[Marxism] Re: The hijab controversy

Paul Flewers trusscott.foundation at virgin.net
Sun Feb 15 10:23:24 MST 2004

Here's something I penned for the latest New Interventions.

Paul F


Drawing a Discreet Veil

THE proposal by the French government to ban all conspicuous symbols of
religion in schools has provoked a wide debate amongst left-wingers. Some,
including various women from the Middle East, claim that the ban would help
to liberate Muslim women from the restrictions imposed upon them by their
religion, and is a step towards the establishment of a secular society.
Other socialists, including this writer, feel that the ban could have
precisely the opposite effect and are opposed to the French state dictating
what people should wear and how they express their religious convictions.

Socialists should combine the defence of the right of a Muslim woman to wear
a veil (or a Jewish man to wear a yarmulke, or a Christian to wear a cross),
if that person wishes, with a firm commitment to a secular society, that
religion is a private matter, and that education is secular. This involves
the abolition of religious schools and their resources being brought into
the state educational system.

Socialists must also support the right of Muslim women to discard the veil
and other repressive aspects of Islam, just as we must support the right of
any person to live by the norms of a modern post-Enlightenment society in
opposition to the norms of his or her religion and/or 'community'. Hence we
defend, say, gay men and women against the strictures laid down by priests,
rabbis, imams and 'community leaders' who view their sexual orientation as
an abomination. We do not bow to the fashionable 'multiculturalism' that
excuses reactionary prejudices on the grounds that they are the custom of
this or that 'community' and are thereby inviolate. We are not neutral in
this respect, we defend the gains of the Enlightenment against all backward

Nonetheless, the situation in France is not a clear-cut case of a
modernising, secular society facing an irrational irruption of obscurantism.
The Muslims in France are largely at the bottom end of society. They face
poverty, unemployment, racism and police harassment. Alienated from
mainstream French society, they, like people in similar situations
elsewhere, seek solace in the certainties that religions appear to provide.
Not surprisingly, they see the anti-veil measures as what they are -- an
attempt forcibly to deny them of their identity and the consolation of 'the
heart of a heartless world'.

The proposed ban is much more a programme of forced assimilation than a
campaign of secularisation. Far from liberating Muslim women, the ban will
increase the Muslims' sense of alienation from not only French society but
from the ideas of modernity and rationalism. For every Muslim girl and young
woman who will be glad to be able to discard her veil at school, there will
be many, many more who will view secularism as one more oppressive factor in
their lives, or will be forced by their parents into Islamic schools, and
thereby be more socially isolated. Religion thrives on persecution. The ban
will reinforce obscurantism and religious fervour; it must be replaced by
policies that both guarantee personal tolerance and promote genuine

Paul Flewers

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