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Europe: Debate Over Head Scarves Heats Up In U.K.

The plan of a new Muslim group to defend the right of Muslim women to wear the hijab and fight any attempts to ban it within the European Union has sparked off a debate among British Muslims. The focus is on how Muslim women should dress in predominantly non-Muslim and secular European countries such as Britain.

London, 20 July 2004 -- A newly established group in the United Kingdom aims to protect the right of Muslim women to wear traditional Islamic head scarf, or hijab.

The Assembly for the Protection of the Hijab was created in July by the U.K.'s Muslim Women's Society and the Muslim Association of Britain.

It vows to fight bans on wearing the hijab in schools, as well as the impact such bans have on communities in Western Europe. It has even declared 4 September, the start of the new school year in Europe, International Hijab Solidarity Day.

"I think it shows how concerned the Muslim community is about the whole issue of dress, and how much emphasis is being placed on how Muslim people dress," said Shabana Khan, a spokeswoman for the Muslim Council of Britain, which is affiliated with the Muslim Association of Britain.

Khan pointed out that two recent events acted as a catalyst for the group's formation.

One is the ban on hijab in state schools in France that comes into force after the summer school holidays.

The other is a ruling of the European Court of Human Rights to uphold the decision of a university in Turkey to force a female student to stop wearing the hijab.

Khan said both decisions represent a basic violation of mainstream Muslim views

"The mainstream Muslim or Islamic view is that for men and women there is a dress requirement, and I think that the covering of a woman, including her hair and her body, is part of that requirement," Khan said.

Not everyone agrees. Ali Noorizade works with the London-based Arab-Iranian Study Center. He said that while the Koran talks about modesty, there is no specifically prescribed dress code for Muslim men and women.

Noorizade said the details regarding women's dress differ in various Muslim countries according to local cultural traditions -- ranging from any form of modest but "non-Muslim" dress to the extreme, all-covering chador or burqa.

Noorizade said the action plan of groups like the Assembly for the Protection of the Hijab is an attempt by what he called "fundamentalists" to assert control over European Muslims at a time when they are coming under increasing attack from far-right groups like the British National Party.

"They try to picture Muslims as if the majority in Britain are bearded men in national dress and women covered with hijab -- which is not a norm -- and believing in the ideas of radicalism. This is not true," Noorizade said. "The majority of the Muslims in Britain are the same as you and me, as any other British men and women. They dress like the European, they behave like [the] European, and they adapt themselves to the new environment."

Shabana Khan acknowledged that many Muslim women in Britain prefer to wear Western clothes, and said "no one is forced" to wear the hijab.

Still, she said, the decision to form the Assembly for the Protection of the Hijab is a matter of human rights. She said no government should have the right to dictate to Muslims what they can or cannot wear -- just as they should not forbid Jews or Sikhs from wearing their head covers.

Many Muslim clerics, however, say wearing the hijab is a religious duty. Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who attended the launch of the hijab protection group as part of his highly controversial speaking tour of Britain earlier in July, said that the wearing of the hijab is a "religious obligation."

Some Muslims are worried by the fact that groups like the hijab assembly have the approval of British politicians. London Mayor Ken Livingstone's Greater London Authority has publicly supported the pro-hijab action plan.

Ali Noorizade accused officials like Livingstone of naivete: "The British should distinguish between Muslims and fundamentalists. They should distinguish between me -- as a person who was brought up in a Muslim house in Iran and who is against the intervention of religion in politics, who believes in democracy -- and those who are promoting the intervention of religion in politics and looking for a Islamic government. My voice should be heard as well."

Some other observers agree, saying the British government has an unbalanced stance regarding the Muslim community.

"The government is trying to do two things," said Anthony Browne, who covers Muslim and Islamic issues for "The Times" newspaper. "It is trying to actually say that it believes in extending a hand to the Muslim community, saying it understands their problems. But, at the same time, it’s actually in many ways supporting what in other circumstances it would consider absolutely abhorrent views."

The hijab debate, Browne said, will continue being fueled "by all kinds of political pressures" for some time to come.