Let Them Wear Scarves

Can you explain to me why thoughtful people, including several renowned public intellectuals, oppose the right of women to choose to wear headscarves -- on campuses out of all places?
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Can you explain to me why thoughtful people, including several renowned public intellectuals, oppose the right of women to choose to wear headscarves -- on campuses out of all places? The same people, commentators, editors, and other talking heads who strongly hold that a woman has a right to do with her body whatever she pleases -- third trimester abortions, abortions without notifying her husband, piercing everything that sticks out and a lot that does not -- but not to cover her hair with a piece of cloth.

Yes, yes I know (I have been paying dues as a sociologist for 50 years) that a headscarf is not simply a piece of cloth any more than a flag is, or for that matter a yarmulke. It is a religious symbol, alright. However, do women have the right only to choose secular symbols? Are there still people on the liberal left who believe that religion is passé, is history, a sign of narrow-mindedness and bigotry? Actually, religion is rising all over the world, with a few exceptions in northwest Europe, in part because secular humanism does not answer many of the profound spiritual questions religion addresses, such as why we were born to die, and what are our uncontested duties and obligations. But even if religion is a relic, since when are free people banned from worshiping outmoded idols?

Headscarves are said to be the insignia of the enemy, somewhat like the headgear of gangs (whether these should be banned, as they are in some cities, is a question for another day). Even if this was true, banning the symbolic expressions of a normative position will do nothing to undermine it and will merely alienate its followers. Indeed, it would grant them a strong cause.

Most importantly, religion in general and Islam in particular is not the enemy. Attempts to demonize all Muslims, as Bernard Lewis, Sam Huntington and their followers have famously done, are wrong headed. The majority of Muslims, I have shown elsewhere [here and here, for example], are opposed to terrorism, violence, and coercion. Labeling them all as fanatical people bent towards violence is to greatly enlarge the ranks of our adversaries and to push to the other side of the dividing schism many who are our natural allies if we seek peace (although not if we demand that everyone adopt the French and American model of separation of state and religion, a model not embraced by most democracies).

Headscarves are a test: a test of Western tolerance for legitimate differences among cultures and societies and within them. True, when wearing them is forced on women, as is the case in Iran and Saudi Arabia, they should be opposed like other such coercive dictates. However, at issue recently has been the lifting of the Turkish government's ban on students wearing these scarves at Turkish universities, the French ban on Muslim women wearing the scarves in public schools, and the German ban on the scarves in some government buildings. Here some say that wearing these religious symbols reflects peer pressure or pressure from traditional parents. Well, if we banned people from wearing that which their peers or families promoted, they would run around naked. It is not the role of the state to counter peer and family pressure, as long as it remains nonviolent and the door is not closed on other social forces promoting their views.

Others argue that the headscarf is not so much a religious but a political symbol, as Anne Applebaum does in Washington Post -- this only makes my point stronger. Since when do we ban people in a democracy from displaying symbols that communicate their political viewpoints -- whether these are, say, pro-gay rights ribbons, or the peace signs of those who oppose nuclear weapons?

As for the concern that one thing will lead to another, that soon women may be forced to wear the headscarf where now they are merely encouraged to do so, here is the place to draw the line in the sand and fight such an imposition. But to ban voluntary scarf-wearing out of the fear that one day it may lead to forced scarf-wearing is like saying that you cannot have dinner because one day you may be force-fed like some goose.

Let them wear headscarves, yarmulkes, and crosses, too.

Amitai Etzioni is a professor of international relations at The George Washington University and the author of Security First: For a Muscular, Moral Foreign Policy. For more on the subject, visit www.securityfirstbook.com. He can be contacted at comnet[at]gwu.edu.

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