In 1905, a law was passed in France confirming once and for all the separation of the church and the state. It confirmed the secular nature of the French government. Ever since the successes of the British Empire over the French Empire, the French have been rather ultra-sensitive and protective of their own national identity. France has particularly demonstrated fear over anglicisation and americanisation in its current language legislation.
The increasing tidal wave of English words used in the French language has even pushed a new law into operation. In accordance with ‘La Loi Toubon’ it is illegal to use more than a certain percentage of English words in a broadcast medium. For a contrast with English language ideology, see the article“Borrowed but not returned.”.
This language ideology is only part though, of an insecurity and paranoia found in the French psyche. A wave of French nationalism almost saw the Front National F.N. (a French neo-Nazi Party equivalent to the British National Party B.N.P.) elected into power last year. In fact the last time such a high-profile language ideology was seen was in the early 1930s in Nazi Germany. Fear has been the culprit in both instances, particularly fear of the ubiquity of the English language and its global influence. It is seen as slowly pushing these cultures into non-existence. McDonald’s is constantly boycotted in France due to the sinister push of globalisation or as they see it anglicisation. But what about other cultures in France? Is it just anglophobia? The case of the hijab debate is an interesting one.
Hijab is derived from the Arabic word hajaba, which means to conceal or to prevent from being seen. The garb must be loose and opaque and must be worn, whenever the women either leaves the house, or whenever male visitors not belonging to the family are received. Only the hands and face may, according to the prophet Mohammed, be visible, but this point is rather controversial.
The ongoing debate in France over the right of Muslim girls to wear the hijab (a headscarf) is raging just as fiercely as ever in France. It may soon be illegal to wear the hijab in any state-school in France. The French argue that religion is not a public but a private matter. In public, they say, we don’t belong to any particular religion but are merely French citizens.
Is it in line with the motto of the French republic “liberté, égalité, fraternité” (freedom, equality, brotherhood) to stop the headscarf from being worn? The supporters of this new law argue that the headscarf, as a religious symbol, compromises the equality of French citizens marking some out as special or different. Those against its implementation, argue that outlawing the scarf compromises the freedom of citizens. Opinion is still divided.
One Muslim woman made this comment, “That the veiled Muslim woman by all means should be regarded as oppressed is a myth that ought to be killed. Many people are scandalized by the veil, but only few seek an explanation from the Muslim woman herself; her voice is often overheard in this matter. If she is asked, on the other hand, the veil represents freedom and dignity.” On the other hand, in no way undermining her feelings about the hijab, on the BBC news a few years ago (11 Dec 2003), cases were mentioned where Muslim girls and women were beaten up on the street for not wearing the hijab.
Incidentally, under the new law, the Jewish skullcap, and large ‘Christian’ crucifixes would also be forbidden. But Muslims claim that the law is targeted primarily at them. As the second largest religious group in France, the law would affect the Muslims more than both Jews, who are a small population, and ‘Christians’, whose crucifix can simply be hidden. On Thursday of this week, it was ironically questioned whether the Christmas Tree in front of a government building would be illegal under the new law. Well, theoretically yes it would, as a religious symbol present before a completely secular government. Also illegal on government buildings would be tinsel, holly, and other Christmas decorations.
In a country where police uniforms have been adapted for cultural differences (helmets to accommodate Sikh turbans and Rastafarian dreadlocks) Britain seems far away from such drastic measures to preserve British identity above all others. This country seems to assimilate other cultures just as well as it does other languages. Consider the plethora of government pamphlets in Urdu, Tamil, Hindi, and Somali etc… Consider the number of foreign words borrowed into English. (See the article ”Borrowed but not returned”). Consider the abundance of religious publics holidays in the UK with specifically religious; Christmas, Easter, Shrove Tuesday, Halloween etc. Should so-called ‘foreign’ holidays such as eid, diwali, and ramadan be accepted or rejected?
Does the prohibition extend only to obvious religious symbols, or can it be extended to other cultural attire, Indian saris, traditional African costumes, and Japanese kimonos? What about white wedding dresses, or engagement rings? Are these not also religious symbols? – Is the purpose of the new law to discriminate against only the Islamic culture, or is its aim merely to secularise France? Is it malicious toward the unknown or is it merely fearful of it? Answering these question will determine the real motive behind the new law. They must be addressed swiftly and effectively if basic human rights are to be upheld.