what ordinarily appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms}* (An-Nur 24:30-31).

The Qur’an is quite clear that the veil is essential for modesty, but why is modesty important? The Qur’an is still clear. It says what means:

*{O Prophet, tell your wives and daughters and the believing women that they should cast their outer garments over their bodies [when abroad] so that they should be known and not molested}* (Al-Ahzab 33:59).

This is the whole point: modesty is prescribed to protect women from molestation, or simply, modesty is protection. Thus, the main purpose of the hijab in Islam is protection.

The hijab, unlike the veil of the Christian tradition, is not a sign of man’s authority over woman nor is it a sign of woman’s subjection to man. The hijab, unlike the veil in the Jewish tradition, is not a sign of luxury and distinction of some noble married women. In Islam, the hijab is a sign of modesty that safeguards the personal integrity of women. The Qur’an strongly emphasizes the protection of women’s reputations and condemns men to be severely punished if they falsely accuse a woman of unchastity. The Qur’an says what means:

*{And those who launch a charge against chaste women, and produce not four witnesses [to support their allegations] flog them with eighty stripes; and reject their evidence ever after: for such men are wicked transgressors}* (An-Nur 24:4).

Secular Societies Failed to Protect Women Against Violation

Some people, especially in the West, tend to ridicule the whole argument of modesty for protection. Their argument is that the best protection is the spread of education, civilized behavior, and self-restraint. That’s fine, but not enough! If “civilization” is enough protection, then why is it that women in North America dare not walk alone in a dark street, or even across an empty parking lot? If education is the solution, then why is it that American universities have a walk home service mainly for female students on campus? If self-restraint is the answer, then why are cases of sexual harassment in the workplace reported on the news media every day? A sample of those accused of sexual harassment, in the last few years, includes: navy officers, managers, university professors, senators and the president of the United States!
Following are some statistics, published in a pamphlet issued by the office of the Dean of Women at Queen’s University, Canada:

In Canada, a woman is sexually assaulted every 6 minutes,
1 in 3 women in Canada will be sexually assaulted at some time in their lives,
1 in 4 women are at the risk of rape or attempted rape in their lifetime,
1 in 8 women will be sexually assaulted while attending college or university, and
a study found 60% of Canadian university-aged males said they would commit sexual assault if they were certain they wouldn’t get caught.

To combat the violation of women, a radical change in the society’s lifestyle and culture is absolutely necessary. A culture of modesty is desperately needed—modesty in dress, in speech, and in manners of both men and women. Otherwise, the grim statistics are likely to increase, and, unfortunately, women alone will be paying the price. Actually, we all suffer, but as Khalil Gibran has said, “the person who receives the blows, is not like the one who counts them.”


In a nutshell, a society like France that expels young women from schools because of their modest dress is, in the end, simply harming itself!

Thank you for your question.


Useful Links:

Hijab: A Crisis of Understanding

Hijab… a Must, Not a Choice

German Portrait of Hijab