Instructor: RL Malcolm
Illinois Central College
February 7, 2013
Fighting Oppression with Oppression
Human rights are something that people strive to ensure that their government protects. Unfortunately, there are instances in which the government itself begins to limit some rights from its citizens. Of course, there are some things that the government must limit to keep social order or to prevent harm. However, should such limits transgress the minimal necessities to keep social order, it becomes a problem. The legislation of France establishing the law on secularity and conspicuous religious symbols in schools is one such example. This law restricts people’s, especially Muslim women’s, rights to properly practice their religion and express their identity by banning religious symbols and clothing in public schools. The law was established to highlight secularism in the French government, but it lead to unnecessary protests, anger, and ethical controversies while having larger negative implications for the future.
The French law on secularity and conspicuous religious symbols in schools was established to more clearly convey message of secularity in public primary and secondary schools in France. The bill passed and was signed into law on March 15, 2004. It went into effect on the second day of September of that year. The law aims to make clear that the state would have nothing to do with religion, and, as such, people in public, state funded, schools must not express any religious affiliations. In order to do this, the law bans all significant religious symbols or clothing on public schools; in particular, however, the enforcement of this law places extra emphasis on female headscarves and the veil. It comes with no surprise, then, that the foreign press sometimes refers to this law as the French headscarf ban. This law quickly became the subject of controversy in France and around the globe, with supporters citing that headscarves and veils are a form of female oppression and oppositions claiming that this law does nothing but restrict freedom of expression and women’s rights to wear what they please. It is important to note that the law itself does not cite oppression or ethical issues regarding religious views; at its written form, the law simply implies its needs to ensure separation of religion and state. However, the law does, if inadvertently, create huge implications, including ethical issues regarding human right, debates of oppression, and issues concerning individual expressions. This has led to protests in the country and sparked anger around the globe, including other western, secular, countries.
Rather than convey the ideology of the secular government philosophy, the French headscarf ban did a much better job in angering many of the citizens of France and the people of other countries. In fact, even supporters of the ban focuses less on the written reasons behind the law and more on the idea that religious headscarves are oppressive to women and that the ban provides freedom to them. “We live in a secular West. No headscarves in schools! The veil is to silence, to make invisible and to subjugate women. It is the mark of oppression,” notes Lili Ann Motta of East Marion, New York. People who oppose this ban highlight the fact that supports’ arguments that the ban helps prevent oppression are nothing by hypocritical because the ban itself is oppressing women’s right to express and practice their religious views and restricting their freedom to wear what they desire. Human Rights Watch argues, “The proposed law is an unwarranted infringement on the right to religious practice. For many Muslims, wearing a headscarf is not only about religious expression, it is about religious obligation.” It is an obligation upon Muslim women to be modest, which includes covering of the hair when around men not in her direct family or her husband. Demonstrations have been held on the streets of France by women protesting their right to practice religion. This is not unlike protests that other human rights activists have done in the past. For instance, Rosa Parks refused to sit at the back of the bus simply because she was black. Citizens protested against racial discrimination in the United States, civil oppression in Egypt, and gender inequalities in many developed countries. This lawful oppression of women who simply want to practice Islam and are freely choosing to wear the headscarf or veil is no different. Supporters may continue to argue otherwise, but by definition, restricting one’s freedom to practice their religion or wear a certain type of cloth that doesn’t harm society is a form of oppression and discrimination. Because of this, even non-Muslim women and men argue against this ban on ethical grounds. But the ban has far worse implications than what is being enforced today, and that implication not only applies to other religions but also to citizens’ rights as a whole outside religion.
The French headscarf ban can easily be seen as the first step in what could be the Government taking away fundamental human rights. It starts with the following, generic argument chain. If one is allowed to do or prohibit something, there is little reason not to gradually increase that prohibition or allowance to the next level. For instance, given that the law prohibits wearing of headscarves on public schools, one can conceive that sometime in the near future, it could be extended to ban wearing of clothes that contain messages that goes against the ideology of the French Secular government. Along the line, there is nothing to stop it from going even further and banning other forms of clothing or freedom of expression. That way, it is possible that the law that prohibits something, however small, can become large enough to limit an increasing number of human rights. The only thing that can stop this is public opposition. As long as the public accepts the law in its current form, the government can pursue a further limit, and so on. Unfortunately, this is what is happening. Not enough citizens are opposing the law to make France reconsider the validity of the Law, bringing about the question whether majority of French citizens will continue ignoring if the legislation goes one step further.
The Headscarf ban does little of anything other than limit Muslim women’s rights to practice one of their religious obligations. It doesn’t aim to prevent any form of oppression, as many supporters claim, because it restricts women from covering up out of their own willing. This hypocritical form of arguments brought up by supporters show a lack of understanding what oppression means. Far worse is the implications the law and its support might have in the future. If the law isn’t reversed, it can possible become even more restrictive to not only Muslim Women, but people in general, regardless of religion.