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Hijab Battles
Around the World

by Pamela Taylor

Tayyibah, St. Paul Minnesota. Fatima, Creil, France. Samira, Algiers, Algeria. What do these women have in common? They are all Muslim, and they've all had a run-in with the law.

Their crimes, you ask? Wearing Hijab, or the Islamic head scarf. Worldwide there seems to be a growing consensus that a few yards of cloth on a woman's head, especially if it covers part or all of her face, is a threat to education, women's rights, public security and even to freedom of religion itself.


Amazingly, countries whose populations are predominantly Muslim are not immune to this trend. Indeed, it seems they have led the charge.

For many years, Turkey, followed more recently by Algeria and Tunisia, has had a prohibition on wearing Hijab.

Egypt, up until a few weeks ago, also forbade women students to wear scarves. Morocco forbade its citizens living in France to join protests against Hijab strictures there.

Women who defy the bans may be arrested, denied jobs and education, fined or even thrown in prison. More recently, moves against the Hijab have been made in European and American countries.


This September in France, the national minister of education issued a directive that effectively banned head scarves from the classroom. On October 3, police were called in to prevent 22 Muslim girls from entering their school wearing the Hijab.

Since then polls have shown that 86 percent of the French populace supports the education minister's decree.

The general perception is that Hijab is a threat to secularism and the separation of religion and state. In particular, there was concern that Hijab is responsible for dividing Muslim and non-Muslim students.

Some even claim that it is an Islamist plot to “demolish the secular public system” (Le Point Magazine).

Others worry that head scarves introduce religious influences into the public school and places undue strain on other students to conform to Islam's dress or moral code.


Another claim is that Hijab constitutes a violation of the female's human rights because it is a form of discrimination.

Yet, it is common in France for students to wear crosses or yarmulkes (the Jewish skullcap) and for Jewish students to be exempted from Saturday classes. Defending his discriminatory decision, [French education minister Francois] Bayrou declared, “My instructions to school heads will be very clear. We will continue to accept discrete religious signs, as has always been the case. But we cannot accept ostentatious signs that divide our youth.”


Visiting Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto added insult to injury, when addressing the French Diplomatic Press Association on November 3.

[She]said that Muslim girls who want to wear head scarves perhaps “want to make an identity of their own and to observe what they consider to be their traditions,” and declared “luckily my father did not ask me to wear a veil, otherwise I might not be here before you today.”


Sociology professor Gary Bouma, of Melbourne's Monash University, who authored [the] Australian Bureau of Immigration and Population Research's report, says wearing the Hijab “clearly sets a woman aside as different and as a serious Muslim,” adding “that wearing the Hijab made it difficult for them to get jobs.”

The report, which said that many of Australia's 150,000 Muslims have experienced harassment and bigotry, was released by Immigration Minister Nick Bolkus on November 4, just days after his government announced new laws carrying jail sentences for inciting racial hatred.


These are the latest episodes in an ongoing debate which started in 1989 when three French girls wore head scarves to their school.
The principal would not let them in and so started a national controversy.

At that time, education minister Lionel Jospin refused to set a policy on head scarves and asked the Council of State to make a ruling.

They declined, saying that it was up to the individual schools to decide whether or not to allow scarves.

But in 1992, the Council of State seemed to reverse itself, and required that the three girls be reinstated.

The current minister of education, Francois Bayrou, feared that schools, “have the impression that we do not give them the means to deal realistically with this type of incident,” and so instituted the ban.


French Muslims say that the Gaullist government's decree is absurd because the nation's estimated 700 Hijab-wearing students could hardly be considered a threat.

Muslim leaders are pondering about asking their people to pull-out up to one million school children from state schools and educate them at home unless this directive is withdrawn.

They point out that the wearing of Hijab is protected in the French constitution under the Freedom of Religion and Rights of Individuals Act as amended in 1992.

The Federation of Islamic Organizations in Europe which had another explanation for the French fury, said: “The French government is using the presence of Muslims as a political slogan to win votes. The French nation boasts about its revolution of liberty, fraternity and equality. They should follow other Europeans who accept Muslims as a nation and respect their faith and practice.”


Echoes of this debate have been felt in Britain where in 1990 two Muslim girls were sent home for wearing head scarves.

More troublesome is anti-Muslim violence on the streets, discrimination in the workplace, and the lack of public funding for Islamic schools while Catholic, Jewish, and other religious schools receive state support.


On the other side of the Atlantic, we see a similar patter. In Trinidad and Tobago, two Caribbean islands that have large Muslim populations, the Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, Baptist and Hindu boards of education issued a joint statement prohibiting Muslim girls-who are assigned to their state-supported schools-from wearing Hijab to class.

In the statement, the board justified the ban by explaining that, “our boards of managements feel very strongly that there should be no exceptions to the rule of uniform. In fact the very term ‘uniform' indicates that we are unwilling to allow any deviation from this.”

The Muslims have gone to court to fight the ban.

And in the United States there have been several cases in the past few years.

Islamic Horizons has reported on the case of a Virginia teacher who was removed from her post in 1989 when she started wearing a scarf. The courts first said she should be given back pay, but later this decision was reversed.

At last notice the case was still being appealed.


Just this fall, Tayyibah Amatullah was arrested in St. Paul during a shopping trip because she violated a law which prohibits people from concealing their identity with “a robe, mask or other disguise unless it is for entertainment purposes.”

Admittedly, there appears to have been confusion on the part of the police officers.

“They didn't know whether it was a man, a woman or a bank robber behind the clothing,” stated police spokesman, Paul Adelmann. “They have seen other Muslim women whose faces were half-covered...but they described this person as bizarre. It did not look at all Muslim.”

Amatullah follows the strictest interpretation, completely covering her face while in public.

The confusion appears to have been further complicated by Amatullah's refusal to speak to the officers.

“I cannot intermingle with men in public,” explains Amatullah. “I cannot look at men or talk to men or allow them to touch me.”

When the officers told her to uncover her face or to leave the mall, Amatullah got angry and the police took her to a small room where they ticketed her.

Amatullah and the Minneapolis community were outraged.

“If we're supposed to be in a free country, why can't I freely practice my religion as long as I'm not infringing on anyone else? Who am I hurting by covering my face?” Amatullah asked.

The police department felt the arrest was not about religion, Adelmann says, but rather controlling crime.

Youths wearing ski masks or bandanas over their faces have been arrested recently in the mall, where crime is a problem. However, the community rallied to the cause and the case against Amatullah was dropped.

It seems that this incident could have been avoided. While Muslims disagree as to covering the face, the Quran is clear with regards to speech.

In Surah Ahzab (33:32) it says, “...If you fear God, then do not be too complaisant in your speech, lest one whose heart is diseased should be moved with desire, but speak in a straightforward way.”

And there is ample evidence that women spoke in public during and after the time of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him).

For instance, Omar Al Khattab, when he was Khalifah, limited the amount of dowry a woman could receive.

One woman stood up in the Masjid and told him he could not do this since the Quran commanded men to give women their dowries even though it be a treasure, so no one could limit the amount.

Khalifah Omar agreed with the woman and reversed his decree.

The point is, of course, that while there are limits on the type of speech men and women should engage in, it is not totally forbidden.

Even if an error in judgment may have been made by Amatullah, the arrest is ominous, and could set a dangerous precedent, especially when viewed in light of international trends and general anti-Muslim sentiment here in the United States.


Also of concern, are several rulings regarding Muslim prison inmates made by the Supreme Court over the past year-and-a-half which indicate that even Justices, who are to uphold the constitutional right to freedom of religion, do not understand the requirements of Islam, or perhaps do not value their practice to the extent that they value Judeo-Christian practice.

For instance, they decreed that prisons were not required to allow Muslims to gather for congregational prayers on Friday, even though those institutions had no problems providing services for a variety of Christian and Jewish groups.

Muslims say that they can only surmise that the justices did not understand that Jumu'ah prayer is not optional for Muslim men. They hope that if the issue of Hijab comes before the court it does understand that it is not an option for Muslim women either.


Optimism, however, is not called for, according to John Witte, director of the law and religion program at Emory University in Atlanta, and co-organizer of a recent international conference on religious human rights.

“The human-rights revolution is passing religion by,” says Witte.

He cites several reasons. For many, religion is private and so discussion of religious rights and laws seems to violate some basic premise.

As well, people from different faiths often cannot agree on what rights should be protected.

For instance, proselytizing is an important practice for Christians and Muslims, but for people of other faiths, it is unimportant.

As a result, joint effort is difficult.

Religious groups, “are interested in protecting their own people,” says Witte, “but the notion that we have to develop golden rules of religious liberty-treating everyone in a manner in which we would like to have ourselves treated as religious people-is something that has only recently caught on.”
The idea that others have the right to their own religion, is an anathema to many religions.

What then, should Muslims in America do to prevent further problems, especially with regards to the right to wear what Islam required them to wear?


Muslims agree that first, they must educate their fellow Americans about Islam in ways that are relevant and meaningful.

Today, Muslims are becoming more accessible in general and less removed from the public eye.

Islamic centers and Muslim organizations across North America are increasingly getting involved in interfaith dialogues and public forums, and are inviting local clergy and school groups to come to the Masjids for Jumu'ah or Eid prayers.


Some Muslim communities have initiated outreach projects, such as programs for the poor, the abused, or the homeless, hospital and nursing home visitation programs, and even knitting groups who donate hats and scarves to shelters around the community.

The Muslims are more determined to make a positive contribution to society. Muslim organizations are calling upon parents to become more involved in local government and school functions, such as PTA's, textbook committees, or school boards, in order to make their good presence felt.
Muslims' leaders are educating their people that by being involved with the school system and local government, they can develop credibility and good will in their communities.

Indeed, results are already visible in many areas.


One school district in New Jersey closed for Eid holiday.

The principal. argued that it wasn't fair to close for Christian and Jewish holidays and then ignore those of the Muslim students in the school.

A school in Reston, Virginia invited Muslim parents to display Ramadan and Eid posters on the school library wall where other religious holidays are highlighted. And various states have instituted Islam days.


Muslim legal experts are suggesting a more far-reaching solution. They are asking for the institution of Islamic courts in the U.S. replicating the experience of the American Indian Tribal Court System.

In a landmark decision in 1990, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that an Indian tribe may not assert criminal jurisdiction over a nonmember, reasoning that nonmembers should not be subject to discriminatory tribunals.

Similarly, they feel that the Indian Child Welfare Act passed by U.S. Congress in 1978 which gives tribal courts powers in family matters.

Muslim legal experts believe that Muslims need to start by establishing an organization dealing with Muslim family law and professional legal association.

Pamela Taylor has a Masters from the Harvard Divinity School. She is an active Muslim, mother of three and a freelance writer.

This article was originally published in the November/December 1994 edition of Islamic Horizons Magazine. It has been reprinted with permission.

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