THERE has been a storm of controversy in
France over a candidate for the country’s regional elections. Ilham
Moussaid is a candidate for the NPA in the Vaucluse, a department in
the Provence region of France. The NPA is a new party and stands for
Nouveau Party Anti-Capitaliste, or New Anti-Capitalist Party, a
Trotskyist (yes, they still exist!) party led by the charismatic and
popular Olivier Besancenot.
So why is the inclusion of the young
Ilham Moussaid on the Vaucluse list so controversial? She wears a
hijab or veil is the answer.
It is a first, it seems, not just for
the infant political party but for France as a whole. Never before
has a woman with a veil on her head appeared as a candidate in a
French election, be it local, regional, presidential or European,
none. The other parties have been quick to attack this apparent
assault on French republican values. Martine Aubry, the leader of
the Socialist Party, stated that she would not accept the presence
of a veiled candidate on one of their lists. President Nicolas
Sarkozy’s ruling UMP party has also attacked NPA’s choice with Prime
Minister François Fillon calling it a “manipulation”.
It’s a polemic that is hard to
understand from an outsider’s point of view. There is no issue with
a Muslim presenting herself for election. Indeed there are a number
of Muslim women candidates up for election. The issue is purely one
associated with the hijab.
I find it rather amusing that Moussaid’s
style of hijab is so French that it would not pass as acceptable in
the Middle East. She would certainly not have her ID card approved
in Saudi Arabia dressed that way. Her veil consists of a scarf tied
over her hair, with her ears and the top of her neck visible. This
is not niqab, just a modern interpretation of the hijab. It is
similar to that worn by France’s best-selling rap singer Diam’s, who
has also caused controversy by her decision to start wearing the
Muslim veil. Diam’s veil was described by Fadela Amara last week as
“a real danger for young women...because she is presenting an image
of women that is a negative image”.
There is no denying that the hijab has a
negative image in France. Moreover there is the implicit notion that
the hijab is anti-feminist. When Olivier Besancenot responded to
critics by saying that a woman can be a feminist, a secularist and
veiled, it created hoots of derision in the press.
So can a woman who chooses to wear a
hijab be a feminist and a secularist?
The secularist is more important in
terms of the controversy over Ilham Moussaid. Secularism or laicité
is a core value of the French Republic; it is enshrined in its
constitution. Not only does it formally separate church and state by
a law passed in 1905 but it firmly pushes religion into the private
“Religion is a private concern and has
no place in the public sphere” is an argument that you will hear
again and again. Hence it is argued that Ilham Moussaid is free to
practice her religion in private, but when she wears a religious
symbol on her head, she is taking her religion into the public
sphere and cannot become a representative of the French state.
I can just about see the logic of the
argument and yet when I hear Ilham Moussaid say she is committed to
secular values, I find her credible. I don’t see why wearing the
hijab is in itself contradictory to a view of the world where
religion is considered a personal choice and where religious
dictates are to be excluded from governmental decision-making.
Moreover, secularism is based on a
strong assumption of equality. The idea that underpins it is that
all citizens should be equal and that no citizen should be favored
over another because of religious affiliation. Similarly, gender
equality is also a core value of the French Republic. So can a woman
who wears the hijab be a feminist? It is interesting how in parts of
the West, and perhaps in parts of the Arab world too, the hijab is
associated with conservative views and thought of, to quote Fadela
Amara once again, as something which gives a negative view of both
Muslims and women. At core the image of covering up is key. The
mental image of forcing women to cover up implicitly assumes both a
sense of shame in revealing female flesh and a sense of holding
women back, of keeping them restricted. Intuitively wearing the
hijab suggests a lack of freedom and consequently also a lack of
But coming from the Middle East this
question sounds baffling. In a country where it is the norm to wear
the hijab, you quickly notice that it is shared between women of
many different political persuasions. Hence you can come across an
extremely conservative woman who believes men have superiority over
women as easily as meeting a fiercely feminist woman who campaigns
for equality between men and women yet wears a hijab.
In reality wearing the hijab is neither
incompatible with feminism nor with secularism. When Olivier
Besancenot says that a woman can be feminist, secularist and veiled
he is right. She can be, though she might not be.
The truth is that the majority of pious
Muslims are not secular by the very nature of what they believe in.
Islam as a religion sets out an overt social and legal code that can
negate the idea of religion as a purely private concern. Though you
can be a Muslim who believes in the separation of church and state
and who believes that all religions are equal, many are not.
Similarly wearing the hijab neither
makes you a feminist nor stops you from being one. It is your
beliefs and not what you wear on your head that determines who you
are, even if you choose to wear a veil on your head out of religious
Courtesy: Arab News