Interview with Azar Majedi
July 21, 2004
Transcript of a program on TV
International English which aired July 12, 2004.
Maryam Namazie: The recent European
Human Rights Court's
decision in support of the Turkish government's ban of the
Hejab in state schools and universities says this does not violate
freedom of religion. Does it?
Azar Majedi: It depends. I agree with a ban of the veil in schools,
including a ban on both teachers and under age girls. As it regards
banning of child veiling, my demarcation point is protection of
children's rights. Veiling of under-age children is in fact
a violation of their rights. Veiling has adverse effects on both
their physical and mental well-being. It deprives them of a normal,
happy childhood and life. It segregates girls in school and in
By imposing the veil on girls you are categorizing
them as completely different species vis-à-vis boys, assigning
different roles to them, and setting totally different goals and
expectations for them in life. In short, you create and establish
a system of sharply differentiated gender roles, which in turn
creates an unequal environment for their growth. Child veiling
discriminates against girls, and therefore it must be banned.
As far as banning the veil for teachers is concerned, I come to
this position from a defence of secularism. I believe human's
rights and women's rights are better safeguarded in a secular
society with a secular state. The creation of a secular state is
an important condition for the establishment of equal rights and
equal opportunities for women.
From the stand point of secularism,
religion and state, and religion and the educational system must
be separated. The state must not represent any particular religion,
i.e. it should take a neutral position vis-à-vis religion.
To do that I believe employees of the state and educational system
must not carry or wear any religious symbols. This is why I defend
the banning of the veil for schoolteachers.
Furthermore, I agree
with a ban of the veil in public schools because it is a restriction
on the role of religion in the affairs of civil society rather
than religious freedom as such. The ban is aiming to restrict the
meddling of religion as an institution in the running of the state
and society at large.
Religious freedom is commonly understood as freedom of religious
beliefs and practice. However, depending on your point of view,
practicing one's beliefs takes different dimensions. In a
secular society, religion is and must be separated from the state,
education, citizens' formal identification and so on; it
must be a private matter.
Therefore, from a secular point of view,
the state and educational system must not represent any particular
religion or religious belief. Using religious symbols, such as
veiling, would be considered a denial of the principle of secularism,
and contradicts the principles of a secular society. By banning
religious symbols in public schools and state institutions, one
is aiming to safeguard a freer society where religion remains a
Going back to your question, this ban is a restriction
on religion but not a restriction on individual freedom or individual
In my opinion, this ban is a necessary step towards a freer society,
and furthermore, I believe restricting religion will help create
a more equal society, particularly for women. By restricting religion,
society is in a better position to respect individual/citizen rights.
But when you talk about adult women students attending
universities, then I have a problem with the ban. Such a ban does
not allow adults
to exercise their conscious will. I won't get into how much
of those who are veiling are actually exercising their choice freely
but nonetheless it is something that should be respected.
Maryam Namazie: Some would argue that since the university
is a place of social gathering, it has different rules than let's
say in one's home or on the street. And so it is legitimate
to ban the veil in universities as well. What would you say?
Azar Majedi: I don't agree totally. It depends on
the circumstances. There could come a time when in order to defend
you might take such decisions. I'm not sure this is needed
in the case of Turkey. Whereas in the case of a child you cannot
recognise veiling as mere clothing, and the issue of free choice
or freedom of clothing does not enter the scene, in the case of
an adult the issue of free choice, freedom of clothing does come
into the scene.
It doesn't matter how oppressive or reactionary
such clothing is in my opinion; how much I think veiling discriminates
against women and places them in a lower status vis-à-vis
men but if that's what they choose, then this is their choice.
I do recognise the fact that in actual reality women are either
intimidated or pressured morally and emotionally to observe the
But to offset these pressures, we need to change
the fabric of the society, the value system and create a freer
cases where it becomes apparent that intimidation is used to impose
veiling on women then I believe the state must intervene to fight
this intimidation, and in order to do so it might come to the decision
of banning the veil.
Maryam Namazie: So when it comes to adult women, you say it is
a question of freedom of clothing?
Azar Majedi: Exactly, but again if it is an adult woman working
in or representing a public institution, then any manifestation
of religion should be banned. Otherwise, it is a question of freedom
Maryam Namazie: The reasoning
the court gave -- which is important given the advances of political
Islam -- was
taken in universities to prevent certain fundamentalist religious
movements from pressuring students who do not practise the religion
in question or those belonging to another religion can be justified." Do
Azar Majedi: This argument is a valid one and has its own merit.
But it has to be applied to specific circumstances. In the case
of Turkey, I am not sure this is the case. If it is the case that
the force and impact of political Islam's intimidation is
felt so strongly that young women are forced to observe the veil,
then I agree with the banning or other kinds of state intervention
to fight the intimidation.
For example, I strongly believe that
in the case of Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, there
should have been a ban in order to defend women's rights
because women were afraid to leave their homes unveiled and that
thugs would attack them in their neighbourhoods and in the streets.
In that situation that measure had to be taken so women could
dare to come out without a veil.
Maryam Namazie: So it depends on every situation,
with the primary focus of defending women's rights.
Azar Majedi: Exactly, there is not just one golden answer to
all social and political situations. You have to take each
consideration and you have to uphold certain principles. The
principle for me is defending people's rights, women's rights
and children's rights and so on. I think that is the main
question you have to answer. How can I defend rights the best;
how can I make a society in which these rights are best protected.
Thus, in Afghanistan, I would say a ban should be
enforced -- we could argue about that - whilst in Europe I would
you would create a backlash and discriminate against a section
of the society and a minority following a religion, however
reactionary the religion may be. A ban here would be a violation
If women are choosing the veil, then you have to
find other ways to fight religion, and defend women's rights. It
situation to reach the right answer. You have to have a
defence of rights and human principles like secularism as your
Other rights, such as freedom of expression, freedom
freedom of religion -- they are also important rights.
When fighting for women's rights, you can implement other measures
than just banning veiling altogether. We have seen backlashes
these societies, e.g. in Turkey.
In Europe the question
is not so much religion, I believe, especially among the second
it's more a question of fighting racism and alienation
Western society has imposed on them and a question of
Maryam Namazie: But don't governments often defend
rights via a ban -- and again it is not governments but movements
that have imposed progressive values on states --
banning child labour. Isn't it important for states
to ban in certain
instances to defend rights?
Azar Majedi: Sure. This is a valid point and I quite
agree with your point. And it is from this point of
I defend banning
of child veiling; it's like banning child labour; it's
like banning child caning in schools. But banning veiling
for adult women in all circumstances is going too far.
in public institutions and for teachers or employees
of public institutions but banning the veil for university
or for those who are customers or clients of the state
A change there can come about via a change
in culture, with educational measures and creating
intimidation doesn't work. Clearly women are forced
to choose veiling
because of intimidation in many situations, because
they are under the moral pressure of the communities
to be ready to fight all forms of intimidation but
for the veil to disappear altogether, there are many
Maryam Namazie: If the basis is defending rights,
what happens when rights conflict - for example
for adult women and secular schools?
Azar Majedi: Rights are not absolute. Any given
right in the society is conditioned by different
constraints. This is even true about unconditional
freedom of expression that
we regard so highly; one is free to express oneself
in any way one wishes, but accusing others, making
individuals is not permitted. This is a rather
straightforward issue. But even to decide on this
issue, you need
laws and legislation in order to safeguard individual
Some areas are more complex, and you enter the
so-called grey areas. Religious freedom and principle
to be one
of these complex and delicate issues. One of
the ways to solve this conflict is to look back at
religion's role in the society and the state,
the struggle to relegate religion into the private
sphere, to restrict
religion's practices where they violated human
rights, children's rights
and women's rights.
From the point of view of
a religious person, the outcome of this significant
struggle might seem to have violated freedom
of religion, but
from a libertarian's
point of view, these restrictions were essential
for creating a more just and egalitarian society.
To get a clearer picture and to avoid any false
assumptions, one must look at the history of
the development of
modern and civil
society. Secularism is the product of this
process and one of the pillars of such a society.
from the affairs of the state, to relegate
religion to the private sphere and to restrict the role
of religion as an
institution are all significant achievements
of modern society. The French
is an important historical moment in this
restrictions on religion became necessary
in order to materialise the main
slogans of this revolution: 'Freedom and
As it regards freedom of clothing the same
logic applies. Freedom of clothing is restricted
day in society,
reasons, economic reasons, social reasons,
etc. Dress codes at the work
place, uniforms at schools are very clear
examples. People seem to accept these codes. I might
have objections to
codes, but the discussion around these
restrictions never enters a deep philosophical debate
on rights. If we agree
is one of the important pillars of a free
and egalitarian society then I believe restriction
freedom of clothing
in state institutions and schools can easily
Religion is an outdated and outmoded institution
with many practices that violate the standards
is an extreme case, circumcision is another,
the inhuman manner in which animals are
slaughtered according to
and so on. The list is long. For me the
key to reach the right and
sound position is respect for human rights
and equality. I give prominence to those
rights and freedom.
Maryam Namazie: How come such a ban on
the veil for adult women will create a
not in Afghanistan?
Azar Majedi: We have to look at the socio-political
framework or context. I am talking about
Afghanistan after the
Taliban. A society,
which was terrorised by a violent, inhumane
movement, where religious rule killed,
tortured and terrorised
There, women were flogged, shot at and
executed for non-observance of religious
as veiling. To free such society
from this terror, to bring back any sense
of normality to this society,
establish freer relations you need to take
so-called drastic measures.
If the Taliban was overthrown as a result of a revolution,
the situation would have completely been different. You would witness
veil burning in every corner of the country. The women's
freedom movement would have risen to a prominent position in the
society that could not be ignored. In short, Afghanistan after
a revolution would have been a different country.
But the Taliban
was removed by USA intervention, and another Islamist tendency
took over. Under these circumstances, women, rightly, will not
feel free to unveil themselves. The environment of terror is
not removed. It is still felt strongly. Therefore, giving any comfort
and security to women would require a ban on the veil altogether.
In the West, the situation is different. Political Islam lost
its legitimacy to a great extent after September 11. But after
USA-British attack on Iraq and its aftermath, political Islam
has gained some moral and political legitimacy in the eyes of
opposing this atrocious act. In Islamic communities many youth
have been recruited by political Islam, not for religious reasons,
but political ones.
They are rightly angry at these atrocious
policies, they are under racist attacks and pressures from
the wider society;
they feel isolated and alienated, so they choose political
Islam as a defence mechanism. They see it as the only voice of
In my opinion, to ban veiling at large will only intensify
and aggravate this situation.
A rightful and just fight against political
Islam and the other pole of reaction, a progressive fight against
racism will be the
answer to a complete defeat of political Islam. I believe the
ball is in our courtyard. Our movement and trend is the answer.
to raise our voice and banner so high as for everyone to hear
and see it; then the majority of this youth will turn to us
their back to political Islam. They should identify with us
and not with political Islam.
Maryam Namazie is the host of TV
International English, Executive Director of the International
Federation of Iranian Refugees and Director of the International
Relations Committee of the Worker-communist Party of Iran.