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The racist hypocrisy behind the hijab ban

By Sharon Smith | February 20, 2004 | Page 7

THE BAN on Islamic headscarves in public schools now sailing through France's parliament is likely to become law on March 2, inspiring neighboring Belgium and Germany to consider doing the same. Is banning the hijab, the head covering worn by many Muslim women and girls, a step forward for Muslim women's rights--or more racist discrimination against the entire Muslim population, France's largest minority?

French President Jacques Chirac's stated motivation for the ban is draped in references to the French Republican secular tradition. "Secularism is not negotiable," he proclaimed when announcing the ban in December. And the Stasi report--the government commission on which Chirac based the new ban--defined the public school as a privileged "closed universe" which emphasize values of male-female equality and mutual respect.

But there is something profoundly hypocritical in banning Islamic religious symbols in the name of secularism and gender equality--while the French government continues to subsidize private education for that other globally influential misogynist religion, the Catholic Church, at a higher rate per pupil than public schools.

To be sure, the French ban targets not just the hijab, beards and bandanas that denote Islamic affiliation, but also Jewish skullcaps and "conspicuous" Christian crosses (the fate of the Sikh turban has yet to be determined). Nevertheless, few in France--where the press has dubbed the ban "the law against the veil"--believe that the target is anything but Islam.

Chirac's hostility toward Muslims was apparent when he described wearing the hijab as "a sort of aggression" on December 6. Bernard Stasi, the head of Chirac's commission, was even more forthright in defending the ban: "We must be lucid--there are in France some behaviors which cannot be tolerated. There are without any doubt forces in France which are seeking to destabilize the republic, and it is time for the republic to act."

Chirac and Stasi are chasing the voters of France's second-largest political party, the far-right National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen, who forced the center-right Chirac into a runoff in the last presidential election. Le Pen argues that France's 5 million Arab immigrants bring crime to the streets and should "assimilate" with French society or be driven out.

Arabs and Muslims have been the primary targets of hate crimes in France and throughout Europe since the 1960s, but France's Interior Ministry does not even count anti-Muslim crimes, as it does with anti-Semitic crimes. France's National Consultative Commission on Human Rights (CNCDH) has documented hate crimes committed against Muslims in 2002--including letter bombs and the torching of mosques, but notes that these examples "fall well under the real number" of racist crimes committed against Muslims.

The CNCDH also reports inflammatory statements from mainstream politicians such as Jacques Peyrat, the mayor of Nice, who argued, "mosques cannot be conceived of as existing within a secular Republic." In this context, France's ban on Islamic headscarves can only further inflame anti-Muslim racism. No law reeking of such racist hypocrisy is intended to advance the cause of women's equality.

After all, George W. Bush claimed that the war on Afghanistan would "free" Afghan women from the tyranny of Taliban rule. Two years later, the Taliban's Department of Vice and Virtue been resurrected under the name of the Ministry of Religious Affairs, forcing the majority of Afghan women to continue to wear the burqa--mandatory head-to-toe Islamic covering--while new laws restrict women's right to travel and ban women from singing in public. As Mariam Rawi of the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan (Rawa), describes, "The U.S. has replaced one misogynist fundamentalist regime with another."

Since Chirac announced the ban on headscarves, tens of thousands of women wearing the hijab have marched in protest across France, chanting slogans such as "Not our fathers, nor our husbands, we chose the headscarf."

There is no contradiction between supporting Muslim women protesting the ban on headscarves in France and championing Afghan women in their fight against the mandatory wearing of the burqa. Both are fighting against state-imposed oppression--and for the right to self-determination.

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