Chesler Chronicles

My Headscarf Headache

My headscarf is giving me a headache! What I mean, is that the issue of the Islamic headscarf is a tricky, thorny one with no hard-and-fast solution in sight precisely when one is required. Just yesterday, a dear friend challenged me on this very subject.

She said: “How can you favor the state forbidding women from doing something that they want to do for religious reasons?”

A fair enough question.

My immediate response: Women’s freedom may depend upon the separation of religion and state. What one does at home or in one’s mosque, church, temple, or synagogue is one thing. But, is it wise to subsidize diverse religious expressions in a taxpayer-supported public school? Especially in the West where the headscarf is as much a symbol of jihad and women’s subordination as it is an expression of a modest, religious choice?

In 2004, the headscarf was a burning issue in France when the country passed a law forbidding the wearing of “ostentatious” religious symbols. This meant that no one could wear a cross, a turban, or a yarmulke either but the law was truly aimed at hijab–the wearing of headscarves by Muslim women. Feminists argued both sides of this controvery.

In 2008, the headscarf is again a burning issue in Turkey where an increasingly religious population, including women, is demanding the right to veil in university. This is seen as a complete reversal of the enormous gains made by Attatturk in 1921.

It is also a pendulum swing from the various Arab and Muslim feminist movements of that era in which unveiling was a linch-pin issue. Egypt’s Huda Shaarawi must be turning in her grave. I wonder what she would say?

Yes, it is true: Religious families in the West rarely give their children “freedom of choice” when it comes to religious education and practices. Both girls and boys are indoctrinated from an early age. This is true for secular fundamentalist families as well. Western law does not intefere with this. On what basis could we do so where only Muslims are concerned? Or rather, like France, are we now willing to interfere in the private religious realm because of new, Islamist “clear and present dangers?”

Ideally of course, tolerating diverse ethnic and religious choices is a great Western virtue. The problem arises when those who themselves are intolerant wish to use such Western virtues in order to achieve separatist, hostile-parasitic enclaves. But, hasn’t some degree of separatism been true for every immigrant group–at least in America? Hasn’t the genius of America resided precisely in allowing each immigrant group to remain identified in separate ways while simultaneously becoming identified similarly as Americans?

My friend is a religious Jew and is therefore very sensitive to the dangers involved when Jewish religious expression is forbidden. Indeed, even today, the Jews of Europe have been advised by their rabbis to hide their yarmulkes and stars of David lest they be scorned or beaten on the streets–something which has, alas, been happening.

But, said I, with a heavy heart: We can’t really compare apples and oranges. Crosses and yarmulkes are not the same as hijab or niqab. With some exceptions, both Jews and Christians are not only or solely defined as members of their religious group. They also partake of the public, secular, modern culture. Also, there are only about 15 million Jews world-wide. There are 1.2 billion Muslims and counting. If every single Jew covered every inch of themselves with Jewish symbols it would be as a drop in the sea compared to every single Muslim doing so.

Of course, as a religious Jew, my friend is still concerned with the morality involved. From a Jewish point of view, what’s good for a Jew should be good for every other religious group since all humanity has been created in “God’s image.”

But, what about women’s rights? Where do we stand on a woman’s right not to wear a headscarf? Will we protect her (at least in the West) from being honor-murdered when she refuses to do so? However, what do we do when a woman claims that her right to freely practice her religion is being interfered with if we stop her from veiling? Does the state have the right to force her, against her will, to expose her hair to strange men?

Indeed, this is the subject of a 2007 federal lawsuit brought by the ACLU on behalf of Jameela Medina. She is a Los Angeles PH.D student who was riding a commuter train without a proper ticket. For what should have been a minor matter, she was taken off the train, arrested, kept in jail for several hours where she was forced to remove her headscarf.Medina also claims that she was “intimidated” by a deputy sheriff who accused her of “being a terrorist” and who called Islam an “evil” religion.

No one should be so insulted in America. And, prisoners are actually allowed to wear headscarves in jail–a point which the ACLU is arguing.

Yes, I know that many educated Muslim women choose to wear hijab or niqab. But, I also know that many educated Muslim women who choose not to do so are threatened, pressured, shunned, and even killed for this reason, both in the West and in Muslim lands.

Yes, I also know that some feminists have claimed that historically, veiled women on the streets may have been less harassed by men in the East than unveiled women were at the same time in the West. Today, separate buses and railway cars for women-only have been launched in India and Mexico in response to the still ongoing harassment of women. (Insisting, in ugly or violent ways, that women sit at the back of the public bus used by ultra-religious Jewish populations in Jerusalem, is a slightly separate although equally awful reality and one that the Israeli Supreme Court will hear).

I also know that many Muslim women do not feel “coerced” into wearing a headscarf in the West as much as they feel called upon to register a permanent, visible, protest against promiscuity and the eroticization of women in the West. (Like nuns do).

In the 1960s and 1970s, I thought it was poetic justice for former “colonials” to sport their colorful customs all over London. Bangles, nose-rings, turbans, long flowing robes on both men and women–yes! But, by the 21st century, these exotic garments are ominously value-laden and less lovely. Now, they signify a serious cultural, military, political, and theological invasion of Britain and the West.

Quo Vadis my friends? What shall we do in America? Do we allow headscarves or do we ban them? What about female genital mutilation, daughter- and wife-beating, and secret polygamy? Finally, what about the indoctrination into hating Jews and other infidels which begins in childhood and is theologically driven in certain mosques and religious schools? Right here in the USA?