[Marxism] Re: The hijab controversy

Richard Fidler rfidler at cyberus.ca
Tue Feb 17 15:16:51 MST 2004

>> People can argue until they're blue in the face that this is an
"individual solution" and that we need to struggle for "quality
education" in public schools and all the rest of it. But my daughter is
only going to do the 8th grade once, this is the year she's doing it,
and she's not going to do it at one of public schools my benighted
ruling class runs if I can help it -- and I can.

José <<

 I won't reprise my debate with José a couple of years ago over school
vouchers and private and/or religious schools, and his right to send his
kids there. It's in the list archives.

At the individual level addressed by José, the debate can't be resolved.
It comes down to a conflict between an ideal "quality education" -
unrealizable in José's situation - and the reality that he has to send
his kids to a religious school (a very special one, as Marv Gandall
notes ) to get a scientific education.

Of course, in life, under late capitalism, all socialists are faced with
making individual choices that to some degree conflict with our
political philosophy and beliefs.

We may favour universal, comprehensive, portable and adequate
public/state retirement pensions for all, but, lacking such a scheme, be
forced to build a personal, private retirement fund by investing in the
stock market.

We may favour a comprehensive low cost no-fault public disability and
sickness insurance plan but, absent such social insurance, pay costly
premiums for private insurance.

Like Engels, we may point to the futility of private home ownership, and
the need for massive social housing programs as a solution to
capitalism's perpetual housing crisis, yet individually buy our own
homes rather than rent.

And yes, while favouring compulsory public education as a democratic,
egalitarian approach, we may, given the reality of today's school
systems, be inclined to send our kids to private schools. (I sent my own
daughter to a private Montessori school for three years to prepare her
for coping with the public school system.)

But how is the conflict between "thinking socially and acting
politically", on the one hand, and individually coping as best we can in
the atomized reality of much of our day-to-day life, actually expressed
in this debate on banning the veil or hijab in French schools?

That debate is not over the right to separate schools; it is over how to
define what we mean by a secular school system. The French imperialists
(and their supporters, including many on the left, unfortunately) say it
means banning all personal expressions of religious belief within the
public school system. They target the individual students and, of
course, behind them, the immigrant and minority ethnic communities.
Socialists are completely opposed tosuch bans and dress codes because
they victimize those communities and, through excluding them from the
public system, force them to establish their own private religious
schools, thereby strengthening the most reactionary elements among those

Our "secular society" and secular school system is inclusive, welcoming
students from all faiths or none, but treating religion as a private
matter not within the sphere of the state or public expenditure. To the
degree possible, we want all kids to attend the same schools, and of
course get the best possible education in history, science, whatever.

To my knowledge, there is no general "struggle against 'church'
schools", as José presents it, in the major imperialist countries. On
the contrary, in Canada at least there is a concerted move by a majority
of the bourgeoisie to break up the public school system by starving it
of adequate funding and other resources while at the same time extending
public funding to private and religious schools.

And of course, there is a general hostility to immigrants and ethnic
minorities in almost all of these countries. Canada is no exception: the
veil in the school has become an issue in some major cities, and the
Montreal school board (which prominently displays the Christian crucifix
on the wall of every schoolroom in the majority Catholic system)
recently tried to prevent a Sikh schoolboy from wearing the tiny
ceremonial dagger. Democrats, socialists and leaders of the minority
community fight these reactionary, racist moves in most cases not by
agitating for private schools but by calling for tolerance and
understanding of private religious beliefs and the accommodation of
minority concerns within the public school system. (And they also call
for removing the crucifix and all religious practices from the public

In another post, José indicates he favours "struggles by working people
and especially the nationally oppressed for locally elected school
authorities, or electoral procedures giving them greater leverage over
the local board..." Good. He even notes that there is a developing
debate in the benighted USA, including within the bourgeoisie, over
demands to open the public schools to scientific thinking and the
creative approaches needed to promote world-class scientists and
engineers. It seems to me that socialists have every interest in
engaging with that debate on how to reform the public system - one that
also involves many forces within the Black and Hispanic communities,
judging from their opposition to vouchers and "school choice" - rather
than focusing on the demands for separate schools that will further the
atomization of the working class.

Richard Fidler

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