Jul 10th 2019
IN THE diverse democracies of the early 21st century, there are certain political and cultural issues that never go away. A political or judicial decision may settle things for a while, but so strong are the conflicting emotions that the flames can quickly flare up. One such issue is the attire of Muslim women, and how and if it should be limited by the state.
Take France, which regulates religious apparel and religion generally, in a stricter way than any other democracy. The summer of 2016 was a torrid one for that country’s beaches, as many local authorities decreed bans on the Burkini, a full-body swimsuit favoured by some Muslim women. After weeks of nasty seaside scenes, the country’s highest administrative court ruled that the bans were an unacceptable curb on liberty.
In recent weeks, though, arguments over the Burkini have switched to municipal swimming pools, in particular those in the city of Grenoble. After the mayor outlawed the garment, a group of burkini-clad protesters began defying the ban and snapping themselves as they splashed about; a couple of pools were temporarily closed. In the national French press, the affair is discussed as though it were a sinister Islamist conspiracy to subvert the secular French republic.
In Germany the federal constitutional court ruled in 2015 that any “blanket ban” on state school-teachers wearing the hijab (a head-covering which leaves the face exposed) was an affront to religious liberty. If limited bans were imposed in specific circumstances, there would have to be well-argued justification. But this merely opened the way for legal wrangling within Germany’s federal states, each of which brings its own style to matters of culture and education.
Earlier this year a court in Bavaria upheld the region’s ban on the wearing of headscarves by judges and state prosecutors. In Berlin, whose dominant political ethos is secular, a local court has vindicated a ban on elementary school-teachers wearing the hijab: it accepted the argument that children at that tender age need neutral pedagogues.
In Britain, meanwhile, many Muslims are expressing horror at the prospect of Boris Johnson becoming Tory Party leader and prime minister: not because of any regulation he plans to introduce but because of the tone he has set in comments about Muslim female dress. In an article he wrote last August he said it was “ridiculous” that women should wear face-covering burkas that left them “looking like letter boxes”. In recent days he has expressed vaguely worded regret over things he had written over the past 20 or 30 years which might, taken out of context, cause offence.
Significantly, though, Mr Johnson did not advocate a general ban on face-covering attire. He said universities and firms should be able to regulate what people wear on campus or at work, but he opposed any restriction on how people dressed in the street. Such a curb would offend the Anglo-Saxon tradition of individual liberty, including the right to be eccentric.
Even in Donald Trump’s America, belief in religious freedom is sufficiently robust to protect hijab-wearers. Earlier this year, rules were adjusted to allow a newly elected legislator, Ilhan Omar, to take her seat in Congress with a Muslim head-covering. In 2015 the American Supreme Court vindicated a hijab-wearing woman who said she failed to get a job with a clothing store because her head was covered. That set a more Muslim-friendly tone than did the European Court of Justice, which said in 2017 that work-place bans on religious garb can sometimes be legal. (It was adjudicating the case of a Belgian firm which wanted a receptionist to uncover her head.)
American Hijab-wearers say the arrival of Mr Trump has had mixed effects on their daily lives. Some citizens who were already xenophobic grew a bit more anti-Muslim in their behaviour; but voters who oppose the president would make a point of greeting women in Muslim garb and saying they were very welcome in America.
However, that semi-positive picture does not hold good everywhere in North America. In recent days, the young Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai, a heroine of the struggle for women’s rights in her native Pakistan, has been at the centre of a bizarre row.
She was photographed in France with Jean-François Roberge, Quebec’s education minister. The minister was then challenged by a journalist to say whether Ms Yousafzai, who survived an assassination attempt at 15, could ever teach in the francophone province where, after many years of wrangling, a law was passed on June 16th barring public servants from sporting conspicuous religious symbols at work. Mr Roberge declared that it would be a great honour to have Ms Yousafzai teach in Quebec, but she would need to doff her headscarf first. His boss, François Legault, backed him up.
For some critics of the new Quebec law, the story about Ms Yousafzai was a kind of propaganda gift. The tale was widely reported in the Middle East, Turkey and other mainly-Muslim places, with the clear implication that the West should consider its own flaws before lecturing the world of Islam.
Mustafa Akyol, a prolific Turkish writer on Islam who is now a fellow at the Cato Institute in Washington, DC, says the saga will make his life a bit harder. “I spend my time trying to convince fellow Muslims that liberal democracy gives them all the freedom they need to practise their faith, so there is no reason to pursue Islamic rule,” he says. “Whenever a Western country imposes its cultural norms on Muslims, winning those arguments becomes more difficult.”
Where to draw the line? Jonathan Laurence, a Boston College professor who is an authority on European Islam, feels a distinction should always be made between regulating the state’s own representatives and telling ordinary citizens how to dress. For a government to prescribe the garb of those who act on its behalf may or may not be sensible, but it is certainly within the purview of a liberal state. Banning swimsuits which do no obvious harm seems more clearly illiberal. It’s a bit worrying that 42% of French people favour such a ban in pools.
One of the reasons why the problem is so awkward for Canada is that the country looks to two different old-world models, French and Anglo-Saxon. Quebec used to be more devoutly Catholic than France, but these days it is racing to imitate and even outdo the Gallic motherland in its embrace of secularism, and probably going too far. On the other hand, if hijab-wearing teachers in Quebec want to migrate to the neighbouring, English-speaking province of Ontario, they will be made very welcome.
Whatever the conflicting positions taken by judges, politicians and religious leaders, there is always the hope that people growing up in diverse societies will simply get used to the fact that, in these sensitive matters, different choices can be legitimate.
Source: The Economist