In his essay on secularism in the “Argumentative Indian”, Indian economist Amartya Sen posits the following on the 2004 French ban on headscarves:
“The secular demand that the state be “equidistant” from different religions…need not disallow any person individually – irrespective of his or her religion – from deciding what to wear, so long as members of other faiths are treated symmetrically.
“The immediate issue is not so much whether the French ban is the wrong policy. It could, quite possibly be justified …for example on the grounds that headscarves are the symbol of gender inequality and can be seen as demeaning to women….or that dress decisions are imposed on them by more powerful members of families (with male dominance).”
It must be said that the decision mentioning only the word headscarf (foulard) banned scarves and head coverings for all religions (including Sikhs) and likewise the “ostentatious” wearing of Christian crosses, hands of Fatima and Stars of David (no bigger than so many centimeters). When the debate had reached cartoon-like fever pitch, protesters shrilled, “And what about those crosses Goths wear then?”
In countries like France where secularism is worn like a seemingly earnest “badge” upon one’s sleeve, as is feminism, and protesting is a national sport, the law presents considerable holes. At what point can we be sure that the decision to wear the scarf was one taken by the woman alone and unpressured? Is there ever any certainty that environmental influences (within the family) do not encourage that decision? In that case, couldn’t the law banning the scarf be considered totalitarian too? (What, for example, of the practicing Muslim girls who wish to enter the French public system but cannot because of it?)
One of my colleagues is a practicing Muslim, of the kind that I have known all my life – the practice is applied with a certain amount of savoir-vivre and a clear acknowledgement of the varied and strong secondary cultural influences of the country she has called home for most of her life. She prays daily and fasts during Ramadan, for example, with disarming discretion. We see her beautiful dark mane of curls every day (she wears a beret when she leaves the office) and the scarf, which she expertly ties only on occasion, like now, gives her the air of a doe-eyed, Eastern potentate. Similarly, the summer months attract droves of real Eastern potentates and their coteries whose female members sport Louis Vuitton and Hermès on their heads while sipping menthe à l’eau at the many terraces lining the Champs-Elysées. When one is spending up to EUR 1500 for an albeit stunning piece of silk is one still technically in the realm of coercion?
Ultimately, it may be argued that what is done in countries presenting a Muslim majority, even though theoretically secular (though not technically and therein lies the problem) may be done as they see fit. When I remember my colleagues in Algeria donning the scarf merely NOT to be harassed or treated like a tramp in the street (as I was, on occasion), it does give one pause and is no doubt an offshoot of the pressure imposed by mother-in-law/father/uncle/brother. Conversely, I also remember a pretty young legal intern with whom I’d have coffee or who’d come in to raid my cookie stash, coming into my office to show me photos of herself without it – she had shiny, auburn locks – something I’d never guessed in all the time I had seen her at work.
“This is what I really look like,” she said.
However, it must be said that my office is solely composed of women.
By Candice Lewis