As a highly opinionated person and an ethicist to boot, coming down on one side or another of an ethical quandary has neve been - unlike breaking up - hard for me to do. But for every rule there is an exception, and for me that exception is the question of whether girls at public schools ought to be allowed to wear the hijab or Islamic head-scarf. For years I’ve been chasing my tail on this one, not quite sure what to think.
Part of the problem is that many of my life-long identifications - as a member of a minority group, an opponent of racism and a feminist - steer me in opposing directions when it comes to the hijab.
As a Jew, I understand how particular items of religious clothing can encode spiritual, cultural and political meaning, and how a proposed ban would be perceived - and resisted -as a threat to religious freedom, cultural identity and political expression. The French law, as would likely be the case with any Australian one, banned the skullcaps worn by observant Jewish males, Sikh turbans and conspicuous Christian crosses.
Support for the ban has made strange bedfellows. Since the passage of the French legislation, supported by a significant majority of the population, socialist legislators have teamed with barely-closeted racists across Europe to impose similar bans. In Italy, for example, a coalition partner of Berlusconi’s Government supported a ban with the assertion that “if someone comes from the jungle and is used to going around dressed like Tarzan, they can do it there, but not here”. Liberal backbencher Bronwyn Bishop condemned the hijab because of complaints from constituents that pre-schools are banning Christmas carols.
But it is the lessons of both feminist politics and social theory that cause me the most consternation when it comes to the hijab. On the one hand, I am strongly committed to the rights of individuals to make private decisions in accordance with their own needs and values. If deciding what to wear and the meaning attached to wearing it isn’t a private decision, I don’t know what is. In addition, some Muslim women maintain that the hijab liberates rather than oppresses them. Who am I to accuse them of false consciousness by insisting they are wrong?
But feminism has also taught me to look for the power. And while power struggles are constantly in play in relationships between the genders, it is the motivating thirst that rarely speaks its name in debates about the hijab. There is no question that many of the Muslim women who contend that the veil liberates them from the sexualising gaze of men do so from within a sub-cultural and mainstream social and political context in which the power to name their own experiences and direct their own destinies is denied to women because they are women.
It is the most disempowered of women who look to conformity with the rule of the Fathers - in this case, that nice girls wear veils - as their only chance of gaining the social recognition and empowerment that all humans crave.
This “if you can’t beat them join them” mentality led Chinese mothers of the past to bind their daughters’ feet and continues to induce some Somali migrants in the US to mutilate the genitals of their female infants.
Indeed, it is largely Muslim men who are insisting that “their” girls and young women will be upset, concerned or made fearful by the banning of the hijab from public schools. But given such leaders are rarely democratically elected, little less by a voting base that includes women, how can we know whose interests they really represent?
This seems a particularly pertinent worry in light of the support by third largest Muslim organisation (the Union of Islamic Organizations of France), for the ban, and the insistence of some Muslim women that the hijab is an inescapably oppressive garment that both perpetuates antiquated notions of female “purity” and helplessness, and insults the moral agency of men - who at the sight of any part of any female’s body have no recourse but rape.
When we remember rumours about some French Muslim school boys standing over their non-veiled classmates until they covered up, and that once implemented the French ban led only 72 of 12 million school children to disobey, concerns multiply about the quality our knowledge about what young Muslim girls really want - and what is best for them - when it comes to the veil.
Of course, the meaning of the hijab - like the resurgent Playboy Bunny symbol, books, movies and TV shows - is neither fixed nor absolute, but open to interpretation. There seems little doubt that different women, and women in countries with varied political histories and degrees of gender equity, see the hijab as making a broad variety of cultural and political statements - some constraining, some liberating - about their role and status in society.
But arguably what matters most in assessing the need for an Australian ban is the way Australian Muslims and non-Muslims understand the hijab. My impression is that rightly or wrongly, many Australians see the scarf as a symbol of the gender-based oppression women suffer in many non-western countries, and thus a challenge to the credo of gender equity preached and largely practiced in Australian public schools.
Because equality - of persons and of opportunity - is a critical value that Australian schools must - and must be seen to - uphold, the wearing of the hijab in public schools must be banned. At the same time, as per the original advice the French Government received on banning conspicuous religious symbols in schools, Jewish and Muslim holy days should join Christmas and Easter as official school holidays.