In response to the article ‘French Muslims Say Veil Bans Give Cover to Bias‘ which appeared in the New York Times on May 26, 2015:
As the history of countries like the USA, Australia, New Zealand and Canada demonstrates, there is no integration for marginalised communities, such as migrants or aboriginals (to take two contrasting situations), which is not based on the principle of equality and the prohibition of discrimination. A discrimination is a decision that creates a distinction between one person and the other members of society. Many distinctions are justifiable and have been recognised by courts as justified: the right to vote at 18, prenatal care for women only, pension at 65… Freedom of religion includes the freedom to express one’s religion, as long as one doesn’t infringe on the rights of others.
Wearing a hijab is a personal choice that doesn’t affect anyone else. It may annoy people, like elders were annoyed by our long hair when we were teenagers in the early seventies, or many may resent an electric blue Mohawk haircut, or there will be tut-tutting if one wears too short a skirt. But this doesn’t and shouldn’t justify any distinction in the public treatment of the individual concerned. Wearing a veil is not proselytism. This woman isn’t personally responsible for “changing our values”. If she is “forced” to wear it by male parents (a frequent argument) and there’s violence, we have specialised social services to deal with family violence (which should be well trained and alert to such situations, as they should be for the many other situations where women face violence because they are women). Our view that wearing a hijab is demeaning for women may not be her view at all.
Since wearing a scarf doesn’t hurt anyone else, the only point of view that counts here is hers: whether she decides to wear it or not is her decision and hers alone, taking into account all the factors that she deems important for herself. The respect owed to the dignity of each and every individual includes the obligation to respect their personal choices. The whole of the human rights doctrine for the past seventy years has been about individualizing decisions: it is not correct to base policy decisions on collective tags, such as “women” (whom we thought didn’t know how to drive), “Jews” (whom we thought wanted to control global finance), “gays” (who were considered degenerate), “blacks” (who were considered lazy), “muslims” (who are considered potential terrorists). We have come to understand that each individual has a composite identity and that we cannot essentialise this identity by referring to the person with only one characteristic. This person, this women, makes a choice for herself, of wearing a hijab, just like my mother in the 60s wore a scarf over her head to go to mass. This is a personal choice, which we should all respect.
France has got its policy choices all wrong on this issue: discrimination is now legally entrenched, the embedded racism is slowly being justified, and the integration of Muslims is being made much more difficult by the marginalisation that they experience. Very unfortunately, the European Court of Human Rights, for historical reasons linked to its old string of decisions on the banning of veils in Turkey, was wrong as well in approving this French ban. France is shooting itself in the foot and it’ll take another generation before such policy choices are reversed.
“What did we do wrong?” The question of the little boy at the beginning of the article is daunting. It will resonate all his life: seeing one’s mother humiliated is difficult to forget.