Comments on Mark S's motion on the hijab

Submitted by martin on 9 September, 2002 - 2:23

(and an alternative motion) from Martin T

2. We do not support state bans on adults' self abuse but to confuse that with the case of schools is wrong.
Some "confusion" or blurred edges are in the nature of the case. The French row about the hijab is centred in lycées (16 to 18 year olds), though some 13-to-15 year-olds in collèges have also been involved. Teenagers should have some adult rights.

In fact I can see a stronger case for banning the hijab for adults (teachers) in schools than for banning it for students.

By the way, while our general bias is for the liberty of the individual to do whatever does not harm others, surely we do sometimes support state bans on "adults' self-abuse". Compulsory wearing of seatbelts in cars, for example. We would favour some provision for social and medical services sometimes to take into care adults who are so disturbed as to be a danger to themselves.

3. Most of the left and many liberals in Britain have focused on opposition to the French ban on the veil in school while ignoring the issue of girls in British schools being withdrawn from sex education and sport and a regime of 'multi culturalism' in many schools that stops teachers from challenging the anti women and feudal ideas imposed on children by their parents.

But then the answer is a campaign in British schools. Mark's favoured alternative - continuing to "focus on" the French ban, but on support for it - will not help in that. Better to "focus on" secular education, compulsory inclusion in education, and a political campaign to support the feminists and democrats in the Muslim communities, while explaining that we cannot endorse the French government's blunderbuss and counterproductive new law.

5. Even back in the ninetieth century when child labour was the general rule and few people supported compulsory education Marx wrote "The right of children and juvenile persons must be vindicated. They are unable to act for themselves. It is, therefore, the duty of society to act on their behalf..."

Up to a point it is true of young children that they are "unable to act for themselves". A law to force a French teenager out of state school into a Catholic or Muslim school, or back home, when she wears a hijab in defiance of her parents cannot be justified on the grounds that she is "unable to act for herself". We can say that the "act" she has chosen for herself is reactionary, but that is a different matter.

Lutte Ouvrière, which is implicitly favourable to the new law, does not claim that it is a means to protect young children from parental pressure. It does not claim that all or even most of the teenagers wearing the hijab do so because of parental pressure. (Those Muslim parents who do insist on their daughters wearing hijabs will already be sending them to Catholic schools, where they will be untouched by the new law). LO does not deny that many teenagers wear the hijab against their parents' wishes. The pressures on those teenage girls against which it sees the new law as a possibly salutary barrier are from imams, Islamist organisers, and Muslim boys of their own age.

Those reactionary pressures are, in a broad sense, a spillover into France of the political-Islamist upsurge across the Muslim world. We have a duty to help French teenagers fight them. But we disable ourselves from doing so if we tell ourselves simplistic stories - which we know to be false, and which those teenagers can only see as condescending and arrogant - about French girls acting only from parental pressure, or not having made any choices of their own.

The hijab-wearing girls have made choices, bad choices. Many of us will have decided as teenagers to reject a religion handed down to us by our parents. That decision may have been mixed up with all sorts of things which now seem to us "immature", but we weren't too young to make the choice, were we? When other teenagers respond differently and become fervent about a religion which for their parents is only perfunctory - as many do - that is a choice too, isn't it?

7. The issue of the veil has been hyped up by Islamic reactionaries, and most of the left and their cultural relativist allies have jumped on the bandwagon. In fact a far more important issue is the fact that reactionary parents can 'withdraw' 'their' children from sex education and that the education system is capitulating on many issues like sport and even science...

In Britain, yes, but not in France. Except of course in religious schools. And the predictable effect of the new law will be to push more Muslim girls out of state schools into Muslim or (more often) Catholic schools. The new law may help the mainstream right win over Front National voters by making a show of being "hard" against the Islamists, but it will not undermine the (male) Islamist cadres at all, rather the contrary. Catholic schools already have 70% Muslim students in some areas. The predictable effect of the new law will be to increase the withdrawal or exclusion of French Muslim girls from secular and all-round education.

8. The selective ban on the veil in French schools with left wing teachers or where a school or teacher understands that a veil interferes with a girl's education is not an acceptable middle way but a formula for unfair treatment. We support equal treatment in all schools.

There is an equal rule: under existing law, students will win on appeal if they are excluded solely for wearing the hijab, but not if they are refusing physical education or some other part of the curriculum. Many girls, of course, decide that they don't want to go through the appeals and all that, and remove the hijab while they're in school. How much pressure is put on them to do that - and whether it is a sensitive attempt to convince, by left-wing teachers, or rude and arrogant bullying, by right-wing teachers - of course varies from school to school. Some variation seems to me to be an unavoidable overhead cost of a sensitive and flexible approach which combats hijab-wearing while respecting the varied and often complex feelings of hijab-wearing teenagers. I can't believe the new law will do away with variations. E.g. there will be girls who come into school with a piece of cloth on their head in the form of an "ordinary" headscarf and then test the limits by pulling the cloth down bit by bit over their hair, their ears, their neck, etc.

9. Socialists should not oppose secular education in French schools but demand an end to all religious schools.

Yes. But to see the new French law as a step towards ending religious schools would be foolish. It will strengthen the religious schools. Private schools, mostly religious, currently have about 20% of secondary students. No French government in the near future will abolish the religious schools, least of all this hard-right Raffarin-Chirac government. Even the ardent secularists - and there are a lot of them in France - limit their immediate campaign demand to withdrawal of all public funding for the private and religious schools. Even if a workers' uprising tomorrow were to install Mark as revolutionary dictator of France, with unlimited powers to rule by decree, I think it would be bad tactics for him to start by abolishing the religious schools without prior substantial political preparation, necessarily taking some time.

10. ...We cannot support the French government's use of the issue to 'unite republican France' while keeping religious schools, we should expose their racism and nationalism. Neither should we give an inch to those opposing the law.

What does this mean? As Mark knows, I agree that we should vehemently oppose the Islamist campaign against the new law, and support counter-demonstrations by secularists and leftists from the Muslim communities even if the latter endorse the law. I agree with the LCR's refusal even to support the secular-leftish demonstration against the new law called in Paris by Cedetim (a Third-Worldist group), because, the LCR said, the organisers were "ambiguous" on the hijab. But I also agree with the LCR, the FSU, etc. refusing to support the new law because it is hypocritical and counter-productive. Does Mark demand that those French leftists, and we, should positively support the new law? He does not say so. In fact he implies otherwise by writing "we cannot support the French government's use of the issue... we should expose their racism and nationalism".


Alternative motion

1. We oppose the hijab as a social mechanism of female subordination, and we oppose pressure on girls wear the hijab. Our priority is to help and support secularists and leftists in the mainly-Muslim communities who fight that pressure.

2. We are for universal secular education. We should seek to launch a counter-campaign in Britain against faith schools, the intrusion of religion in ordinary state schools, and the toleration, in the name of multi-culturalism, of Muslim girls being excluded by parental pressure from parts of education.

3. We do not support the new French law. It will probably be counter-productive. It fails to allow the necessary space for dealing sensitively and respectfully with teenagers' desires to experiment in dealing with the world around them.

[Note: Clause 2 originally read "against the spread of faith schools", and was amended by the mover at the NC of 27/03/04 to read simply "against faith schools".]

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