August 8th, 2013
A few years ago I got to know a Science graduate student. Despite a certain self-admitted clumsiness, she came to my aerobics classes, regularly giddily flailing about as I barked orders to move this way and kick that way. When she first arrived at Memorial she wore a headscarf or hijab, even through fitness classes. She was Egyptian, had grown up in a religious household with lots of brothers and a stern father, or so she said. She was deeply shy by nature and very fragile, but she clearly wanted to open up about her childhood and current state of confusion. Adjusting to secular society was challenging and she felt the need to talk it all out. One day she showed up to aerobics without her hijab. It was kind of shocking to me, and probably to her, too. She declared that after a long struggle she had decided to abandon it altogether. I was never sure what that said about her faith, but she had made a strong decision about her appearance. She seemed happier and excited about her future, if worried about what her father would think if he ever found out. I haven’t seen her in a year or so and often wonder where she is and where her graduate degree has taken her.
At that time, just a few years ago, her headgear had made her more conspicuous on this campus. Now it wouldn’t. The internationalization of the student body is more obvious than ever. As August rolls out, our office will become increasingly busy with new students arriving from all over the Middle East. I am sure some will be arriving from Turkey and maybe even France, where the battle between Islamic practice and secular society is heating up again.
A story was leaked this week in France about a high council recommendation that headscarves be banned on university campuses. It has rekindled an always simmering tension about rights and the role of the state to interfere in the lives of others. To those of us living in North America such an edict seems invasive, if not actually regressive. For us, a secular society includes a tolerance for religious belief and diversity. In France, things are not that straightforward. France has fiercely defended its laws against public displays of religious belief, although I would put money on it that no woman wearing a cross around her neck was ever prevented from entering a public space in Paris. Moslem women in France have been repeatedly scorned for wearing headscarves on the streets, with things heating up to the point of riots in the suburbs. Now, as the debate intensifies about whether women should or should not be allowed to wear a hijab on campus, there will be more noise, more rage and likely more violence. Moslem women have repeatedly said they are targeted unfairly, and that they have become lightning rods for more general xenophobia and a pervasive nationalism—an anti-Islamic reflex. The debate is complicated by the fact that many secularists believe the hijab is itself a sign of oppression of women.
On the streets of any North American city today you can find young women dressed about as immodestly as our laws will permit. Celebrity culture and our fetishizing of the young, exposed female body certainly have a lot to answer for. For most of us, like it or not, women own the right to dress as they wish, and so the same extends even to those who wish to be modest in the extreme. I grew up in Montreal at a time when the site of flocks of nuns in full habit in public places was common—even a little exotic. No one ever whispered that they were inappropriate for flaunting their faith.
Yes, it’s complicated, and there is no avoiding the many contradictions that attend to a woman choosing to cover herself up in public. I am not sure we will ever settled comfortably on a consensus about what the hijab signifies both to the woman who wears one or the secular public that gazes on it. But Moslem women have a point when they say that this not so much about women but about a dangerous anti-Islamic attitude, one implicitly endorsed by the state.
In Quebec, France’s sister state, intolerance has also reared its ugly head from time to time. A few years ago the banning in a small town of the wearing of headscarves among other signs of Moslem belief led to a bitter backlash and the inevitable Canadian Commission (Bouchard-Taylor) on Reasonable Accommodation. That is the perfectly Canadian legal phrase that speaks to the need for tolerant behaviour and attitude.
I find it hard to accept a law banning the hijab from anywhere, let alone a campus. The presence of international students at Memorial has been, in my view, healthy and enlightening. Many of our students have led pretty sheltered lives in small communities where the only real difference between people was marked by someone’s eccentricity or gender. Exposure leads to conversation and
understanding. I know that’s Hallmark-Card worthy, but it’s true. A university campus should be an ideal microcosm of a tolerant society. I love France and almost all the 400 cheeses it produces but I am decidedly against the direction they are taking their secularism. We’re not perfect and we don’t make cheese but vive la difference.