The French government’s view that defines hijabs and burqas as a symbol of rigid ethnicity might appear externally as an attack on an individual’s freedom on what kind of attire one might choose to wear, but I think it has more to it than meets the eye.
Objectively speaking, the French government is free to enforce what it thinks is appropriate to safeguard the liberal, secular and democratic values it holds dearly, even if it means upsetting some of those who wish to retain their cultural and religious identity in public. It was a decision of their own volition, to live in a secular environment. The changeover to secularism has not been easy for the characteristically Christian identity of Europe since the beginning of 18th century, when the Church used to hold its pervading influence over the population.
The path to secularism was a gradual transition, with people weaning off the public display of their Christian faith, with regards to the government, educational institutions and other public domains. However, this was not done through a government initiative, rather it was through evolution, emerging from the people. It is in this context that the French decision must be evaluated.
The liberal policies adopted by most European states, when accepting political asylum seekers from Asian and Middle Eastern countries, began to see ethnicity and religiosity becoming visible in public spaces, which stood out like a sore thumb, in their extensive secular social milieu.
It may appear a moot point, but I feel the issue of Muslim women wearing hijab and burqa as a personal choice, intrinsically, is not what disturbs the French. Since the time of the industrial revolution in Europe, the momentum that supported the separation of religion and everything associated with it – including ritualistic practices and other symbols – from the state and every public sphere, gained strength, yet Christianity still remained the sole identity of Western Europe. In the last 200 years, Europe has witnessed a major shift, where people have slowly but steadily started adopting a dismissive attitude towards religion, especially after the French grew more inquisitive, with movements such as existentialism and socialist ideals coming to the fore, along with the emergence of new literature, arts and music.
For most European states, and particularly the French government, the issue of hijab may not be a matter of suppressing an individual’s freedom but a question of maintaining their secular identity.
- The reader is a business development coordinator, based in Dubai.