Right to wear a headscarf

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Six years ago an Egyptian news reader, Ghada El-Tawil, decided to wear a headscarf (or hejab) in public, including on television. For this she was banned from continuing her job. It has taken a six-year legal battle to resume her post. It is amazing that in a country with a 99% muslim population, a woman is not allowed to cover her hair if she chooses to. To me this is a case of third world countries trying to be “modern” but only superficially. I respect secularism in government, in the sense of giving freedom to citizens to choose their religion. But forced unveiling is not freedom.

In the 1920s, Turkey’s Kemal Atatürk introduced a headscarf ban for women. Until very recently women in Turkey wearing headscarves were banned from university education and from government jobs (I think they are still barred from government jobs). Atatürk’s move was admired by, and quickly emulated by Reza Shah in Iran, ordering his men to forcefully unveil women in the streets — a move, I believe, that contributed to the Islamic revolution decades later.

Some people, especially in the west, view the headscarf a symbol of religion. But in my eye it is simply an item of clothing people are used to, and a form of modesty. I have relatives who have never appeared outside the house without their headscarves. In order to imagine their shock at being forced to go out bare-headed, think of forcing all western women to wear miniskirts at all times. That is how I see it and that is why this restriction on freedom makes me so mad.

Update, 8 Nov 08 – I just finished reading Hooman’s book on Iran. As recited to him by Iran’s former president, Mohammad Khatami, Turkey’s Islamist prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was asked by angry Islamic nationalists why he sent his daughter to the US to attend College. He said: “Because in America she can wear her hijab at University.” Haha … at least in this narrow area muslim women have greater freedom in the US than in Turkey.

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