The French governemnt may consider outlawing Muslim women from wearing the burqa. Fadela Amara, a member of Sarkozy’s government and an activist for Muslim women’s rights, has said that she would support a total “banning of this coffin which kills basic freedoms”. But whatever we may feel or think about the burqa, many Muslim women wear them through choice. Surely, taking that choice away is a violation of their freedom. It is not up to us to decide whether a woman who chooses to wear the burqa, or indeed a hijab, is oppressed. If we go down the route of thinking that all women who wear the hijab are victims then we are merely strereotyping . I suspect many women feel more subjugated by the stereotypes than their clothes. A total ban on the burqa would just be an alternative form of oppression.
The wearing of headscarves in French schools was banned in 2004. Whilst other religious garments and ornaments were also banned, the government openly acknowledged that their real aim was to remove Muslim headscarves. The reason given then for this attaack on freedom was that the wearing of headscarves did not fit in with the republic’s secular values. The same concerns are being repeated now about the burqa. But liberté is at the centre of the republic’s values. Freedom of religion is a constitutional right in the French Republic and freedom of expression is a basic human right. It is strange and wrong that France is attacking something that many wearers see only as a symbol of their religion, not as a straitjacket.
I teach 5-6 year olds in an inner-city primary. At the beginning of the year, none of the Muslims girls in my class covered their hair. Now they nearly all do. I have to admit that my first automatic reaction was a slight feeling of sadness. I wondered if the girls saw it as a nuisance or if they felt a loss at all. But I imagined how I would feel in their position. When I was 6, I worshipped my mum, other ladies and older girls in general. They had so many exciting badges of their grownup-ness and importance. I longed for slip-on shoes, earrings, a handbag and a woollen t-shirt like my mum’s. If I was a 6 year old Muslim girl, whose mum, sisters and friends wore the hijab, I probably wouldn’t mind wearing one. I think I would have nagged my parents to let me wear one. The girls’ hijabs vary greatly. Some of them are pastel coloured and elasticised, designed so that they are child-friendly and easy to wear. Others are made of silky fabric and decorated with beautiful patterns and sequins. In other words, as a well being religious emblems, they are fashion items used to express individaulity.
When I asked one of the girls whether she liked wearing her hijab I was prepared for a big, resounding ‘yes’. The girl I was chatting to is usually happy, polite and quite softly spoken. I was surprised then, when she replied “no!” rather fiercely. “Uh oh” I thought. But it turned that it wasn’t the hijab that was the problem, so much as its colour. She only had the one hijab. It was purple and she hated purple. Her favourite colour was blue. A few days later she turned up to school wearing a new sky-blue hijab and a huge smile. Interestingly the other children in the class do not seem to notice or care that some of the girls cover their hair. It does not cause any problems or divisions.
I do understand why some people are uncomfortable with children wearing hijabs. They are traditionally worn when girls reach puberty so the very item that is meant to ensure ‘modesty’ can also be seen as signifier of sexual maturity. But I’m pretty sure that the families of the girls in my class are not focussing on this aspect of the hijab’s symbolism when they introduce it at an earlier age. When you are in country with a culture predominantly different to your own, you can end up emphasising your own culture and traditions. I think this is understandable and human. Maybe this why some girls living in the UK wear the hijab when they are young.
Recently I read “Does My Head Look Big in This?” by Randa Abdel-Fattah. The heroine of the book is Amal who is 16 and lives in Melbourne. The book is aimed at teenagers. At first, the author’s insertion of her message into the story can appear a bit heavy-handed but the heroine’s voice soon becomes less clunky and more believable. The book, as a whole, is funny, moving and interesting.
Amal smashes stereotypes. She is intelligent, outspoken, ambitious and funny. She is openly a feminist. Although, her family believe that you can be a good Muslim without wearing the hijab, when she feels ready, she decides to wear it. Wearing an emblem of her religion, makes her feel happy and she feels closer to god because of it. When the head-teacher assumes that her parents have forced her, Amal is surprised and when she hears people whisper ‘oppressed’ in the school corridors she is frustrated that she is misunderstood. During the story she learns to question her judgements about people and to try to understand other’s viewpoints even when she disagrees. Although this message may not be original or surprising it is one that is important.