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Islamic feminist backs 'clumsy law' on headscarves

Latest update : 2008-02-15

Irshad Manji, the firebrand Muslim feminist and activist, backs France's decision to ban the veil in state schools but slams Western Europe for fostering a "multiculturalism of segregation".

Watch Irshad Manji in The FRANCE 24 Interview.


FRANCE 24: In your book 'The trouble with Islam',  you praise the tolerance of Canadian schools, which you attended. In 2004, the French parliament was accused of intolerance when it decided to ban the headscarf in French state-funded schools. Do you support their move?

Irshad Manji: When I heard about the proposal to ban the headscarf in French state-funded schools, my initial reaction was: “This is not right.” I assumed that the legitimate choice of women to wear headscarves was being taken away. And I asked myself how that could possibly happen in a free and democratic society. But I have since changed my mind.

A week before the said proposal became law, a major polling firm asked women in France about the move to ban the hijab. To everyone’s surprise, a majority of French Muslim women said they supported the headscarf ban. Why? Over and over again the same answer came back. It was not because they opposed the Koran, nor because they opposed Islam, but because they opposed the violence, intimidation and harassment they would suffer at the hands of men in their community if they didn’t wear it. In other words, it was not their choice to wear the headscarf. It was being imposed on them. I realized then the freedom that I had in my household to wear it - or not to wear it - was not a freedom that they shared.

I support this admittedly clumsy law around headscarves because it does not ban the hijab from every place in society. You can still conduct your daily business with it and wear it at the park, at home, in the shopping mall. Only in state-funded schools is it to be removed. I believe that there is a balance if we can create just one space, just one, in which Muslim women can even conceive of not wearing the headscarf.  This balance ultimately enables Muslim girls to make up their own minds about the headscarves when they become adults.


FRANCE 24: But doesn’t Islam ultimately require women to wear the hijab?

I.M: Some say Islam insists that women wear the headscarf, but the truth is the headscarf doesn’t come from religion but from tribal culture that predates Islam. The Koran asks women and men to dress modestly – that could mean wearing long sleeves as I am today. It’s culture, not religion that dictates that women should wear the hijab. And cultures are not God-given but man-made. There’s no heresy then in trying to reform aspects of cultures which undermine freedom within religion.

FRANCE 24: French critics of North American multiculturalism claim it doesn’t encourage integration but instead creates enclaves where communities live isolated. What’s your stance on the debate?

I.M: Multiculturalism in North America and in Europe is clearly different. In most of North America, diversity or multiculturalism is a reason to co-mingle, to get to know one another. But in much, not most and certainly not all, of Western Europe, multiculturalism is treated as an excuse to self-segregate and to isolate ourselves.

Now I always contextualize my thinking in terms of the freedoms the Koran offers. The Koran tells us that if God had done as he pleased, he would have made us all one people, but he has done otherwise so that he may try us in what he has given us. God made us different so that we would break the ice, get to know one another and learn from our differences. If that interpretation is the right one, then North American multiculturalism, by Islamic standards, is the more proper form of multiculturalism than the kind that is being practiced in Western Europe. And the great irony here is that multiculturalism in Western Europe - the multiculturalism of segregation - is first and foremost promoted by Muslims themselves who choose ghettoes far too often.

FRANCE 24: But aren’t the ghettoes a North American, not a European, phenomenon?

I.M: By no means do I want to sanitize the ghettoes in the poorest parts of the United States and Canada. Go to Eastside, Vancouver, you’ve never seen a more worked-out shell of a city where only aboriginal people live - and very badly indeed.

That said, there was a recent comprehensive survey of American Muslims released by the (US-based) Pew Research Center on religion and life. It found that three-quarters of American Muslims they surveyed said that they loved their communities in America, that they had close friends – not just friends – but close friends who are non-Muslims and that they had never experienced an act of discrimination against them on US soil. And we’re talking about 75% of American Muslims surveyed and higher. Now I challenge anybody to give me the same figures for Muslims who live in most parts of Western Europe.

Date created : 2008-02-11