In 2004, France's national legislature passed a law banning the wearing of the Muslim face veil, called the hijab, in state schools. This law ignited a controversy that has not been resolved because it has thrown the ideas of secular liberalism, upon which Western political systems are based, into conflict with one another.
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Hijab Seen as Oppressive
Many non-Muslim Westerners, and some Muslims, consider the hijab to be a throwback to an era of absolute patriarchy, in which the hijab was seen as a means to protect men's property -- their women -- from sexual gazes of other men. A corresponding idea is that women must be prevented from making sexual displays. In many past cultures, and in some present cultures, women's hair is seen as a particularly erotic feature. In this context, the hijab is perceived as a manifestation of men's power over women.
Hijab Seen as Traditional or Liberatory
Some women argue that the hijab is a nonoppressive custom that connects them in an outward way with their history and community. Moreover, some women say the sexual gaze of unfamiliar men is itself a form of men's power over women, and that the hijab gives women some freedom from that gaze. In any case, argue some, the state has no business telling women what they can or cannot wear.
Hijab Ban Seen as Contradictory
In France, the controversy over the hijab has drawn accusations of anti-Muslim reaction -- under cover of liberal ideals -- in a country where Muslim immigration has increased significantly in recent years. The claim that the state has intervened to prevent conservative Muslim men from oppressing Muslim women seems consistent with the principle that the state protects individual rights; whereas those Muslim women who oppose the ban say that their own individual right to wear traditional garb has been infringed. They point out that crucifixes worn around the neck have not been banned from schools.
Hijab as a Struggle Between Religion and the State
Germany and Turkey have also imposed some legal bans against Muslim head coverings for women, which -- given Turkey's majority Muslim population -- seems to suggest that one of the battle lines being drawn over the hijab is not only anti-Muslim sentiment, but a political struggle between religion and the modern, secular state. While most modern constitutions enshrine the principle of freedom of religion, as a way of saying that the state will remain neutral on religious matters, some critics of these bans say that the bans are actively antireligious. Proponents of the bans say it is no different than prohibiting other religious practices, such as peyote use or polygamy.
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