In 2004, when the controversial debate on the Islamic covering in France took a new turn and a bill bannig the covering in educational institutions was introduced by Jacques Chirac the President of the French Republic, I wrote a letter to him in the capacity of the Vice President of the Islamic Republic of Iran. I reminded him of the fundamental freedoms guaranteed in the Human Rights Charter and noted that choosing ones way of dress and religious freedoms should not be undermined in a secular Republic that claims to cherish these values. I objected to the French government's approach on the Hijab and noted that this policy was not in line with his claims to support cultural diversity in the Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002. There was a general feeling that Muslims were stigmatized in France and that Islamophobia which was on the rise after 9-11, had much to do with these legislative measures.
The ongoing debate on identity and Hijab has now taken a new twist to include a strict ban on the Burgha or Neghab in all public spheres. I was watching a live debate last night on France24 where politicians from a wide spectrum including the Socialist Party that opposed Sarkozy were on the panel. The socialists were against the bill and along with Amel Boubeker a sociologist residing in Beirut and a religious expert from Reuters they questioned the rationale backing this controversial bill .
Although the Burgha is a rare and extreme form of Hijab and many Muslim scholars do not approve of this type of covering which seriously restricts the social participation of women, the Sarkozy approach on this matter, depicting it as a symbol of suppression and themselves as the saviours and protectors of women's rights is unacceptable. The ruling party in France sees the Burgha as an insult to the dignity and freewill of the women, while at the same time the extreme manifestations of nudity and pornographic material in public sphere is disregared and the general commodification of women is ignored. Extreme behaviours are usually a reaction to other excesses in society , the Burgha may be the manifestation of denial in face of a culture that promotes promiscuity and commodifies women for the sake of the profits of the corporate market.
In any case the issue of Hijab in other European countries and in countries like Turkey and Tunisia is an emerging social and political issue indicative of a vibrant Muslim society attempting to regain the identity they lost decades ago. Pressures in Iran against women who resisted the full Hijab also created another social debate in Iran which ultimately added to social discontent in contemporary times.
Stereotypes against Muslim women and equating the Hijab with the subordination and oppression of women are stigmas of the past. We need to change our approach and direction in proportion with the growing awareness and sense of identity among women in our societies.