Rejecting the veil ban
France's highly controversial attempt to ban the hijab in public schools and state-run offices has provoked a backlash in Cairo. Gihan Shahine looks at the public debate
"If veiled women give up fighting for their right to wear the hijab in France, they will end up being marginalised," said 21-year old Ghada. Her point of view mirrors that of many Egyptians who are upset about a highly controversial bill which proposes a ban on all "conspicuous" religious insignia -- including the Islamic veil and "large" Christian crosses and Jewish skullcaps -- in France's public schools and government institutions.
According to Ghada, "wearing the veil is a personal choice and a religious obligation that does not pose any harm or threat to anybody."
The proposed ban has catalysed a flurry of angry reactions and controversial fatwas in Egypt and throughout the Arab world. On Tuesday, the Press Syndicate held a public rally protesting the proposed French ban, as well as existing anti-hijab laws in Turkey and Tunisia, calling them an infringement on human rights similar to the way women are required by law to don the veil in countries like Iran. A similar protest took place at the Lawyers' Syndicate on 30 December.
Many civil rights activists are calling the French anti-hijab campaign a violation of human rights enshrined in European laws as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Some called it a misinterpretation of secular principles, which by definition should not go against values like the freedom of thought and creed.
Other interpretations centred on the ban being particularly "discriminatory against Muslims", and symptomatic of a European wave of Islamophobia that has increased since the 9/11 attacks.
When Al-Azhar Grand Sheikh Mohamed Sayed Tantawi weighed in with his opinion late last week, however, the ongoing debate became yet more complicated. Tantawi said that although all Muslim women are required to wear the hijab, France, being a non-Muslim country, has the right to ban it. As such, removing the veil would not be a sin since women there would be forced by law to do so.
Islamic scholars in Egypt and worldwide derided the statement. In their view -- which, significantly, has also been echoed by the leading figure in the French church -- banning the veil represents a serious violation of both the teachings of Islam as well as women's right to freedom of religion in general.
Medical student Mohamed Ibrahim told the Weekly that all his colleagues, "whether male or female, veiled or unveiled, are upset about the proposed ban". Ibrahim argued that "everyone has the right to wear whatever he/she wants."
Ibrahim said that while "France's popularity [in the region] peaked after its strong opposition to the US war on Iraq," the anti-hijab move might make people think twice. "We, as students, are afraid this sudden change in the French attitude will mark the start of a strong anti-Islamic drive that might sweep through Europe."
Although the proposed ban on religious symbols affects more than the veil, it has certainly contributed to an increasing public sentiment regarding Muslims being discriminated against in the West. Many found Chirac's description of hijab as "a sort of aggression that is difficult for us to accept" both "offensive and antagonistic".
According to Ghada, "the veil is being targeted everywhere. I think the only reason the French government included the cross and the skullcap in the proposed ban was to avoid appearing biased against Muslims." She said if the ban were to actually take effect, "veiled women will be left with one of two harsh choices: to take off the veil or leave France. And both are unacceptable."
Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), a legal advocacy group which defends the right to privacy among other things, believes the proposed ban is "a blatant interference with women's right to privacy that is no different from forcing women to wear the veil in Iran or Saudi Arabia".
"As an organisation, we draw a line between the authority of the state and people's right to have autonomy over their lives," Bahgat told Al-Ahram Weekly. "Women's dress codes should be completely left to them to decide, free from pressure or coercion from state or society."
Bahgat said article 17 of the 1966 UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which was signed by France, says, "no one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family home or correspondence."
"So even if domestic laws are passed against people's right to privacy," Bahgat noted, "they can still constitute arbitrary interference prohibited by the ICCPR -- which is currently the case in France."
Hafez Abu Se'da of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR) said he understood that "the French government banned religious symbols for fear of ethnic conflicts in schools." In Abu Se'da's mind, however, "that is not the right solution."
"Any ban on religious symbols, no matter how well intended, goes against the right to freedom of religion," he said. Instead, lessons should be drawn from other secular countries like Britain, where veiled women are allowed to work everywhere, even in law enforcement. If the ban goes through, Se'da said France's five million strong Muslim community should take the issue to European human rights courts with the help of the continent's civil society, which is strongly opposed to the bill.
Cairo University political science professor Mustafa Kamel El-Sayed said that whether or not one agreed with the proposed ban, "it would be incorrect to consider [it] an attack on any religion." El-Sayed said that the ban only applies to French public schools and government institutions, and was also targeted at "Christians and Jews, who are also forbidden from displaying signs of their religions".
Besides, he said, "the ban does not amount to obliging children to adopt other religions or change their beliefs." According to El-Sayed, "parents are free to choose whatever kind of religious education they want for their children. If they don't like the secular nature of French public schools, they can send their children to other schools that are not part of the French public educational system."
Meanwhile, he said, the French government "should be committed to not obstructing the establishment of private schools where religion is taught based on parents' wishes".
Prominent Al-Ahram columnist Ahmed Bahgat said the true tenets of secularism do not "infringe on personal and religious freedoms". Although Bahgat said he "would not dwell on whether the veil should be a top priority on Muslims' agendas", he does think the anti- hijab drive is indicative of the "French government being annoyed by the increase in the number of immigrants. Proposing this kind of legislation," Bahgat suggested, "could be one way of blocking the influx of Muslim Arabs into the country".
Ghada Salah, a Muslim physician living in England, said the decision on whether or not to ban the hijab belongs to the French alone. "It's a secular government, after all, and it is up to Muslims to leave if they don't like the country's laws," she said.
Many in Cairo remain unconvinced. One young woman said she didn't find that argument valid because "in a country like Egypt, for example, the law does not force any sort of dress code on either tourists or citizens".