Off with their headscarves

Posted: Jan 20, 2004 12:00 AM

When Jacques Chirac announced his intention to unveil Islamic schoolgirls in France by barring the hijab, or headscarf, from state-run schools, he raised some provocative questions. Why would a French president whose power as a global broker derives from his close ties to the Arab-Muslim world (and distance from the United States and Israel) act to restrict Islam's burgeoning place in French society? Why would the European leader behind the international opposition to the war in Iraq -- dubbed by at least one Arab media outlet "the Western Saladin" -- suddenly seek to sweep a big chunk of Islam out of the French public square?

Sure, Chirac took the ecumenical approach and barred Jewish yarmulkes and "obvious" Christian crosses from the schools as well, but it was the scarf-wrapped girl-multitudes in increasingly Muslim France that caused presidential concern. There hasn't been a good explanation for his decision, but the untamed uproar in the Arab and Muslim world makes it pretty clear that the priciest dates on sale next Ramadan won't be called (as they were this year) "Chiracs." Indeed, some analysts see hijab-trouble ahead for France, with Middle East expert Walid Phares predicting that "a myriad of jihads," both nonviolent and violent, "can and will take place."

Meanwhile, does banning Muslim headscarves in French public schools infringe on freedom of religion? Most clergy, along with such watchdog groups as Freedom House and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, have already said yes, huffily. But here's where things get intellectually gooey. If the headscarf is a feature of Islam, and Islam has a history of repressing non-Muslims, then is the headscarf a symbol of religious repression? If so, how can Chirac be curtailing religious liberty by restricting a symbol of religious repression?

Also worth wondering is whether a headscarf is a religious "symbol" in the first place. This sounds like a question for the muftis on call at "Fatwa Corner" at, a fundamentalist Web site tracking every wrinkle of the hijab controversy. There, a reader learns that the headscarf is not a symbol of Muslim faith, but rather "an ordinance from Allah to protect (girls') chastity." In other words, unlike yarmulkes and crucifixes, the hijab doesn't function as a sign of piety, as many assume. It is wrapped around a girl's head and upper torso to serve a purpose.

As one Web site scholar puts it, "If a girl is approaching puberty, there is the fear that her not wearing hijab may cause young men to be tempted by her, or her by them ... The parent or guardian has to make her wear hijab so as to prevent means that may lead to evil or immorality."

Such a revelation should give the hijab a new look. It certainly offers insights into ongoing culture clash. While most Westerners wince at the dowdy uniformity of the hijab, all the while hoping to convince themselves to accept it as a symbol of feminine modesty, Muslims regard it as a functional means of safeguarding young girls and women from the untrammeled sexual impulses of men. This belies a fairly unevolved set of manners and mores (not to mention an almost literal state of war between the sexes) that reflects the culturally entrenched repression and abuse of women in Islamic society. Little wonder that Turkey and Tunisia, two Islamic societies with a somewhat more modern bent, have long banned the hijab in public places.

Not too long ago, I received an e-mail from an American woman married to a "basically enlightened Lebanese husband." From him, she wrote, she was surprised to learn that "the concept of controlling lust, anger, etc., is not taught in the Arab world."

Rather, what in the West are matters of self-control and personal responsibility are in the Arab world outwardly and "socially controlled." Her husband has commented, she continued, "that some Arabs come to the U.S. and lose their manners -- once outside the controlling environment, they have none."

That observation could explain of the enduring nature of the hijab, the abaya and burqa in Islamic society. But what about in France -- not to mention Paris, the city of light, Balenciaga and Yves St. Laurent? Such uniforms reflect both women's second-class status within Islam, and Muslims' newly expanding place in the Western world.

All of which may help explain why, despite my own hankering for a little more modesty (and a lot more style) across the board, the hijab remains a symbol of repression and extremism --a definite fashion-don't.