Symbols and Religious Freedom Feb04

More than 3000 years ago in polytheistic Assyria, it was a privilege of respectable women to wear a headscarf to confirm their virtue and status in society. It was neither a religious symbol nor a fashion statement and was an established social garment for women long before Prophet Mohamed (570AD). The Koran, like the Bible, explicitly states that the ‘Hijab’(headscarf) minimises the risk of arousing desire and lust in men. Only some of the 500 million Muslim women worldwide wear headscarves and those who do are expressing an integral and private part of their cultural identity and tradition.


We uphold and respect individual freedom in our multi-faith, multicultural, democratic societies. The freedom to assemble, to have political opinions, to worship, to dress and to live peacefully in a manner that we choose is essential. Our freedom is only limited by statute if the consequent action offends, injures, denies or imposes on others. Some of us wear lapel badges to declare our political affiliation or support for our favourite sporting team. These are public expressions of our private beliefs that may arouse a public reaction. If we allow people to do this without fuss, then why should we prevent others who wish to wear a cross, a headscarf, a turban or a skullcap if these symbols express their private beliefs?


Laws banning headscarves are discriminatory not just against certain cultural traditions but against Islam itself. French secularism cannot exclude the second pillar of French nationhood that champions “Liberty, Equality & Fraternity”. What does “liberty” mean for French citizens who choose to wear a hijab without provocation? What does “equality” mean for French citizens professing Islam? What does “fraternity” mean for immigrant communities trying hard to co-exist peacefully with the host community without losing their cultural identity?


The majority of people value the plurality of faith, culture, tradition and ethnicity and cherish individual freedom within a democratic political system. We should encourage compassion, tolerance and mutual respect so that, together, we can ensure continued peace and prosperity in Europe.