The Threat of the Headscarf

by Anne Davison

from Signs of the Times, No. 13 - Apr 2004

The French Government recently passed legislation declaring that the wearing of headscarves by Muslim females (the hijab ) in public institutions should be outlawed. The reason given was that such an overt symbol of religiosity was a threat to the secular ideology foundational to the French Constitution. Almost as an afterthought, and probably in order to avert accusations of religious discrimination against Muslims, the wearing of the Jewish scull-cap and 'large' Christian crosses in public institutions have also been banned. The Sikhs, as yet not targeted, await with bated breath, but many are talking openly about leaving the country if such legislation should be passed against them also. However, a more pressing question comes to my mind; 'why now'? Why now, after decades, when the wearing of such apparel has been accepted at best or tolerated at worst by French society?

It is very difficult to separate this question from the wider context of the current so-called 'War against Terrorism' and the implied role of Islam. Somehow a piece of women's apparel, a simple headscarf, has got caught up in the heady mix of religion, politics and cultural and religious identity. Equally disturbing is the fact that such a ban would appear to fly in the face of current Human Rights legislation and the Declaration of the Rights of Man which proclaimed freedom of conscience and lay at the heart of the French Revolution of 1798.

The French Government, and it would appear a large part of the French population, view the wearing of the headscarf as a symbol of a growing Islamic threat to French secularism. There has clearly been, in recent years, a visible increase in the wearing of the headscarf, certainly in this country. There is also a sense that to some extent this practice has increased in direct correlation to a growing Islamophobia. In other words, as Muslims feel increasingly discriminated against, their reaction has been to reassert their own sense of identity and so their human dignity.

Whatever the political and social issues involved, the truly religious aspect of the headscarf must take precedence. However, with Islam, as with other world religions, for example Judaism and Hinduism, it is very difficult to separate the religious from the cultural. Muslims take the Qur'an as the primary authority for deciding on all religious belief and practice. However, if we look to the Qur'an for an explicit ruling on the wearing of the headscarf we will be disappointed. Rather we will find general reference to the need for 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 (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except before their husbands, their fathers ... (and certain other members of the household)... (Sura 24: 30-31)

The Qur'an calls for modesty for both men and women and requires that women in particular should not display their beauty. Down the centuries and in many cultures and religions a woman's hair has been considered to be her 'crowning glory'. It is not surprising therefore to find women in some traditions covering their hair. Indeed it is still the practice in Sikhism and Orthodox Judaism. In Christianity, reflecting the teaching of St Paul, it was normal practice for women to cover their heads in church, as was the case in this country in living memory, and is still the case in some parts of the world. And of course the prime example in our own tradition is the case of women Religious who never show their hair in public.

While it is extremely difficult to separate the religious from the cultural regarding the wearing of the headscarf it is even more difficult, and I would say wrong, for judgement to be made on another regarding their religiosity. In other words, what is the true motive that leads a person to wear such a symbol? In the case of the headscarf it could be for cultural reasons; it could be an identity issue. It could even be a fashion statement. If, however, it is a question of faith, then that sacred space should be respected.

If we spend a moment looking at our own tradition and the wearing of the cross, how many people wear a crucifix as a piece of jewellery? How many wear it as a sign of faith? Who is to judge? In the French situation, what is considered 'large'? Certainly the size of cross normally worn by bishops should come into the category of large. Does that mean that bishops in France are now forbidden to wear, or show their crosses in public institutions? Equally in France, does this legislation affect the place of women Religious working in schools or hospitals?

Two issues are crucial to this debate. One concerns the question of freedom of conscience and choice. The other raises concerns about intolerance and particularly secular intolerance of religion. Both issues are linked to our human rights.

The European Convention on Human Rights declares that there should be individual freedom of thought, conscience and religion; freedom of expression and freedom from discrimination in the enjoyment of these rights. While we may be living at a time of over-legislation, I do believe that these rights, which were drawn up in order to protect the individual from persecution and abuse, still provide an important framework for society. They should also provide a check against the very signs of intolerance that we are witnessing in France.

Britain holds a reputation for being a tolerant, inclusive, diverse society. It is a society where it is possible for a Sikh in the Police or Armed Forces to wear a turban. It is a society where schoolgirls can wear a headscarf in the school uniform colour or where a Muslim policewomen can wear a 'uniform' headscarf. These rights have been achieved through painstaking consultation and dialogue. This can only happen within a society that is tolerant of all religions and cultures and where religion is not seen as a threat to a growing secularism. On this occasion I would not wish to see the French experience influencing British thought.

Canon Dr Anne Davison has recently retired after fifteen years as the Bishop of Chelmsford's Adviser for Inter Faith Relations.