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Hejab ban?
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 the society.

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 private affair. 

Going back to your question, this ban is a restriction on religion but not a restriction on individual freedom or individual rights. 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 women's rights, 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 veil.

But to offset these pressures, we need to change the fabric of the society, the value system and create a freer society. In 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 of choice.

Maryam Namazie: The reasoning the court gave -- which is important given the advances of political Islam -- was that "Measures 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 you agree?

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 one into 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 say not. Here 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 of rights.

If women are choosing the veil, then you have to find other ways to fight religion, and defend women's rights. It is a delicate situation to reach the right answer. You have to have a defence of rights and human principles like secularism as your main framework.

Other rights, such as freedom of expression, freedom of clothing, 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 in these societies, e.g. in Turkey.

In Europe the question is not so much religion, I believe, especially among the second generation; it's more a question of fighting racism and alienation that Western society has imposed on them and a question of an identity crisis.

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 -- e.g. 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 view that 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. I understand the ban in public institutions and for teachers or employees of public institutions but banning the veil for university students or for those who are customers or clients of the state -- that I am against.

A change there can come about via a change in culture, with educational measures and creating a situation where 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 or families. The state has to be ready to fight all forms of intimidation but for the veil to disappear altogether, there are many measures that need to be taken.

Maryam Namazie: If the basis is defending rights, what happens when rights conflict - for example the right of clothing for adult women and secular schools?

Azar Majedi: Rights are not absolute. Any given right in the society is conditioned by different social restrictions or 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 accusations against other individuals is not permitted. This is a rather straightforward issue. But even to decide on this straightforward issue, you need laws and legislation in order to safeguard individual rights.

Some areas are more complex, and you enter the so-called grey areas. Religious freedom and principle of secularism may seem to be one of these complex and delicate issues. One of the ways to solve this conflict is to look back at history - the struggle against 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 historical 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.

To eradicate the influence of the Church 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 revolution is an important historical moment in this process. These restrictions on religion became necessary in order to materialise the main slogans of this revolution: 'Freedom and Equality'.

As it regards freedom of clothing the same logic applies. Freedom of clothing is restricted every day in society, for health 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 extreme dress codes, but the discussion around these restrictions never enters a deep philosophical debate on rights. If we agree that secularism is one of the important pillars of a free and egalitarian society then I believe restriction on so-called freedom of clothing in state institutions and schools can easily be defended.

Religion is an outdated and outmoded institution with many practices that violate the standards of modern civil society; genital mutilation is an extreme case, circumcision is another, the inhuman manner in which animals are slaughtered according to Islamic laws 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 that safeguard people's equal rights and freedom.

Maryam Namazie: How come such a ban on the veil for adult women will create a backlash in Europe and 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 people in unheard manners. There, women were flogged, shot at and executed for non-observance of religious laws, such as veiling. To free such society from this terror, to bring back any sense of normality to this society, to 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 the USA-British attack on Iraq and its aftermath, political Islam has gained some moral and political legitimacy in the eyes of those 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 protest. 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. We have 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 and turn 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.

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