My e-mailbag was brimming with responses to last week's column about Jacques Chirac's proposed ban on Islamic headscarves -- along with jumbo crucifixes and all yarmulkes -- in France's public schools. "Good grief," one correspondent declared, concluding a negative critique, "it's just a scarf!"
Good grief, it's anything but. And I say that not so much to reprise last week's arguments, but rather to consider intervening developments -- such as the reaction of Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Abdullah al-Sheikh to a newspaper photograph of a leading Saudi Arabian businesswoman without her headscarf.
"This," said the grand mufti, Saudi Arabia's leading religious authority, referring to the head-exposed Muslim woman, "is prohibited for all. I severely condemn this matter and warn of grave consequences. I am pained by such shameful behavior in the country of the two holy mosques. What was published in some newspapers about this being the start of liberating the Saudi woman ... such talk is null and void. One's duty is to obey sharia by complying with orders and shunning that which is forbidden." Not doing so, he continued, will "cause the doors of evil to open before the people of Islam."
The doors of evil? This sounds like a melodramatic mouthful from an old Saturday serial, but then again, maybe the mufti has a point. That is, if women were ever to achieve equality throughout Islam -- and that means achieving a range of extremely basic rights, from the ability to vote to being able to get a driver's license -- maybe the whole of Islam would unravel. Sharia, or Islamic law, which codifies the inequality of women and non-Muslims, would be shredded, and the hoary hierarchy would lurch if not topple.