Ignoring the advice of many, the French government has just presented to the parliament a draft bill to prevent women from wearing the so-called “Islamic” headgear, or foulard, at state-owned schools.
The move became inevitable when President Jacques Chirac, in a solemn address to the nation, televised live last December, presented the banning of the foulard
as vital for the preservation of France’s “secular character.”
Like other hasty moves in politics, this one, too, is likely to be subjected to the law of unintended consequences.
Even before it becomes official and binding, Chirac’s foulard policy has done some damage:
It has divided France’s Muslim community into pro- and anti-hijab camps.
It has killed the recently established French Council of Islam, and enabled the most radical extremists to take center stage.
It has given official recognition to the foulard as a religious icon, when Islam recognizes none and considers obsession with symbols as a sin.
To win support for the ban on the foulard, Chirac dispatched emissaries to Arab capitals to seek fatwas from Muslim theologians. In one instance, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy traveled to Cairo to secure a fatwa from the rector of al-Azhar, Muhammad Said al-Tantawi. This was a bizarre scene: a minister from a major Western democracy asking a Muslim mufti to give his blessing to a law that is supposed to defend French “secular values.”
This Pandora’s Box has only just opened.
Once the bill becomes law, possibly later this month, the authorities will face the task of spelling out what constitutes “ostentatious religious signs” that should be banned.
The primary target, of course, is the foulard, but even that is not as easy as it might sound. There is no agreement, for example, on what constitutes an “ostentatious foulard.”
Would this include Hermes scarves, sold for $300 apiece?
Should the colorful headgear worn by Berber and black African ladies also be banned?
What if the girls appear at school with transparent headgear, designed by L’Oreal, which covers the hair without concealing it?
And what about the hijab designed by Calvin Klein, which covers the hair but leaves the ears and the neck free to view?
There is also the fluorescent horse-hair wig, including a blonde version, marketed by Iranian designers, that gives a woman a second head to expose to public view without revealing her own hair.
With the focus on the foulard, the girls could also turn up wearing turbans of the kind once favored by Tallulah Bankhead and Marlene Dietrich.
There are countless forms of hijab, all rooted in folklore and tribal traditions. Here are a few: burqaa, chador, chaqchur, kulaya, maqna’ah, niqab, purdah, picheh, rusari, rubandedh, sitrah, and tolqa.
Is Mr. Chirac going to define them all before he can ban them?
And what would happen if Muslims of the Sitri sect, originally from Baluchistan, appeared in their traditional gear, which consists of a white drape that covers the entire body of a man or a woman from head to toe, leaving only two holes for the eyes? (The Sitri rule is applied to both sexes from the age of four.)
What’s more, the new law’s proponents will have to decide whether the it applies only to women.
In a gesture of fake impartiality, the new law will also ban “large” Jewish skullcaps and “big” crosses. But what do “large” and “big” mean in this context? Would we have special agents measuring skullcaps and crosses at school gates?
French Sikhs, who number 6,000, have already expressed concern that their traditional turbans may be banned.
And what if France’s 1.8 million Muslim schoolboys decided to wear turbans and/or kufia headgear, as is the fashion among Iranian mullahs and Arab tribesmen?
And what about neckties? They are banned in Iran as “a sign of the cross” and in Saudi Arabia as a Zoroastrian symbol, smuggled into Islam by Jaafar Barmaki, the Persian vizier of the caliph Harun al-Rashid. Would France want to ban neckties as well?
Then there is the vexing problem of beards.
Islamist fundamentalists believe that a man who shaves ceases to be a “complete Muslim.” Iran’s President Muhammad Khatami claims that a man’s beard is “a shield against impiety.”
France’s Education Minister Luc Ferry has made it clear that the ban could include “some forms of the beard.”
But what forms?
Will short beards and designer stubbles, of the kind once sported by Brad Pitt, be tolerated?
Can those with a goatee or a Vandyke enter French schools?
Or will we have agents posted at French schools to measure the pupils’ facial growths, much like the Taliban did in their heyday in the bazaars of Kabul? (The Taliban wanted long beards, while Ferry wants short ones.)
Minister Ferry may not know it, but the length of a man’s hair could also be a religious symbol. Ferry himself, for example, wears his hair flowing down his neck. This conforms exactly to the style of the sect of Qalandars in Islam, who regard any shortening of a man’s hair as “a step towards the fires of hell.” The Sikhs are, of course, required by their faith never to cut their hair.
What would Ferry do if hundreds of thousands of boys turned out at French schools with long hair, bushy beards, and “ostentatious” turbans?
Even a lack of hair could be a religious symbol, as is the case with Buddhist monks. In Islam, too, many sects, including the Malamatis, shave their heads completely.
As Jung observed decades ago, man’s ability to invent symbols is limitless. Fighting symbols is, at best, a quixotic endeavor, and, at worst, a symptom of national self-doubt.
–Amir Taheri is an Iranian-born author of ten books on the Middle East and Islam. He is reachable through www.benadorassociates.com.