22 June 2009

Muslims hold headscarves high

D'Souza | Issue date: 1/20/04
Students gathered in Montreal, Canada on Saturday outside the Consulate-General of France to protest the French government's decision to ban the wearing of hijab headscarves in state schools.

Press Officer François Guiot said that the consulate did not have an official reaction to the demonstration.

The protesters, most of them women wearing the hijab, shouted slogans such as "My hijab, my choice" and "Hands off my hijab." Some of the demonstrators said that they did not wear warmer headgear in the face of -15 degrees Celcius weather, so that their hijabs might be clearly seen.

Worldwide protests

The protest was organized by the United Muslim Student Association to coincide with similar demonstrations by Muslim students in many countries around the world. UMSA includes students from McGill, Concordia, UQÀM and Université de Montréal, as well as nine CÉGEPs.

"We are in solidarity with the people in France," said UMSA President Abdellah Ferron, who estimated that there were about 70 protesters.

In December, French President Jacques Chirac proposed a new law that will prohibit students from wearing religious objects including the hijab, skullcaps, turbans and large crosses in the interests of national cohesion and secularism. Discreet symbols, Chirac said, will still be permitted.

The hijab is part of the identity of Muslim women who choose to wear it, said Ferron, and the French government should respect their choice of identity.

"We are calling on the French government to let them know that as Canadian students we are concerned, and on our Canadian government to take a position against the hijab ban," said UMSA spokesperson Sadia Birke.

"The Canadian government which would criticize the forcing of wearing hijab, should also criticize the forcing of not wearing it," said McGill student Sarah Elgazzar, who spoke at the protests.

'Oppressed women' vs. 'imperial feminism'

The BBC reported that in some countries, such as France, feminist activists held counter-protests. The hijab, they assert, contributes to the oppression of women.

Birke agreed that women should not be forced to wear the hijab, but she said that women should have the choice.

"Forcing women not to wear the hijab even if they freely chose to is as much oppression as forcing them to wear it."

Elgazzar agreed with Birke.

"The feminists who... are telling Muslim women how to think are advocating imperialist feminism," she said.

Birke and Elgazzar said that on December 22, a group of female members of UMSA attempted to present a letter which was not accepted by the consulate.

Guiot said he was not aware of the attempt.

France and Islam

French support for the proposed ban stands at 70 per cent according to polls. Such support, Elgazzar said, arises from a lack of awareness about Islam.

Guiot, on the other hand, said that the protesters misunderstand the French law, which is not "a law against the hijab-it's a law against signs of religious adherence and it's not for the whole society, just for primary and secondary schools. Every society has rules."

Ferron said that even though there have been cases in Montreal where schools have banned hijabs, Canada has more religious freedom,

"Here people respect laws [and freedoms] more. We try to solve [conflicts arising over hijab wearing] with a simple dialogue," he said. "We want them to respect us and know that this is a part of our identity."

Elgazzar also predicted that the law would not serve the purpose of cohesion and integration, but would increase segregation.

"The law itself is going to discriminate against people and not allow them equal access to services that are fundamental to their French citizenship," she said. "Muslims that are less affluent will have to either deny their faith or live in poverty."

Elgazzar also asserted that the ban was a contradiction.

"I don't belive that a government that claims to be secular can reinterpret a religion," she said.

Elgazzar said that UMSA is planning more events to contest the ban.

"We're probably going to be organizing a series of talks," she said.

-with files from Katie Fugler

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