Women: Why socialists should oppose the ban of the hijab

Will the banning of headscarves contribute to the emancipation of women?

Why socialists should oppose the ban of the hijab

French President Jacques Chirac’s plans to ban all “ostentatious” religious symbols, including Muslim headscarves, Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses, from public schools, has triggered widespread anger, especially amongst Muslims and Arabic countries.

This policy has polarised the immigrant population in France, as well as amongst political organisations on the left and women’s organisations internationally.

Even though Chirac is trying to make his legislation appear even-handed, it predominantly targets France’s almost six million Muslims. Young Muslim women who walk to school in the hijab will be forced to remove it or will be deprived of education. This exposes the sham of democratic rights in a country supposedly renowned for its long-established ‘democracy’. It is also incredible that organisations that claim to stand on the left support such anti-democratic measures.

However, the proposal to ban the headscarf does not only apply to France. There are different European governments or parties that have taken a similar stand on the issue.

The Belgian Liberal Party (VLD), which is the major party in Belgium’s Liberal-Social Democratic national coalition government, has developed a proposal along the lines of the French government’s proposal. In Germany, even though an initial attempt to ban the wearing of headscarves for teachers was lost before the high court (Bundesgerichtshof), it is now up to the regional state governments to take a decision. Some of them have already banned it and some, like the regional state of Hessen, which is led by a right wing conservative government, plans to expand the ban to all civil servants.

In Svedala, a city in Southern Sweden, the council has taken the unanimous decision to implement the ban of veils like the niqab and the burqa, even though there are hardly any Muslim students in the area. The initial proposal was put forward by a racist party called Sverigedemokraterna (Swedish Democrats).

In the Netherlands, the view of Islam being “backward” and that it “must not be allowed to dilute Dutch liberalism” – originally put forward by the right wing populist politician Pim Fortuyn who was shot dead in 2002 – is now echoed by many politicians.

The CWI is totally opposed to the ban proposals which are put forward by capitalist governments and the state. We view it as an attack on elementary democratic rights of Muslims and Muslim women, in particular, who should be entitled to have the right to wear whatever they want to.

The proposals for the ban have to be seen in the context of the events since S11. Since then, Muslims internationally are increasingly discriminated against and labelled as potential terrorists by ruling governments across the Western world.

The ban of the headscarves has will be used by Western capitalist governments and the extreme right to whip up racism and to divert attention from the real problems facing working people, youth, and immigrants, such as increasing unemployment and poverty.

It is likely that parties like the Front National in France or the Vlaams Blok in Belgium will benefit from the ban issue in the coming elections. The ban will encourage racist views and make it easier for racists and fascists to present their views more openly. This is proved by incidents in France, where racists have attacked young Muslim women and have attempted to rip off their headscarves.

As a reaction to these developments, the number of women wearing the hijab has actually increased.

Secularism and the ban

One of the main reasons that are given by the right wing French government as a justification to implement the ban is the “safeguarding” of the secular state.

Since the 1789 bourgeois French Revolution, with its attack on clerical reaction, secularism has been a powerful trend in French society. It generally has a positive connotation for the French population. It represents the idea that church and state should be separated and that the church should not be allowed to interfere in public affairs or be subsidised by the state. In the past, French workers and youth saw secularism as a progressive value which was identified with the positive aspects of French republican traditions and its alleged principles of ‘Egalite, Liberte and Fraternite’. This attitude is reflected in a recent opinion poll published by the newspaper ‘Le Parisien’ which indicates that 69 % of the French population, amongst them a large part of the immigrant population, are in favour of banning the headscarf and other “ostentatious” religious symbols from schools. However, there are also many in the immigrant population who regard the current proposals as a camouflaged way of attacking their right to identify themselves as Muslims.

Even before the official implementation of the law, Alma and Lila, two Muslim school students in the French city of Aubervilliers, a working class suburb of Paris, were excluded from school on these grounds.

In this concrete situation, members of LO (Lutte Ouvriere), France’s biggest political organisations with a Trotskyist background, have gone along with the ban: “To prohibit the wearing of the headscarf is to allow the young girls who do not want to wear the scarf to resist to family pressure, against the pressure of the fundamentalists and male chauvanists. It’s is a tool to help them in their fight,” (Sophie Gargan, Lutte Ouvrière nr 1853 (06/02/04)).

The position of the LCR (Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire), another organisation in France with a Trotskyist tradition, can be summed up by their slogan: “Neither the law nor the veil”.

We believe this is an attempt to avoid putting forward any position at all. It is a cowardly evasion which effectively means the acceptance of the ban.

This shows the disagreements that exist amongst the Left and why there is a need for clarification. If socialist organisations and the workers’ movement internationally do not develop a clear position on the issue of the hijab, the danger is that right wing political Islamic organisations will benefit from the existing confusion inside the workers’ movement.

Unfortunately, organisations like Lutte Ouvriere have aligned themselves with a measure proposed by a conservative bourgeois government that has introduced major cuts in social security and in the education system. But the starting point for any genuine socialist organisation should be a clear analysis of what the real reasons behind the ban are.

For socialists, secularism or a secular state does not imply the denial of the individual’s right to practice their religious beliefs.

The CWI supports the democratic right of school students and every individual to choose what he or she wears at school. Indeed, we are convinced that once the law is implemented there is a real danger that attempts will be made to extend it to political symbols as well. As has been indicated already by right wing French politicians, the wearing of Che Guevara T-Shirts or the Palestinian scarf could be the next target. This would be the case not only for the French government but for all capitalist governments that are currently trying to implement similar laws.

Presently, the French state subsidises private Catholic schools; the Belgian education system is almost entirely Catholic; and the German Christian Socialist Union-led regional state government in Bavaria in the past has protested against the banning of Christian crosses from classrooms. In Alsace-Moselle most of the public schools are run by religious authorities. While they will ban the hijab, Christian crosses will remain on the walls. Therefore, it is obvious that these laws are by no means meant to protect secular values but have to be seen as another racist attack on the Muslim communities.

Will the ban assist women’s emancipation?

Another reason used to justify the legislation is to say that the hijab is a symbol of women’s oppression and a ban would therefore help to assist women’s emancipation. A number of women’s organisations, including those of a predominantly Arabic, Iranian, Turkish or Kurdish composition, support this point of view.

Socialists are the strongest opponents of women’s oppression. We are against any implementation of religious fundamentalist laws which oppress people, including putting their psyhical well-being in danger, and are therefore socialists are obliged to develop a serious and sensitive approach on this question.

The position of a number of women’s organisations is reflected in an article by Saeed Keramat (Hijab in France: Battle for Islamic Political Uniform, 15/01/04), in which she claims that the “hijab operates as a political uniform”. She goes on to say that, “Cultural symbols are usually carried by ordinary people. However, in the case of the hijab, ordinary people do not bother with it. On the contrary, if one asks any veiled women they will most likely find that this woman has a strong viewpoint on political issues”. Later on, Saeed Keramat says that the issue of the hijab “has divided society into two sharp camps: secularist and Islamist”.

Unfortunately, this is a mechanical approach. First of all, it is entirely untrue to say that wearing the headscarf equals support for Islamic fundamentalist ideas. There are a variety of reasons why women wear the hijab today. What is more, the dissimilar situations that exist in different countries around the world need to be taken into account.

An increasing number of very often young Muslim women have chosen to wear the headscarf, especially in the West. One of the reasons they do so is as a means of expressing their rejection of a society that is racist and sexist. These young women also use the headscarf as a symbol of identifying themselves as Muslim or Arabic, especially after the increased discrimination against Muslim communities following September 11. A young woman who recently participated in a protest demonstration in France said: “France calls itself the cradle of human rights. Here of all places, we should be able to show who and what we are” (Guardian, London, 04/02/04). Another young woman goes on to say “The veil should be for us to choose. This law discriminates against us”.

No to compulsory measures

While many women may freely choose to wear the hijab, others are given no choice and are subject to violence. But, will the ban on the hijab improve the situation of these women, as long as the family structures and religious mores remain the same, and those women do not have a choice whether they want to stay in an oppressive environment?

Governments across Europe have carried through major cuts in the social sector which have also affected the facilities available for women. This in turn has led to an increased lack of women’s refuges, counselling services etc. This underlines the fact that these capitalist governments are not interested in improving the situation for women.

It is more likely that the headscarf ban will worsen, rather than improve, the position of these women. There is a possibility that the parents of these young women will take them out of public schools and will make them go to private Islamic schools or will make them stay at home, being denied any education at all. This would further isolate and alienate them from society and would make it more likely that they are driven into the arms of rightwing political Islamic organisations.

It should therefore be the task of those fighting against women’s oppression to defend the rights of women to choose whether they want to wear the hijab. Otherwise the danger is that it will allow right wing political Islamic organisations to step in and to falsely present themselves as ‘defenders’ of women’s rights. It is important to win the trust of those women and involve them in a struggle for decent jobs and wages, proper education and against social cuts, which can lay the basis for women to start to live a life in which they determine and assert their own wishes. Compulsion in relation to religious beliefs will almost always have the opposite effect of what is allegedly supposed to be achieved by it.

Of course, there are countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia, and parts of Northern Nigeria and Afghanistan where to different extents women are not only forced to wear the headscarf or the veil but where religion is used as a disguise to carry out the most reactionary, brutal and repressive attacks against the working class and the female population in particular. This often entails the endorsement or toleration of religiously motivated stonings, forced marriages, honour killings and female circumcisions. Recently, women and workers in Iraq have also resisted attempts to introduce Sharia law through the US-drafted ‘Consitution’.

Women who take a heroic and brave stand against those measures and protest against the enforced wearing of the headscarf, because they see it as an expression of oppression in those countries, live under completely different conditions than in the West and should be supported in pursuing their struggle.

There is a common aspect to the struggles in the advanced capitalist countries and the neo-colonial world, which socialists are obliged to draw out. Capitalist governments or imperialist powers are never the allies of the working class and the poor in their struggle for liberation and emancipation, either in the west or in the neo-colonial world. The hypocrisy of the ruling class is obvious when looking at events in Afghanistan. Imperialist forces backed the Taliban when it suited them and withdrew their support when the Taliban no longer served their interests. They then suddenly discovered that amongst other crimes, the Taliban were oppressing women and therefore had to be removed. Today, in large parts of Afghanistan, women are facing conditions which are hardly any different to the pre-war situation. Imperialism is unwilling and unable to rebuild a society in Afghanistan which provides the possibility for women, as well as for the rest of the poor masses, to have access to education, decent jobs and housing.

In the same way as we oppose any compulsory measures in the Western, socialists would engage in a struggle alongside women who have come to the conclusion that they want to fight and oppose the compulsory wearing of the hijab, the burka, the veil and all other restrictions and elements of women’s oppression connected with religion.

The hijab has more than one meaning

The examples given above indicate once more that truth is always concrete. The hijab represents different things at the same time and its role has changed in relation to different circumstances. It can be an instrument of women’s oppression as well as a means of protest.

A Palestinian woman, for example, who might have decided she does not want to wear the hijab in general, often finds herself wearing it outside the house in order to express her pride to be an Arab and her rejection of the Israeli occupation forces.

Besides, wearing the hijab has not prevented hundreds of thousands of women across the world from coming out in protest against the imperialist war against Iraq. It did not stop veiled women in Indonesia from joining the heroic uprising which led to the downfall of the vicious Suharto dictatorship in 1998.

It would also be a mistake to believe that the banning of the hijab itself will change the opinion of the minority of women who wear the hijab as a means of expressing support for the strictest interpretations of Islam. This would be similar to believing that Bush or Blair would change their policies if only they were wearing a different suit!

Moreover, the hijab alone is not an indication as to what degree women are allowed to participate and take part in society. This is indicated by the fact that the percentage of women attending universities in Iran – where the vast majority of women are currently opposed to the obligatory wearing the hijab – has now reached 60%. On the other hand, the overwhelming majority of women in Turkey who come from a traditional Muslim background and therefore wear the hijab, are denied access to universities because it has long been banned from educational institutions.

This further underlines the fact that compulsion does not automatically strengthen the position of women but will isolate them even further. Having access to university or higher education is one step towards developing women’s self-assertion and could encourage them to stand up for their rights, which is essential to bring about real change in the situation women are facing across the world today.

Rise of right wing political Islam

In the aftermath of World War II, the international balance of power changed. The outcome of the war resulted in the division of the world into two blocs, a capitalist and a “communist” (Stalinist) bloc. Subsequently, some of the ruling elites which came to power in many of those countries with a predominantly Muslim population, decided to move towards a more “Western” (pro-capitalist) style of class society. As a consequence, they implemented the banning of the hijab. Where a legal ban was not pursued, violence was used from above to implement it. In Iran, the founder of the Pahlawi Shah’s dynasty introduced the compulsory banning of the veil in 1925.

During the 1960’s, various Arab nationalist regimes adopted a programme of so-called modernisation and Westernisation which led to a certain secularisation of society.

However, the complete incapability of the Arab nationalist capitalists to solve the problems of feudal domination and imperialist exploitation led to deep economic and social crisis. In reaction to this, they turned to right wing Islam as a counterweight to emerging radical and communist forces. In Egypt, for instance, Sadat leaned on right wing organisations like the Muslim Brotherhood to assist his turn to the right. However, these forces wanted to go further than Sadat intended, and this difference of direction resulted in his assassination.

Because of the failure of these mostly dictatorial regimes (which in most cases were closely tied to Western governments whose only interest in those regions is and was to make profit) to deliver a rise in living standards for the working class and poor masses, Islamic fundamentalists benefited from the anger that existed amongst the masses. The false programme of the bureaucratically-run and undemocratic Stalinist dominated communist parties to provide a solution to the social and economic crisis, along class lines, fuelled those developments.

This process accelerated with the collapse of Stalinism in the former Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe. These developments had a profound effect on the consciousness of the working class and the poor masses internationally. The capitalists trumpeted their “victory” across the globe and insisted that capitalism was the only viable way of running society. Given the fact that most of the communist parties, and even sections of social democratic parties, saw Stalinism as an alternative to capitalism, capitalist propaganda had a huge effect on those parties and their members internationally.

Many genuine members were demoralised by these developments. At the same time, the leadership of these parties and organisations shifted to the right and adopted a pro-capitalist programme. This led to a situation where the working class and poor masses internationally were left without political organisations to fight the increasing neo-liberal attacks that were taking place throughout the 1990’s. The collapse of the state owned bureaucratically planned economies meant a defeat for the working class and the poor masses and threw back consciousness during the 1990’s.

In the neo-colonial world, however, it soon became clear that all the promises that had been made by imperialism were not worth the piece of paper they had been written on.

The people in the neo-colonial world had to bear the brunt of capitalism’s drive for increased profits. This resulted in increased anger and rejection of so-called ‘Western values’. This was the basis for right wing political Islamic organisations to gain support and to influence people’s consciousness. Because of a lack of a class-based political alternative able to explain that the working class in the West and the neo-colonial world have to lead a common struggle to overthrow a system that causes war and poverty across the globe, anger against imperialism found its distorted and dangerous expression in the support for right-wing political Islam.

There can be no doubt that those organisations or regimes based on right wing political Islam will provide no answer and no way forward for the oppressed and exploited masses in the neo-colonial world. The opposite is the case. Right wing political Islam uses the despair and anger that exists in those countries and directs it against ordinary working-class people of different nations and religious beliefs.

Right-wing political Islam is a reactionary political ideology which wants to take society back to pre-feudal days. These ideas need to be challenged by the workers’ movement internationally. The only way to do so, is by providing answers to the urgent political and social questions that are particularly posed in the most impoverished parts of the world. Combining a class approach with concrete campaigns for a rise in living standards, and against the economic dominance and military presence of imperialism in the region, is the only way to win the trust of the working-class people and the poor masses in the neo-colonial world, many of whom have a rich history of strong socialist traditions.

The same applies to any other form of religious fundamentalism, be it Christian, Jewish, Hindi or whatever. The neo-conservative Bush Junta justifies its policy of aggression against other countries by saying that God has chosen the American people. The Catholic Church hierarchy is one of the strongest opponents of a woman’s right to choose – abortion, divorce or contraception. This underlines the hypocrisy of the present proposals in France, as well as the hypocrisy of how Islam, in general, has been portrayed as a particularly aggressive and reactionary religion in the aftermath of September 11.

The Koran does not even specifically mention that women are obliged to wear the veil. Many practices associated with Islam, including the veil, are not specific to Islam. They are rooted in patriarchal class society.

The fight for women’s emancipation is a fight for socialism

It is only through overthrowing class society – capitalism and landlordism – and replacing it with a socialist society, where the majority of the people are in control over the enormous wealth that is produced by the working class that the ground can be prepared for every individual to choose what kind of life they want to live.

There is not the space in this statement to deal with the issue of Marxism and religion. However, the CWI intends to publish soon more material that will deal with the question of religion and Marxism, in some depth.

It still happens to be the case that discontent on the part of the poor masses about their social situation is often expressed through religious beliefs and practices. The task of socialists is not to denounce people who adopt any religious practices, but to involve people with religious beliefs in the struggle to change society.

It is only through the working class and the poor masses engaging in a struggle to improve their living standards, and in fighting back against neo-liberal attacks, that consciousness can change.

A slave who has become conscious of his slavery and has risen to struggle for his emancipation has already half ceased to be a slave. But real freedom can only be achieved through mass movements by the working class and the poor, and a leadership that provides an alternative to the present situation.

It is the task of the workers’ and trade union movement internationally to show a way forward and to lead a mass struggle against oppression and exploitation.

The struggle for the emancipation of women, as well as for the emancipation of the working class as a whole, requires a clear programme and a clear strategy.

In the case of the hijab, the CWI campaigns for the following demands and argues that they should be taken up by the workers’ movement internationally:

  • no to the law that bans the wearing of the hijab
  • no to racist attacks against the Muslim or any other community
  • decent public education for all – veiled or non-veiled
  • for the right of school students to choose what they want to wear
  • for an increase in spending on women’s refuges, counselling services and youth facilities
  • for a massive investment in crèches and nurseries
  • for a guaranteed minimum wage for all
  • for a shorter working week, without loss of pay
  • for the trade union movement to fight all forms of discrimination and racism in the workplaces and society

However, a programme and a strategy which wants to end oppression and exploitation, once and for all, needs to go further. It needs to explain that the living conditions of the working class and the poor masses will only improve if control over the means of production and land is taking out of the hands of the capitalist classes and the landlords. Wealth and resources have to be put under the democratic control of the working class and the poor peasants. Such a society would then be able to use the enormous wealth that exists to guarantee a decent living standard for all people on this planet. Instead of waging wars for a greater share in profits, for example, the wealth in society could be used to finance education, the health service, housing, and decent jobs, as well as to invest into women’s and youth facilities.

This would be a huge step forward towards a society where people can live a life they choose. It would open up the possibility of women leading an economically independent life, enabling them to stand up against violent partners or pressure from within the family.

A socialist society will depend on the contribution and talent of every individual member. Such a society, therefore, has no interest in oppressing people, only in empowering them. Such a society could guarantee religious freedom for women to wear the hijab, if they wanted to do so. At the same time, it could guarantee freedom of women from oppressive religious practices and from the violence of family members, religious organisations etc.

A society that is based on genuine equality would also mean the end of the arrogance of Western politicians and Christian fundamentalists who believe that their beliefs and culture are superior to others.

It would open up the possibility for the working class and the poor masses to practise their religion without threat of discrimination and oppression.

In a society where the majority of people feel that they have a say on things, and are able to influence and change things, religion would play far less of a role than it does today. That, however, would be a natural process, and would be achieved by experience and from people’s free will.

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