Why so much fuss about ‘a piece of clothing’?

Why so much fuss about ‘a piece of clothing’? In France and elsewhere in the west, teachers have a hard time with girls who come to school wearing the veil, who refuse to attend gym or biology courses, and who won’t read Voltaire because he was a non-believer.

In my speech, I will argue for banning the veil for young girls. I will refute views that promote and support veiling for young girls and try to demonstrate how banning the veil is vital for the advancement of children’s rights and the progress of our civil society.

Some feminists oppose the law to ban the veil in state schools and institutions on the grounds that the ban will strengthen Islamism. But high-ranking Islamic clerics strongly dispute this assertion, and argue that banning the veil is a direct attack on Islam.

Western leftist intellectual apologists for Islamism say that “whatever the rationale among progressives for supporting the ban, it cannot be judged apart from its role in the rising tide of racism against Muslim populations throughout the world.” They further argue that “In this context, France’s ban on the veil can only further inflame anti-Muslim racism and that no law reeking of such racist hypocrisy is intended to advance the cause of women’s equality.” They conclude that it is just a short leap from the assumption of Christian religious and European cultural superiority to outright hostility to Islam.

Apologists claim that veil is worn voluntarily by millions of Muslim women around the world as a symbol of cultural pride and in opposition to western imperialism. Along with the Islamists who marched against the ban in the streets of Paris and London, these apologists call the ban a ‘racist law.’

Apart from these bizarre apologies for the Islamic reaction by western ‘intellectuals’ and ‘feminists’, when one sees girls as young as four years old wearing the veil in the street of Paris and London, for example, can anyone seriously claim that they are doing this voluntarily, expressing their own religious beliefs? Is this heated debate surrounding the veil “a fuss about a piece of clothing”? Is banning the veil in schools and state institutions, as proclaimed by Islamists and apologists for Islam, a ‘restriction of religious freedom’? Is it a ‘restriction of freedom of expression’? Or is it ‘religious intolerance’? Or is it ‘a violation of Muslim women and girls’ rights’? Or is it ‘racist’?

I start with the law banning the veil and other religious symbols in state schools and state institutions in France. In my the view veil must be banned for young girls not only in schools but altogether. Public institutions belong to all citizens: schools and universities, in particular, are open to all. They are places from which all external marks of denomination and distinctive signs should be excluded. I believe that secularism is essential for maintaining our civil society. It means that states are duty-bound to ensure that all state schools, state institutions and government offices work in a neutral and impartial manner. Government officers, teachers, legal authorities and people working in the education system must not use their position to impose their beliefs and values on other people. This would be against the essence of a civil society. For this reason, I believe that religion and religious symbols are private affairs of adult individuals, not the business of a state. One’s religious beliefs are a private affair and public employees shouldn’t promote or impose their beliefs in school, in state institutions and in public life.

In my view, veiling in general, and veiling of young girls in particular, is not about a piece of clothing; and banning it, is defending the essence of the human rights of young girls and women in Islamic communities across the world. Banning the veil is essential and an important step forward in the defence of secularism and the rights of children and women.

Of course, Islamists, ardent Muslims and apologists will tell us that the girls themselves ‘choose’ the veil: ’Freedom of the Veil’! This is absurd! How can one believe that a little child would don ”attire” that prevents her from playing freely and openly with her friends? Not to be able to adjust her dress to the changing weather, not to be able to swim, climb a tree or pat a cute animal or do what children always have done all over the world! I ask why subject any young girl to this ancient curse? But, sadly and unfortunately, it has become a standard in our society to force and coerce a young child under a veil. It really is inhumane and socially unacceptable. It is said that girls choose the veil willingly. How do we expect a girl child to resist the veil? Can anyone really expect a loyal and loving child stand up and rally against the strong will of her parents and thus be able to escape from being confined inside the veil?

Up to the age of about sixteen, most children merely reflect the religious views of their parents. Most children do not have sufficient education and knowledge at early ages to make an informed belief choice. Their parents should be restricted from imposing religious attire on them. For children the veil is not a matter of choice. If they are veiled, it is their parent’s decision, not theirs. Banning the veil for children is similar to banning child labour, and protecting children from abuse and providing them with access to education. What seems often to be overlooked in discussion about the French ban is that dressing children in religious attire imposes a belief system upon them, and is therefore a form of indoctrination. Do we support the rights of parents and schools to indoctrinate children or do we uphold the rights of children to be free from indoctrination?

It has been argued that “freedom of belief includes the right to manifest your faith in public and Muslim girls should be free to choose whether to wear the veil or not.” The key question however is this. Whose freedom is being exercised? For many girls and women living in Islamic communities, it is the Islamic regimes, sheiks and mullahs; the elders, or husbands, fathers and male relatives who decide for them; they have virtually no freedom of personal expression outside the home – and young girls none at all. For women from Muslim origin everywhere, the veil is a symbol of oppression and religious domination. Contrary to what apologists claim, their veil is anything but a choice. Veiling women and the Koran’s and Sharia’s edicts on women separate them from any right, and brutally violate their basic human liberties. Women have ‘accepted’ the veil under an enormous pressure, and often through acid-throwing, threats and intimidations. Few women have the real freedom not to wear the veil. The very same Islamists who brutally impose the veil on women and girls through acid-throwing, flogging, imprisonment and torture in Iran, Iraq, Algeria and Afghanistan, oppose the banning of veils for young girls in schools in the West, and call it a restriction of freedom of expression. This is utterly hypocritical.

Contrary to what the opponents of banning the veil claim, maintaining secularism has nothing to do with racism. It is in fact racist to create different legal systems for different religious communities in the West. This would hinder women and girls’ access to the advances of civilized societies. Defending the ban on the veil is not defending the imperialist French government. It is about progressive human values, and it is about children’s rights.

Here, I would like to briefly address one related issue which is that of Islamic schools. I believe that protecting minors, particularly young girls, from undue influence by bizarre metaphysical dogmas, at least in their formative years, will ultimately benefit society. Moreover, it may well stop certain kinds of discrimination on the basis of religious affiliation.

The most fundamental freedom we should seek to protect is freedom of thought. To deprive children of this most basic human right is unethical. Children are not “born Muslim” or anything else. Rather, juvenile indoctrination is the primary mechanism of religious propagation.

Religion is illogical, irrational and harmful – especially to young, impressionable minds. It has no place in the public school system, which remains the last, desperate hope to establish an open-minded quest for knowledge in our kids. Religious dogma should be strongly countered in schools. Funds should be allocated for this very purpose. The importance of rational thought, critical thinking, and the scientific method is enormous, and theocratic worldviews are harmful. Theocratic views do not deserve equivalency. Let’s not turn our schools into balkanised religious cliques. Children must be free from religious indoctrination. So, Islamic schools must be banned altogether.

Looking closely at this business of veiling, we realise that it doesn’t simply violate secular and modern law and culture; it is above all, an insult to oneself; it is a violation of human liberties. In conclusion, let me say that religious beliefs that impose the veil on girls and women, reveal a mentality that is not content merely with veiling girls and women, but seeks to shroud men, society and life.

Veiling must be banned for young girls. It is the duty of the state to safeguard children rights by banning the veil and enforcing the ban.

Adapted from the speech delivered at the third international conference of Children First, on 11 & 12 February 2005, in Stockholm, Sweden.

Azam Kamguian is the editor of the Bulletin of Committee to Defend Women’s Rights in the Middle East.

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