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Leicester Secular Society


The issue of Islamic dress, while seemingly trivial in some ways, cuts across a number of other issues in a complicated way. The treatment of Women, the organisation of Education, the tolerance of Cultural differences, and so on. This is sufficient justification for a separate page on this rather specialised issue.

24 April 2005

The following was the President's presentation at the 'Half-AGM' debate which revisited this issue.

by Lyn Hurst (LSS President)


This is a pamphlet explaining why the Leicester Secular Society is right to support the motion endorsing the French ban on religious symbols in state schools, specifically head scarves. Although we support the view that everyone must be free to wear whatever they want, this is a support in defence of the freedom of the individual, not a support for a dress code devised by men to control women, clearly it is not the aim of Islam to promote the freedom of the individual, or their choice of clothes.

None of the Left should be in a paradox about this (but clearly is), because what we are talking about is the conflict between universal human rights and the theological rigidities of a traditional religion. Rigidities symbolised by the headscarf at the least, and the veil and burka at worst. In the words of Hirsi Ali, a woman born in Somalia, and brought up as a Muslim, now a Dutch MP, film maker, writer, and freethinker: “Hopes for a moderate Islam are only meaningful if it is possible to chip away the theological brickwork constructed on a foundation of female oppression which permeates the structure of the religion”. This is exactly what we are doing with our support for the motion, helping to chip away the chains, and in doing so supporting not only intellectuals like Hirsi Ali, but all Muslim women, not attacking them.

Religious dress codes are designed to suppress any degree of sexuality, why? Because Muslim women are considered the property of their male relatives. Hirsi Ali again: “When it comes to the relationship between men and women, there is a red line of the woman being subordinate to the male. And most Muslim men justify this subordinance with the Koran”. How does the ban, and motion, support women — because it creates a question mark over the validity, and legitimacy of religious views in general, and the attitudes and treatment of women in particular, while to ignore the symbolism of the dress codes, and subordinate status of women, would mean maintaining the status quo, in all its worst aspects.

The most instant and direct improvement is for the many girls in France who never wanted to dress in a proscribed way, and are now “free to wear what ever they want”, without a confrontation with their parents. And at the same time showing solidarity with women like Bangladesh author Tasleema Nasreen, who's six books brought her death threats, for their feminist position, forcing her to flee the country. Surely it is right that we should be supporting politically aware free-thinkers like Tasleema and Hirsi in their struggle to control their own bodies, write and wear what they choose, and who's intellectual picket line is crossed , in the words of Hirsi Ali, by “those women who flaunt their subservience, and clearly are not furthering women's liberation”. Not all the calls for change in Islam are as radical as Hirsi & Tasleema, Muslim women in America Asra Normant & Amina Wadud have made the news by asking for only modest change, ie that women be allowed to lead prayers in the mosque, and that the Koran be interpreted in a more sympathetic way towards women, and yet they still receive the same death threats, hate mail & verbal abuse as Tasleema & Hirsi, so both radical & liberal demands receive the same violent response, clearly it calls for courage from all these women to stand up and make any demands for women's rights. Philosopher Elizabeth Badinter reminds the French public on TV, as a part of this debate, that every attempt by women to “take charge of their bodies” has been made in the face of religious opinion and the veil is no different. Clearly there is a choice to make, the ban & motion cannot support those women who revel in their subjugation, and those who oppose their sexual apartheid, we are right to support the latter.

Another argument against the French ban, is that we shouldn't support the intervention of state power in peoples' lives. But this section of the secular constitution was the result of a long struggle to force the state to keep religion out of schools, primarily Catholicism, which presumably didn't concede without a struggle, just like its Islamist counter part now. The separation of education & religion finally being achieved in 1905, now Islam wants immunity from this hard-won secular principle, so that the children of Muslims, primarily girls, can not only wear religious symbols, but also be exempt from studying biology/sex education, Voltaire, or participating in PE. It may be difficult to accept the role of the state, unless it is the state acting under duress from popular demand. Many of our members have spent years in single-issue campaigns, from CND to Stop the War, fighting to get the state to respond to their demands. If Blair had pulled out of the Iraq war, or scrapped the Bomb, we wouldn't have turned him down because we oppose the power of the state. The French ban has been implemented in just this way. This is not the state intruding into private life by outlawing the veil everywhere but in the home, so much as an attempt to end the intrusion of dogmas held by individuals, and groups into public places.

It is important to remember Secularism has been a basic tenet of France's progressive thought since the 18th Century. French thinkers such as Diderot and Voltaire, regarded religion as divisive, benighted and intolerant. Many people want the Republic to uphold its Secular principles as firmly as it did against divine right monarchists in the past. The view is, if you let religion back in through the school gates from where it was so gloriously expelled in 1905, you undermine your duty to provide a serious education free of cant and superstition. The numbers in the polls as reported on the BBC news web site, Tues 10th Feb 2004, 70% of French people and 40% of Muslim women support the ban. And Muslim spokesman Dalil Boubakeur, president of the French Council of the Muslim Faith welcomed the law, arguing that it would successfully defend France's institutions from the intrusion of Muslim fundamentalism. It matters that Muslim women agree with the ban. The list of signatories to an Elle petition urging the President to introduce the ban included a disproportionately high number of women of Muslim origin or culture, two or three times higher than the 7% of Muslims thought to obtain in the French population as a whole. The importance of Muslim women supporting the ban is two fold, it demonstrates the justice of the ban, and helps to destroy the argument that the ban, and those who support it are racist, a claim also undermined by the fact that Le Penn and his National Front fascists opposed the ban, while French socialist Regis Debray supported it.

Marianne can in principle be of any ethnic origin, provided she speaks her mind, and comes to the barricades in solidarity, and not supplication. It may be Utopian to embark on the path of trying to create the perfect secular citizen, but even this difficult odyssey is preferable to the sullen burbling of the great monotheisms.

4 April 2004

At the Society's Half-Annual General Meeting a motion in support of the French ban was debated. The decision at the meeting was to support thr French ban, but to oppose the adoption of a similar policy in this country, recognising that the policy adopted in France is in line with their long-established Secular Constitution.

11 February 2004

Two members of Leicester Secular Society, Allan Hayes and George Jelliss, attended a meeting held by the recently formed Leicester University Ideological Society (a Muslim student organisation) as advertised here:

The speaker, Akhmal Asghar, expressed extreme fundamentalist views, and a total lack of understanding of secularism (identifying it with ‘Western imperialism’). The Muslim women attending the meeting, some wearing the burqa, most others the hijab, segregated themselves from the men by occupying the seats higher up and further back, though there was no open stewarding of this by the men. Our purpose in attending was to get to understand the Muslim points of view and to maintain some dialogue rather than suspicious separation leading to misunderstanding. Both of us were able to speak briefly in the discussion following the speech. As I recall the exchanges, Allan questioned the literal interpretation of the Koran, and I spoke more against the wearing of the Burqa by adult women, which I see as indicative of female repression, rather than about the Hijab in schools, pointing out that the men at the meeting were not themselves wearing traditional Muslim robes.

1 February 2004

The Secular Society Sunday lecture was: Headscarves and French State Education by Yvette Rocheron. Yvette, Director of French Studies at Leicester University, who had been observing the controversy in French schools surrounding the wearing of religious insignia gave us an informed view of the subject.

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