diverse democracies of the early 21st century, there are certain political and
cultural issues that never go away. A political or judicial decision may settle
things for a while, but so strong are the conflicting emotions that the flames
can quickly flare up. One such issue is the attire of Muslim women, and how and
if it should be limited by the state.
France, which regulates religious apparel and religion generally, in a stricter
way than any other democracy. The summer of 2016 was a torrid one for that
country’s beaches, as many local authorities decreed bans on the Burkini, a
full-body swimsuit favoured by some Muslim women. After weeks of nasty seaside
scenes, the country’s highest administrative court ruled that the bans were an
unacceptable curb on liberty.
weeks, though, arguments over the Burkini have switched to municipal swimming
pools, in particular those in the city of Grenoble. After the mayor outlawed
the garment, a group of burkini-clad protesters began defying the ban and
snapping themselves as they splashed about; a couple of pools were temporarily
closed. In the national French press, the affair is discussed as though it were
a sinister Islamist conspiracy to subvert the secular French republic.
the federal constitutional court ruled in 2015 that any “blanket ban” on state
school-teachers wearing the hijab (a head-covering which leaves the face
exposed) was an affront to religious liberty. If limited bans were imposed in
specific circumstances, there would have to be well-argued justification. But
this merely opened the way for legal wrangling within Germany’s federal states,
each of which brings its own style to matters of culture and education.
this year a court in Bavaria upheld the region’s ban on the wearing of headscarves
by judges and state prosecutors. In Berlin, whose dominant political ethos is
secular, a local court has vindicated a ban on elementary school-teachers
wearing the hijab: it accepted the argument that children at that tender age
need neutral pedagogues.
meanwhile, many Muslims are expressing horror at the prospect of Boris Johnson
becoming Tory Party leader and prime minister: not because of any regulation he
plans to introduce but because of the tone he has set in comments about Muslim
female dress. In an article he wrote last August he said it was “ridiculous”
that women should wear face-covering burkas that left them “looking like letter
boxes”. In recent days he has expressed vaguely worded regret over things he
had written over the past 20 or 30 years which might, taken out of context,
though, Mr Johnson did not advocate a general ban on face-covering attire. He
said universities and firms should be able to regulate what people wear on
campus or at work, but he opposed any restriction on how people dressed in the
street. Such a curb would offend the Anglo-Saxon tradition of individual
liberty, including the right to be eccentric.
Donald Trump’s America, belief in religious freedom is sufficiently robust to
protect hijab-wearers. Earlier this year, rules were adjusted to allow a newly
elected legislator, Ilhan Omar, to take her seat in Congress with a Muslim
head-covering. In 2015 the American Supreme Court vindicated a hijab-wearing
woman who said she failed to get a job with a clothing store because her head
was covered. That set a more Muslim-friendly tone than did the European Court
of Justice, which said in 2017 that work-place bans on religious garb can
sometimes be legal. (It was adjudicating the case of a Belgian firm which
wanted a receptionist to uncover her head.)
Hijab-wearers say the arrival of Mr Trump has had mixed effects on their daily
lives. Some citizens who were already xenophobic grew a bit more anti-Muslim in
their behaviour; but voters who oppose the president would make a point of
greeting women in Muslim garb and saying they were very welcome in America.
that semi-positive picture does not hold good everywhere in North America. In
recent days, the young Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai, a heroine of the
struggle for women’s rights in her native Pakistan, has been at the centre of a
photographed in France with Jean-François Roberge, Quebec’s education minister.
The minister was then challenged by a journalist to say whether Ms Yousafzai,
who survived an assassination attempt at 15, could ever teach in the
francophone province where, after many years of wrangling, a law was passed on
June 16th barring public servants from sporting conspicuous religious symbols
at work. Mr Roberge declared that it would be a great honour to have Ms
Yousafzai teach in Quebec, but she would need to doff her headscarf first. His
boss, François Legault, backed him up.
critics of the new Quebec law, the story about Ms Yousafzai was a kind of
propaganda gift. The tale was widely reported in the Middle East, Turkey and
other mainly-Muslim places, with the clear implication that the West should
consider its own flaws before lecturing the world of Islam.
Akyol, a prolific Turkish writer on Islam who is now a fellow at the Cato
Institute in Washington, DC, says the saga will make his life a bit harder. “I
spend my time trying to convince fellow Muslims that liberal democracy gives
them all the freedom they need to practise their faith, so there is no reason
to pursue Islamic rule,” he says. “Whenever a Western country imposes its
cultural norms on Muslims, winning those arguments becomes more difficult.”
draw the line? Jonathan Laurence, a Boston College professor who is an
authority on European Islam, feels a distinction should always be made between
regulating the state’s own representatives and telling ordinary citizens how to
dress. For a government to prescribe the garb of those who act on its behalf may
or may not be sensible, but it is certainly within the purview of a liberal
state. Banning swimsuits which do no obvious harm seems more clearly illiberal.
It’s a bit worrying that 42% of French people favour such a ban in pools.
One of the
reasons why the problem is so awkward for Canada is that the country looks to
two different old-world models, French and Anglo-Saxon. Quebec used to be more
devoutly Catholic than France, but these days it is racing to imitate and even
outdo the Gallic motherland in its embrace of secularism, and probably going
too far. On the other hand, if hijab-wearing teachers in Quebec want to migrate
to the neighbouring, English-speaking province of Ontario, they will be made
the conflicting positions taken by judges, politicians and religious leaders,
there is always the hope that people growing up in diverse societies will
simply get used to the fact that, in these sensitive matters, different choices
can be legitimate.
Source: The Economist