Hijab ban could backfire on governments

The risk to cultural and religious expression has been underscored by recent events in France and India, where Muslim teenage girls have been banned from wearing their hijab or headscarf in school.

We Americans are not threatened if we see a Jewish student wearing a yarmulke or a Christian student wearing a cross. We are right to extend the same deference to our Muslim neighbors who choose to wear the hijab as an expression of their cultural or religious identity.

During the recent French presidential election, right-wing candidate Marine Le Pen pledged to completely ban the wearing of the hijab in public. His opponent, President Emmanuel Macron, was little better. It continues the current policy, which prohibits the wearing of headscarves in French schools.

A court in Karnataka state in southern India ruled this spring that the government, controlled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu National Party, had the right to ban head coverings in schools . Brave 16-year-old Ayesha Shifa is taking her fight to wear the hijab to school to the Supreme Court of India. This case will test adherence to India’s supposedly secular constitution.

Ayesha shouldn’t have to choose between wearing her hijab and going to school. Of course, there is more at stake here. It also defends the cultural and religious autonomy of the 200 million Indian Muslims.

It is true that the Quran does not directly address the wearing of the hijab. However, the Quran requires both men and women to present themselves modestly in public.

I would not support any government that would force a young woman to wear clothes against her will. For example, I am against the Taliban forcing women to dress in full burkas if they choose not to. But that’s not what happens with the hijab in France and India. These are governments that prohibit women from publicly expressing their cultural and religious identity.

And repressive policies could allow these symbols to take on additional and powerful meaning for Christians, Jews and Muslims. Don’t be surprised if non-religious Muslim women start wearing the hijab as a form of open resistance to government oppression.

I am all for a vigorous debate about the separation of church and state, but banning the headscarf in schools is not the way to draw the line.

Gene Damm lives in Albany.

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