Amrik Singh Ahluwalia* Copyright 2004 UNITED SIKHS **
I INTRODUCTION: “A century that began with children having virtually no rights is ending with children having the most powerful legal instrument that not only recognizes but protects their human rights.”
The thought worded by Carol Bellamy, UNICEF Executive Director, but words, documents and intents have no meaning if they are not to be given effect or if countries would like to turn the clock back to the beginning of the last century. But mere words, as the past experience will testify and also knowing the human nature as it is, however well-intentioned, remain a poor substitute for an effective action. For obtaining results we need a combination of words, deeds and goodwill (co-operation) on the part of the citizens, who do care.
II BACKGROUND OF THE PRESENT CONTROVERSY:
La loi sur la laïcité (the law on secularity based on the constitutional requirement of laicite) is a prevailing conception of the separation of church and state and the absence of religious interference into government affairs. The concept is related to secularism, but does not imply hostility towards religious beliefs. The term “laicite” implies free exercise of religion, but no special status for religion—religious activities should submit to the same set of laws as other activities and are not considered above the law. The government refrains from taking positions on religious doctrine and only considers religious subjects from their practical consequences on the inhabitants’ lives.
France has had a law requiring separation of church and state, prohibiting the state from recognizing or funding any religion. Schools in France which receive all their funding from public sources must not, by law, promote any religion; they should remain equally accessible to children of any, or no, faith. But can this law be extended to authorizing government to change or suppress the religious beliefs of children?
A. Recent Events and the Stasi Commission:
Following a debate over headscarves that had divided France since 1989, when l'affaire du foulard ("the headscarf affair") saw two young girls expelled from their school in Creil, near Paris, for wearing headscarves, on July 3, 2003 a committee known as Stasi Commission, consisting of 20 members, was set up by President Jacques Chirac to reflect upon the application of the laicite principle. The President set up the Commission because he felt that wearing religious symbols in schools was no longer a question of freedom of conscience, but one of political order.
On December 11, 2003, it concluded that ostentatious displays of religion violated the secular rules of the French school system. It recommended forbidding students from wearing "conspicuous" signs indicating their belonging to a particular religion. Prohibited items would include headscarves.
The report emphasized that publicly-funded schools in France should transmit knowledge, teach students critical awareness, assure autonomy and openness to cultural diversity, and encourage personal development. Schooling aims both to train students for a professional career, and also to make them into good citizens of the French Republic.
The Commission identified the following positions with regard to wearing the Muslim veil:
For the wearer, the veil can have different meanings—may have exercised a free personal choice to wear; or may have been forced by external pressure to do so. Most French people find this idea of constraint or pressure intolerable when it relates to young girls.
For those not wearing, it stigmatized the young girl as responsible for attracting male desire—this contradicts the principle of equality between men and women.
The dressing according to hijab varies from person to person—certain women see the veil as a way to preserve their modesty, submit to Allah, and gain respect regardless of physical appearance; others, forced to wear it against their wishes, see it as a way to keep women hidden and subservient, and as a way to justify violence towards women who choose not to wear it.
Frequently there are calls for help for young girls and women, daughters of immigrants, living in problem areas. These girls are a silent majority and victims of pressures within the family or within the neighborhood. Local associations believe these girls need protection and ask authorities to issue strong warnings to Islamic fundamentalist groups.
The young girls are under great pressure to wear the veil—such pressure did not occur 20 years ago. The girls' families, in particular their brothers, sometimes force them to dress in ways not of their own free will. The brothers consider their sisters showing their hair or wearing jeans as signs of western depravity. Thus, brothers may abuse and threaten their sisters. Several cases have occurred where young Muslim girls, who refused to adopt the veil and dress code, were branded as "prostitutes" and subjected to gang rape.
The Commission said that the Republic must face this situation, and that schools must remain a place of freedom and emancipation for women.
These principles espoused by the Commission are clearly laudable; the actions advocated by the Commission are not. The banning of the wearing of head scarves by Muslim girls, and the banning of head coverings altogether in public schools, are clearly inappropriate responses to the problem which the Commission says that it is attempting to correct (ie. subjugation or discrimination of women). Indeed, this policy does exactly what the Commission says it is trying to eliminate – the subjugation of individuals against their will, to a policy that strips them of their religious identity and replaces it with an identity that is not their own.
Emancipation means giving women the right to decide which religion they wish to practice, and to what degree. Forcing women to strip their religious identity is subjugation, not emancipation. It is reflective of a long gone, unenlightened society, which felt that the best way to “free” aboriginal populations was to force them to attend Catholic schools and deny their own heritage.
It is obvious that the whole controversy revolved around the headscarves worn by Muslim girls. However, irrespective of its origins, or the target community, the policy is clearly prejudicial and an unacceptable restriction on an individual’s right to freedom of religion. As far as the Sikhs are concerned, the policy applies equally to males and females, as both are required by the dictates of their religion, to cover their heads at all times. The turban of a Sikh is not an “ostentatious display” as belonging to a particular religion—it is the Sikh religion itself. Curbing an expression of religious belief is neither opening a child to cultural diversity, and encouraging personal development, nor will it create good citizens.