When you deny religious coverage, you are also denying religious freedom.
Student activists in France made a bold statement Wednesday by wearing scarf and declaring Hijab Day at one of the best universities in France, the Institut d’études politiques de Paris. The social project aimed to show solidarity with Muslim women who choose to wear religious blanket and to help students better understand the experiences these women face on a daily basis.
The hijab, a religious symbol for Muslim women, is often stigmatized and negatively connoted in the secular country. Muslim women in foreign countries have repeatedly been made to feel like outsiders when people assume, based on their clothing, that they are oppressed or violent.
Activists were responding to a suggestion by Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who said last week that the headscarf should be banned universities. This is not the first time France has called for a ban on religious blankets – former President Nicolas Sarkozy has banned the Muslim face-on veil of all public places in 2011.
Freedom of religion is protected by French law known as secularism. The law separates Church and State and affirms that religion remains outside the public sphere. Over the past decade, the law has pushed its limits by enacting policies that target Muslims and prevent them from expressing their religion through prayer or wearing the burqa.
Despite having the largest Muslim population in Europe, France has not treated all religions equally and fairly when it comes to the rights of a major religious group.
France’s measures to ban the hijab demonstrate a lack of respect for Muslim culture, religious freedom and free will. Wearing the hijab in a Western country is already a misinterpreted gesture that leads to exclusion and harsh treatment – banning them in universities would completely deny access to a group of people just to express their beliefs.
Students wearing headgear for a day cannot really understand the daily pressures to conform that Muslim women face. But their efforts to support Muslim women in their right to choose what to wear sends a strong message of solidarity and cultural acceptance.
At a time when many Muslims are accused of terrorist attacks they did not commit, the efforts of these activists speak volumes about the importance of unification. The persistent efforts of the French government to rid itself of all public recognition of religion have become an infringement of basic individual rights. Allowing women to wear the hijab does not mean that an institution endorses religion – it further marginalizes Muslim communities in a blind attempt to appear neutral. These types of statements only divide people at a time when they desperately need to be united.
Due to the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, anti-Muslim sentiment is increasing in Western Europe. According to Tell MAMA, an NGO that tracks hate crimes against Muslims, the rate of hate crimes tripled in the UK after the Paris 2015 attacks. If it wants to defeat the radical jihadists, France must collaborate with its Muslim allies in a united front. Anti-Muslim sentiment only reinforces the “us” versus “them” mentality, when in reality the secular government and the majority of nonviolent Muslims are fighting the same struggle against acts of terrorism.
By indirectly excluding Muslims from public institutions and by provoking an unnecessary controversial debate, France is not helping to bring its peoples closer together, it is separating them further.
On Wednesday, students were challenging these types of dangerous policies by wearing hijabs and refusing to let fear alienate people because of their religion.
Instead of pushing back Muslims, it would be in France’s interest to treat its Muslim citizens equally and not blame their religion for disrupting the country’s secular values.
A woman’s dress choice shouldn’t be politicized, especially when there is so much more at stake.
Kirsten Wong writes primarily on social justice issues and public policy for The Pitt News
Write to him at [email protected]