Headscarves and Feminists

The headscarf is not simply an emblem of female modesty - it is a public declaration that the wearer is Muslim. The dispute, therefore, is part of the wider and deeper cultural debate, which is raising more and more questions.

The controversy in France over the Muslim headscarf has not gone away with the passing of the new law barring the wearing of religious symbols in educational institutions. Just the opposite, in fact - the bitterness of Muslim women has only intensified alongside the frustration of the republicans, who fear the values of the old France are slipping away from them.

French newspapers are still in a ferment of arguments for and against. The question is not simple even when cleansed of the simplistic argument about the link between terrorist Islam and the religious-cultural struggle.

Among the most vocal opponents of the headscarf are staunch leftists and enlightened liberals, who view it as an alien imposition on European France's social and cultural common ground. They do not believe their position contradicts the European and French principle of freedom of expression.

In the opposite camp, defenders of the Muslim women's right to cover their hair, and even their faces, actually include some militant feminists. They come from the point of view that a woman has the right to freely express herself and her body - and Muslim women themselves use the same argument. They feel that a devout Muslim woman should be permitted to wear both a daring miniskirt and a headscarf.

The headscarf is not simply an emblem of female modesty - it is a public declaration that the wearer is Muslim. The dispute, therefore, is part of the wider and deeper cultural debate, which is raising more and more questions.

From a historical point of view, which puts the headscarf alongside the question of women's status, the issue is even more complicated. Of all the major religions' symbols, it is specifically the headscarf that has become the one theoretically threatening to crush the secular French republic. It's not the skullcap, not the turban, not the beard, and certainly not the crucifix - all of them predominantly male symbols.

While the uproar over the headscarves continued to gain momentum, a private Catholic school for boys only opened in France in eerie public silence. No one protested. The republic's comfortable arrangement with Christianity is apparently based not only on the knowledge that it subdued the church a long time ago, but also on the feeling that the people of that religion, the very heart of Western Europe, pose no threat to the state.

Muslim women are now clamoring against this double cultural attitude with all their might. Not only does the headscarf religious symbol bother France because it is Muslim-Arab, they claim, but even more so because it belongs to women.

The feminine aspect is important because women historically have been test cases for the spirit of the times and their crises. From the leprosy that silenced Miriam, Moses' sister, after she dared to speak her mind, to the witch hunts of Europe in the Middle Ages and abortion hysteria in America today - any cultural change that frightens the conservative establishment takes a brutal toll on women.

The strong passions fomenting the debate over the headscarf are reverberating now like all previous historical events. Women's faces, legs and lifestyles are on everyone's lips. Minute details are whispered in coarse language. Everything goes, under the cover of cultural and national discourse.

How does this entire distant story affect Israel? First, it affects Jews in France because it is precisely they who are now taking sides with the secular republic, even at the cost of the damage done to their own religious symbols. This is an interesting position and it certainly would not stand the test in Israel. After all, Israel has never separated religion from state.

One day, when the conflict with the Palestinians is over and Israeli society has to cope with issues of its own identity, the nation will have to ask itself how it could make such a separation, which has such tremendous cultural ramifications.

The meeting point between the story of the headscarf and the Israeli story is elsewhere, in a more interesting arena that is also concerned with modern and post-modern definitions of the status of women. In Israel too, strong clear voices of very religious and very educated Jewish women are heard, declaring that they are feminists and are waging a courageous battle against the religious establishment. At the same time they are accepting the authority of the rabbis and the strictest religious dictates, including on childbearing and raising children.