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Our View: School hijab fracas defeats concept of freedom of choice

Education Minister Costas Hambiaouris with Alaa and her father (left)

THERE were plenty of knee-jerk reactions after a Nicosia headmaster cautioned a young Muslim girl in a hijab because under school rules, headgear was not allowed. Far-right Elam went so far as to propose a law during the week to ban Muslim garb in public places.

No one is going to go along with this proposal given that it comes from a position of xenophobia. That is not to say that as Cyprus becomes more multicultural, issues won’t arise. Authorities could very well be faced with tough decisions like other European countries, such as to what extent and where, full-face or body coverings will be allowed in relation to aspects of security and how that would impact human rights.

The school hijab incident, however, should have been a non-issue in this respect. Firstly, it is not a face covering. There are those who will argue that school regulations are school regulations and if no headgear is allowed, it should apply to everyone. Or they argue that schools should be secular – though our state schools are far from it – and not allow any outward displays of religion, and if crucifixes are banned, then hijabs should be banned as well. These are simplistic arguments to a complex issue and conflate two different dogmas.

In Christianity, other than the clergy, there is no compulsion for ordinary believers to display outward symbols of faith. There used to be, but even then, head garb for women was confined to the inside of the church. Since then, the Vatican has managed to come out of the dark ages in many respects, if not all just yet.

Wearing a crucifix is not part of Christian dogma and has no psychological ramifications, or any that could be taken seriously if a school says no to it. A believer can put their cross in a pocket or under their top if they want to still feel close to Jesus. He won’t mind.

Asking or forcing a young Muslim girl, whose religious head covering is related to her sense of modesty, to remove it, would likely leave her feeling exposed and embarrassed and indeed the girl involved said as much herself. Unlike hats or other headgear students might feel like wearing, a hijab is not a fashion accessory. The meaning attached to it is important to those who wear it voluntarily, even though it is most definitely a symbol of oppression for women who are forced into it.

The argument also made again and again, and it is true, that if western women go to autocratic Muslim countries, they must cover up, and people often make the case that things should be reciprocated when the situation is reversed. Muslim women should integrate, dress more like women in the West. That’s assimilation. Integration is a state of mind, a respect for a country’s democratic values, laws and human rights, irrespective of what someone chooses to wear for religious reasons.

And wouldn’t the upshot of demanding this reciprocity make us no different than those we criticise for forcing it on us ‘over there’. The difference should be that we in the West are supposed to be the tolerant ones, the ones setting the example of what tolerance is all about. If some religious fundamentalists of any stripe do not ‘get that’, is the answer for us to become intolerant in return? If other countries are undemocratic, does this mean we should respond in kind?

Should tolerance have a limit? Yes. If elements of one culture demand that you comply with their dress codes, not just when you go to their country, but if they start demanding it in your own country, then tolerance will understandably and rightly have reached its limits, and then it will be time enough to gripe about hijabs.

If and until then, what Elam and their ilk need to grasp is that while Islamic regimes are oppressive towards women who do not wish to be compelled to cover up, their own law proposal to compel Muslim women in Cyprus to remove their religious garb is no less authoritarian. In both instances, freedom of choice is taken away.

As a democracy, we’re always talking about the right to choose. It would be good if we kept practising it ourselves and butt out of other people’s private choices if they do not impact us directly in a way that does us personal harm, and that means real harm, not merely offending our sensibilities.

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