Which Coercion?

The issue of the possible French ban on the hijab or headscarf in public schools raises a lot of interesting questions – also a lot of strong emotions, not to say plain rudeness. There was a discussion of the subject at Crooked Timber a few days ago that was quite interesting at the beginning, but I abandoned it in disgust after being accused of patronizing ‘subdued and voiceless brown women’ one too many times.

But it’s not that simple, obviously – well it’s obvious to me, but clearly not to everyone. That is to say, whatever one thinks about the proposed ban, it’s too simple to say that the ban is exclusively about seeing Muslim women as subdued, voiceless and brown. (The brown bit, of course, is pure rhetoric, pure attempted intimidation, pure browbeating and guilt-mongering. Just for one thing, not all Muslims are ‘brown.’ For another thing, even if they were, would that mean that no ‘Muslim’ custom or law could ever be disagreed with? There might be some dangers in an idea like that, I would think.) It’s not exclusively about that for the compelling reason that a good many Muslim women (and women of Muslim background as opposed to religion) are strongly opposed to the hijab and in favour of the ban. So why are ‘white’ non-Muslims forbidden to agree with them, one wonders.

The BBC has a good article on the subject.

Samira Bellil, a 30-year-old Algerian-born Frenchwoman is just as passionate as Antoine in her rejection of the hijab. She has become involved in a Muslim women’s campaign against the headscarf in schools. She says girls are being pressurised to wear it, as much to protect themselves from the casual violence of the ghetto, as by their families or religious leaders. Samira herself was raped not once but twice as a teenager in the Paris suburbs. Her attackers were also Muslim. Later, she was told by one classmate that she wouldn’t have been attacked if she had been wearing the hijab instead of flaunting herself bare-headed. It was that sort of attitude, Samira told me, that she was campaigning against. It was the idea of women as objects, told what to do and how to dress by men. That, for her, is what the hijab symbolises.

Interesting, isn’t it. One wonders to what extent rape is used as an enforcement tool in those Paris suburbs. ‘Either stop flaunting your wicked seductive self, put on this bag that covers your wicked seductive hair and neck and ears and in fact looks like a nun’s headgear – or else I’ll rape you.’

Yet people opposed to the ban insist with great indignation that wearing the veil is a free choice and that it’s thought-crime to wonder if that’s always true. Well – but is it always true? That quotation above would certainly seem to hint that it might not be.

People think of the state as highly coercive – and of course it is. It has an army, and a judicial system, and prisons, and access to the media, and control of funding for a lot of necessary institutions. But the fact remains that the state is not the only source of coercion in the world, and that it can sometimes (indeed often) use its coercive power to protect some people from the coercion of some other people. Peer pressure is coercive, the family can be coercive, as can men, fathers and brothers, religion, Islam. Yes, girls can still make a free choice (at least in theory) to wear the hijab. But how free are the girls who don’t want to, to refuse to wear it? If their fathers and brothers order them to, and their classmates tell them they’re inviting rape if they don’t, and neighbours rape them if they don’t…is their choice really as completely free and uncoerced as it might be? One has to wonder, it seems to me. What if it’s not a simple choice between coercion and freedom, but rather a choice of who gets coerced? In that case, why should it be the girls who don’t want to bag themselves who are coerced, and the ones who do want to (or have been coerced to) who are ‘free’?

One advantage of state coercion, it seems to me, is that it’s obvious. We know it’s coercion. Things like peer pressure and threats of rape and what happens behind closed doors in the family, are less obvious, so more difficult to resist, also more difficult to point out and quantify. But that does not necessarily make them less coercive. On the contrary, surely.

Some writers of letters to the Guardian make similar points.

Secular states, not religious ones, most effectively protect the rights of minorities. Where would Madeleine Bunting prefer to live if she were a Muslim woman: France or one of numerous Islamic states where her freedoms would be at best challenged, at worst removed? If she were a Jew, a Sikh, or a Baha’i, which state might she expect to protect her beliefs: France or a Muslim country? The headscarf move is a sensible school uniform measure designed to stop the French school system from becoming the Northern Irish nightmare I was taught in. Multiculturalism gets you Northern Ireland: integration gives you tolerance and the rule of law for everyone.


Madeleine Bunting’s article on French moves to ban headscarves (Secularism gone mad, December 18) made no reference to what is happening in the quartiers sensibles in urban France, where many Muslim girls are pressured into wearing Islamic headdress by their young brothers. Showing their hair or even wearing jeans are seen as signs of western depravity by their menfolk, who abuse and threaten them. Ms Bunting should be aware of the Ni Putes, Ni Soumises movement organised by Samira Bellil and her book about gang rapes of young female Muslims who dare to rebel.


As an Iranian who experienced the Islamic revolution, I applaud a ban on headscarves especially in educational institutions. Which seven-year-old, without family pressure, would opt to wear a headscarf? The codes of “modesty” for women in Islam can be interpreted in many ways. The raw facts are that subjective and arbitrary interpretations in Islam have become the norm and women coerced into behaving according to them. Women are being used as tools, this time in a political movement which is making the question of Islamic headscarf a political issue.

Anti-banners also like to point out that the French xenophobic right wing is also in favour of the ban. Fair point. But by the same token, the kind of people who like to beat up women who refuse to wear it are opposed to the ban, so again, it’s a matter of choosing one’s undesirable allies, rather than a matter of one side’s having loathsome supporters and the other side’s being free of such entities.

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