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Jack Straw, Britain's former foreign secretary and current leader of the Commons, stirred up a hornet's nest on October 6 by stating that the veil creates a barrier and "separateness" between Muslims and other people and makes relations between communities more difficult. Straw, who has been known as a fair-minded advocate of minority rights, said in his controversial remarks that when he meets Muslim women from his Blackburn constituency-which has a large Muslim presence-he often asks them to remove their veils so that he could have a real, face-to-face interaction.

Britain's prime minister Tony Blair joined the debate, saying, "It is important these issues are raised and discussed and I think it is perfectly sensible if you raise it in a measured and considered way, which Straw did." On October 17 he said that the veil was a "mark of separation" between the Muslim community and the rest of British society and that's why it makes other people from outside the community feel uncomfortable. The prime-minister-in-waiting chancellor Gordon Brown and another cabinet minister Harriet Harman also expressed their support for Straw's views. Harman argued that those who wear the veil are cutting themselves off from the rest of society.

Britain's shadow home secretary David Davis said in an article in the Sunday Telegraph that religious divisions were threatening to corrode fundamental values such as freedom of speech. He said that what Jack touched on was the fundamental issue of whether, in Britain, we are developing a divided society, whether we are creating a series of closed societies within our open society, whether we are inadvertently encouraging a kind of voluntary apartheid. He added that there was a feeling some Muslim leaders wanted to be protected "from criticism, argument, parody, satire and all the other challenges that happen in a society that has free speech as its highest value."

London Mayor, Ken Livingstone, has also weighed into the debate, saying he would like Muslims to give up the veil. But he suggested that change was not something that could be imposed from outside the Muslim community. A day after Straw made his controversial remarks, a white young man, shouting racist abuse, tore a Muslim woman's veil from her face.

Jack Straw's remarks evoked a strong reaction from Britain's Muslim community. Lord Nazir Ahmed complained there was a constant theme of demonization of the Muslim community and politicians and journalists were jumping on a bandwagon because it is fashionable these days to have a go at the Muslims. Massoud Shadjareh, chairman of the Islamic Human Rights Commission in Britain, said it was astonishing Straw chose to "selectively discriminate on the basis of religion." Rajnaara Akhtar, head of an organization called Protect-Hijab, added that the "appalling comments showed a deep lack of understanding." An estimated 70 people, including 20 Muslim women in veils, demonstrated in Straw's constituency against his comments.

Straw was also criticized by the opposition Liberal Democrat constitutional affairs spokesman Simon Hughes, who questioned whether a British MP had the right to criticize the way people in his constituency dressed. Oliver Letwin, the main opposition Conservative Party's policy chief, added that if Muslim women wanted to wear the veil they cannot be prevented from doing so. He said it was dangerous to suggest that they should not be allowed to. Hazel Blears, chairwoman of Labour Party, said there was a need for debate on the issue but insisted "I don't think it's right for government to lay down laws about what people wear and what they shouldn't."

A couple of days after Straw's controversial remarks, Aishah Azmi, a 23-year old Muslim teaching assistant at Headfield Church of England Junior School in West Yorkshire, was suspended for refusing to remove her veil in class. She told the BBC that she could remove the veil, but not in front of male colleagues. She added that her veil had not caused problems with the children with whom she had a "brilliant relationship."

The hijab issue in Europe

The controversy over the Islamic headscarf has been simmering in Europe for the past few years and has gained an added impetus following the terrorist attack on the United States in September 2001 and the attack on London in July 2005. In France, the controversy erupted in 1989 when three Muslim girls wore headscarves to their public school in Creil, a suburb in the north of Paris. The event triggered a heated public debate. Some commentators argued that the incident reflected a clash between the identity of (Muslim) immigrants and the French national identity, which is defined by laicite (France's secularism) and the republican model of cultural assimilation. In their eyes, the controversy provided a confirmation of the fact that Islam was incompatible with the secular principles of French society.

The controversy resurfaced in 1994 when the right-wing French government issued a circular to public schools forbidding the wearing of any ostentatious religious symbols, such as the headscarf, in public schools. It was argued that public schools in France represented the very embodiment of national ideology of egalitarianism and secularism. The French education minister Francois Bayrou declared in the parliamentary debates on the headscarf issue in October 1994 that 'French national identity is inseparable from its schools.' In the same year, some Muslim girls wearing headscarves were expelled from a public school.

In 2003, President Jacques Chirac appointed a commission under the chairmanship of Bernard Stasi, a former minister, to consider the question of religious symbols in public schools. The Stasi Commission suggested in its report, submitted in 2003, that wearing conspicuous religious symbols, such as the Islamic headscarf, should be banned in public schools. The report was accepted and implemented by the government. However, headscarves can be worn in private Muslim schools and at the university where the law on religious symbols does not apply.

The headscarf controversy in France affected other European countries. It surfaced in Belgium in 2003. The schools in Brussels dependent on the municipal network decided in 2003 to disallow the registration of students wearing headscarves. Muslim students reacted to the ban by setting up a collective called 'Don't touch my headscarf', which bears allusion to the successful anti-racist campaign of SOS Racisme ('Don't touch my mate') in France during the 1980s. The decision to ban headscarves in schools in Brussels generated an intense public debate. Two French-speaking members of the federal parliament introduced a bill in the Belgian senate to ban the headscarf in public places. The present position in Belgium is that each school has the freedom to adopt its own policy on the issue.

In the Netherlands, the wearing of headscarves by three Moroccan girls in a French public school in 1989 generated an intense public debate. The editor-in-chief of a Dutch feminist monthly declared in 2000 that she would in no case accept a woman with a headscarf as an editor of her magazine, which added fuel to the controversy. In 2003, some faculty members at Leiden University objected to the presence of two Muslim students wearing headscarves in class on the ground that face covering 'impeded interactive communication in the class room and caused teachers and other students to be uncomfortable.' They brought the matter to the Dean of the Faculty who placed it before the University Board. The Board decided to ban face covering in the class room. In January 2006 the Dutch parliament voted to ban the headscarf.

In September 2004, local politicians in the north of Italy resurrected old laws against the wearing of masks to ban the Islamic headscarf. In July 2005, the Italian parliament approved anti-terrorist laws which make hiding one's features from the public-including through wearing the veil-an offence.

Germany has followed a fairly liberal policy in respect of the veil. The provinces have the freedom to adopt their own policy regarding the wearing of veils or headscarves in schools. The Federal Administrative Court in Germany ruled that a Muslim girl can be exempted from swimming lessons if these are not sexually segregated. In 2003 an interesting case related to the wearing of headscarf by a teacher in the class room came up before the German Supreme Court. The plaintiff, a Muslim woman born in Afghanistan in 1972, had lived in Germany from 1987 and acquired German nationality in 1995. In 1998, she had completed her education to become a teacher in an elementary school, but was refused commission because she was not willing to remove her headscarf before class. In her petition she maintained that her wearing of the headscarf represented individual and religiously motivated conduct that was protected by the German constitution. The Supreme Court gave its verdict in her favour, saying that the wearing of headscarf by a civil servant in front of a class of students is constitutionally protected by the principle of freedom of religion.

In Britain, 80 to 90 per cent of students in several inner-city schools are Muslim. In the 1970s a big controversy erupted over school uniforms that required girls to wear short skirts. Girls who did not comply with the requirement were expelled from schools and in some cases parents took their daughters out of school over the issue. A Muslim liaison committee was formed in Bradford to negotiate with the local authorities about this issue. Compromises were eventually worked out, allowing Muslim girls to wear trousers as long as the trousers match the colour of the school uniform. Girls are now generally allowed to put on headscarves and they can wear tracksuits for physical education classes. Several schools have tried to organize separate swimming classes for boys and girls.

The ban on hijab in Muslim countries

Some Muslim countries, notably Turkey and Tunisia, have banned the wearing of headscarves in schools and government offices. In some Muslim countries, the ruling establishment, military junta and the educated elite continue to be under the strong influence of Western culture and secularism. They tend to look down upon those of their compatriots who are deeply committed to Islamic values, traditions and cultural symbols and often make them a target of ridicule, derision and victimization. In 1999, Merve Kavakci, a computer scientist who was elected a member of the Turkish parliament, was prevented from taking oath and was subsequently stripped of her Turkish citizenship because she entered parliament with her Islamic headscarf. Earlier, her father, Yusuf Ziya Kavakci, had to resign as Dean of the Faculty of Islamic Studies at Ataturk University on account of supporting Muslim women's right to wear the hijab. Her mother lost her teaching position at the same university for wearing the hijab. The family had to migrate to the United States.

In May 2006, a gunman shot dead one judge and wounded four others in a senior court in Turkey. It appears that one of the wounded judges had ruled last year against teachers wearing the Islamic headscarf. The gunman is reported to have shouted, 'I am the soldier of God!'

Tunisia passed a law in 1081 which prohibits women from wearing the Islamic veil in public places. Recently the Tunisian authorities have launched a campaign against the veil. Police have been stopping women on the streets and asking them to remove their headscarves and to sign pledges that they will not go back to wearing them.

The American University in Cairo, a foreign private university located in Egypt, banned the wearing of the headscarf in 2001 on the ground that face covering is inherently incompatible with the principles and practices of liberal education and that it presented security and identification problems. The University justified the ban by invoking a 1994 Ministry of Education order, upheld by the Supreme Constitutional Court in 1996, which forbids the wearing of the veil at national educational institutions. Despite the order and the court ruling, enforcing the ban on the wearing of headscarves has proved exceedingly difficult. Scores of Egyptian students continue to wear the hijab, At the American University in Cairo the number of students wearing the headscarf has actually increased since the ban took effect.

The headscarf in historical and Islamic perspective

Long before Islam, the use of veiling for women appears to have existed in the Hellenistic-Byzantine era and among the Sassanians of Persia. In ancient Mesopotamia, the veil was regarded as a symbol of respectability and high social status for women. The practice of veiling and seclusion of women was a part of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. At the beginning of Christianity, Jewish women used to cover their head and face. Veiling is frequently mentioned in the Old Testament texts. Thus the Book of Genesis says "And Rebekah lifted up her eyes and when she saw Isaac…..she took her veil and covered herself" (24:65; see also Isaiah 3:23; Corinthians 11:3-7).

Veiling is explicitly prescribed in the Quran and the Traditions of the Prophet and has been a matter of universal consensus among Muslim scholars and jurists over the past fourteen centuries of the Islamic era. Thus the Quran says: "Tell the believing men to lower their gaze and be modest. That is pure for them. And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and be modest and display of their adornment only that which is apparent and to draw their head cover over their bosoms, and not to reveal their adornment save to their own husbands" (24:30-31). Another verse states: "O Prophet, tell thy wives and thy daughters, and the believing women, that they should cast their outer garments over their persons (when out of doors), that is most convenient, that they should be known (as such) and not be molested" (33:59). However, jurists differ whether it is obligatory for a woman to cover her face as well.

The Western perception of the veil

In Western perception, veiling is commonly associated with the seclusion of women, which is turn is linked to their subordination and to the patriarchal ideology. It is regarded as an infringement of women's rights and their freedom. It is argued that the veil inhibits the integration of Muslims in Western societies. Unfortunately, all these assumptions are based on lack of understanding and prejudice. The veil is essentially a symbol of religious and cultural identity, privacy and self-respect.

European societies accord the highest importance to freedom and human rights. Muslim women in Western societies or elsewhere want to voluntarily wear the headscarf in the name of the same freedom which is such a major part of the European liberal tradition. How can one profess freedom and liberalism and at the same time deny another individual or community the same right? How can one think of imposing the dress pattern and lifestyle of the majority population on minority groups while pretending to swear by democratic values? Banning the headscarf represents forced homogenization and thereby smacks of cultural totalitarianism.

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