Hijab: ... and the debate

The contentious subject of 'Headscarves, secularism and the battle of democracy' produced a lively debate at the first CPGB London forum of 2004, reports Mary Godwin

The contentious subject of 'Headscarves, secularism and the battle of democracy' produced a lively debate at the first CPGB London forum of 2004. The forum was held the day after the protests organised by the Muslim Association of Britain and the Muslim Women Association against the hijab ban in France, and the counterdemonstration called by the Organisation of Women's Liberation-Iran and the Organisation of Women's Freedom in Iraq.

It was a well attended meeting and an important subject for communists. Introducing the speakers, Mark Fischer said for too long democratic questions have been undervalued by the left. In our view the working class becomes a class for itself by winning the battle of democracy.

Opening for the CPGB, Peter Manson, editor of the Weekly Worker, spoke about three interlinked themes raised by the ban proposed by president Jacques Chirac: secularism, women's rights, and freedom of expression. It is a mistake to think the ban promotes secularism. To us secularism means the complete separation of religion and state. It does not mean trying to ban religion. An example of this misunderstanding of secularism by sections of the left was the Socialist Workers Party's opposition to the motion jointly sponsored by the CPGB calling for the Stop the War Coalition to support "secularism everywhere". The SWP stated that this might deter christians and muslims from joining!

But, said comrade Manson, secularism aims for equality between believers and non-believers, not the setting of one against the other. We want believers to speak and demonstrate alongside us as equals, but certainly not to have any special role in the movement. Secularism involves protecting individuals from having religion imposed on them by the state, but it also means defending their right to religious freedom. He quoted Mehdi Kia, co-editor of Iran Bulletin-Middle East Forum, who stated that the enforced wearing of the hijab in countries like Iran and enforced 'de-hijabing' are "two sides of the same reactionary and undemocratic coin" (Weekly Worker January 15). On freedom of expression, comrade Manson said communists are in favour of the right of individuals, including school students, to express their religious and other views. He emphasised the distinction between the state imposing symbols of religion, which we oppose, and the right of individuals to express their ideas. The ban is impractical, as well as being unjust. How far should it go? Should food preferences based on religion also be banned, or the wearing of polo jumpers concealing the neck?

Arguments about women's and young people's rights show the ban is also counterproductive. We are not in favour of women being veiled, but want to make it clear to them that the right to wear the hijab is a right that can be taken up or not. It should be their choice. The French Trotskyist group, Lutte Ouvrière, says the law will be a "point of support" for young women who want to resist family pressure to wear the hijab. This may be so in some cases, conceded comrade Manson. But in many more cases it is more likely to drive them into the arms of the islamic fundamentalists. Firstly, it would probably provoke the wearing of the headscarf as an act of solidarity and, secondly, girls would be removed from state schools and segregated in religious institutions, where they are closed off from contact with forces which might encourage them to overcome backward ideas.

Even reactionary ideas should be out in the open, where we can best fight them, said comrade Manson. Our ideas of democracy and the strength of the working class are more powerful than the ideas of religious leaders and other reactionaries. Nor are we afraid of fundamentalists. If we can speak to their rank and file followers, we can win them to our politics. We cannot wait for people to shed reactionary illusions before we work with them - they overcome backward ideas in the course of struggle. Comrade Manson looked at Chirac's motives for the new law. It is not, as Chirac claims, a matter of defending secularism and promoting women's rights. The purpose of the ban is to rally patriotic France by scapegoating the muslim minority and posing as the defender of French values against interlopers who seek to challenge them. He is claiming once again to speak for the 80% who voted for him in last year's presidential election.

Terry Liddle of the Socialist Secular Association spoke in favour of the ban from the point of view of an intransigent militant socialist atheist, using the same arguments as put forward in his Weekly Worker article (January 15). He called for the ban on ostentatious religious symbols in schools to be understood in the context of French history. He described socialism as materialist science which demands an intransigent and unyielding struggle against superstition, obscurantism and idealism. Socialists should support anything which weakens the influence of religion in society as something to be welcomed, not opposed on the basis of a "spurious libertarianism".

CPGB comrades taking part in the debate characterised the position of comrade Liddle, a supporter of the Revolutionary Democratic Group, as Blanquist. His vision of a socialist state is one which would ban minority customs. We advocate banning only those religious practices which are harmful, cruel or infringe the rights of others: stonings, forced marriages, female circumcision and the like. Comrades also described Liddle's views as disastrously mistaken. The history of the 20th century proves that attacks on religion actually strengthen it. Those who conduct a war on religion not only do not succeed: they change themselves, inevitably becoming the tyrants of a new, secular religion.

Comrade Steve Freeman of the RDG agreed that religion cannot be defeated by bans: it will wither away naturally when the working class overcomes the conditions which constantly regenerate it - that is, class society. Comrade Liddle wants to get rid of god in order to change society: in fact we have to change society to get rid of god. Comrade John Bridge of the CPGB said that as well as being a means of oppression religion is a heart in a heartless world. We communists should never seek to ban religion, nor its manifestations in terms of traditional dress, diet and other such customs. All we demand is the right to put forward our materialist explanation of the world. The key, however, is unity of believers and non-believers in the class struggle. Comrade Liddle rejected this idea. He invited CPGB comrades to put themselves in the position of Bolsheviks confronted with muslims conducting a protracted guerrilla war against Soviet power in central Asia 80 years ago, and asked:

"What would you have done - handed them a leaflet? Hopefully you would have shot them."

The third speaker was Houzan Mahmoud of the Worker-communist Party of Iraq and the Organisation of Women's Freedom in Iraq. She began by describing what the hijab means to women in the Middle East. It is not an item of dress like any other, but a form of control over women. It is an islamic uniform imposed on all girls from the age of three or four years, which separates them from the rest of society and symbolises their inferior status. The veil is emotional and physical violence against girls and women, controlling their sexuality and marking them as the property of their husbands rather than as persons.

She said she was not interested in Chirac's motives - only in the objective result. The ban will save children from physical and emotional abuse, and give them the chance to experience a different way of life, as equal to other children rather than segregated and marked as inferior. Islamists who claim the ban infringes their personal freedom or human rights are hypocrites, since islamic states have the worst record on human rights in the world, especially in the way they treat women. While agreeing with the French government's proposed ban on hijabs and other religious and political symbols in schools, she criticised the French and other European states for funding political islam and for not doing enough to protect migrant women and children. Most women forced to wear veils on the street are unhappy about it, but the state gives them no support because it says that is their culture. The same multiculturalist excuse is used to ignore violence against women, the sending of young girls to the Middle East to be mutilated and married against their will or even killed for bringing 'dishonour' on their family for entering into relationships of which they disapprove. Political islam imposes its brutal and bloody practices wherever it gets into power, and seeks to spread its influence in the world, including by brainwashing youngsters who want to fight imperialism.

Her most severe criticism was directed at the European left for failing to provide an alternative anti-imperialist focus. The left gives support to islamic groups because they have anti-imperialist slogans. They fail to see that political islam is a reactionary pole menacing the earth. We must fight it and wipe it out. She warned comrades that, as soon as the islamists gain power, the first people they kill will be the communists.

There were 20 contributions from the floor, with roughly equal numbers of Iraqi comrades who supported and developed comrade Houzan's position, and CPGB members who opposed the ban. As always there were among the CPGB contributions a number of disagreements with details of the speech given by the CPGB representative on the platform. Comrade Anne Mc Shane said she does not agree with the ban because it does not solve the problem of women's oppression. It will not undermine the hold of the family over young women, but could make it worse by increasing their isolation. But she criticised comrade Manson for not stressing enough our revulsion against women being made the property of men, and being forced to cover themselves. He should have emphasised more that we are against the ban and also against the veil, and not "trivialised" the issue by equating the hijab with religious dietary laws. Because so many women and girls are compelled to wear this symbol of oppression, the hijab is a complex question which has caused great confusion among the French left.

Comrade John Bridge denied that deciding our position on Chirac's ban on the hijab was in any way a complicated question. As democrats we stand foursquare with any oppressed group whose rights are threatened by a state, against that state. He disagreed with comrade Manson on Chirac's motives. The people he is appealing to are not so much the majority who voted for him, but the 20% who voted against him. He criticised WCPI comrades for being blind to the fact that the far right is a rather bigger threat to the working class in western Europe than political islam - and the hijab ban they support can only but legitimise the agenda of groups like the Front National. There were also a few speakers not aligned with either group. A practising muslim who had moved from France to Britain made the point that since September 11 2001 people are afraid of islam, and to ban the hijab will impede dialogue between muslims and others. She made it clear that the decision to wear a headscarf was hers alone and, far from having it imposed by male members of her family, her brother is a member of Lutte Ouvrière who wants her to abandon it.

She said secularism should mean the right to wear or not to wear what you chose. She said that those who propose bans only expose their own weakness. To the WCPI comrades she said she expected them to have more faith in their own ideas than their support for the ban revealed. She also asked comrades to distinguish between islam itself and the oppressive traditions that reactionaries try to pass off as central to islam, such as forced marriages, which are actually foreign to it.

Speakers from the WCPI argued that, since our main point should be to focus on the right of the person, religion should have no rights over human beings. They did not agree with comrade Manson's argument that forcing people to discard the headscarf is as bad as forcing them to wear it. If it is just an item of clothing, why is compelling women to wear the hijab the first act of political islam wherever it gains power? It is a good thing for any government to deny families the right to oppress their children. We accept that the state has the right to impose many things on people, why is this not a good thing?

The headscarf ban is part of the fight between imperialism and political islam and, somewhat contradictorily, the comrades argued that the left should not take sides in this fight but should seek to become a third force in the world, a progressive point of attraction in opposition to the two reactionary poles. Political islam is the greatest enemy our movement faces, and the hijab is its symbol. WCPI comrades said that instead of concentrating on a few thousand young women who choose to wear the veil and face expulsion from school if they do not take it off, the left should throw its energy into defending the many millions of women in islamic countries who are forced to wear it against their will and risk being stoned to death if they dare take it off.

In her reply to the debate, comrade Houzan said it was unrealistic to call on people to argue with the oppressors. In Iraq political islam murders its opponents, and it seeks to impose sharia law in Europe and elsewhere. Already it terrorises the migrant community, with the passive collusion of the French and other states. The Organisation of Women's Freedom has reports of cases in which women in Bangladesh, India, Iraq and even Europe have been killed for rebelling against islam. She called on the British left to join the campaign against violations of migrant women's rights.

CPGB comrades put forward several arguments in response to these points. Comrade Marcus Ström and others accepted the criticism that the British left has been unable to establish a socialist pole independently of islam. But the CPGB would never be soft on political islam. We were actually barred from the steering committee of the Stop the War Coalition for upholding secularism and refusing to kowtow to the Muslim Association of Britain, as the SWP did. Comrade Manny Neira said the CPGB does not hold the view that every enemy of imperialism deserves our support. Several CPGBers felt that WCPI comrades were actually arguing against the SWP position "by proxy", putting their case to the CPGB because the SWP itself refuses to talk to them. More importantly, CPGB comrades argued that the hijab ban will have exactly the opposite effect to what the WCPI hopes, strengthening reactionary religious leaders by handing them the democratic mantle. In comrade Tina Becker's words, the ban drives people into the arms of those who we want to win them away from: the fundamentalists who secretly welcome the ban because it lets them pose as opponents of the oppressive state. Anything becomes more attractive and glamorous when it is banned, especially to the young. Liberation cannot be imposed, comrade Mark Fischer pointed out: it must result from the people's own self-activity. Throwing off the veil and the oppression it represents has to be a self-liberatory act, it cannot be imposed by a socialist state, let alone a capitalist one.

On a more fundamental level, CPGB comrades disputed the WCPI position that political islam is the worst threat to the working class. Comrade Ian Donovan said the WCPI has analysed the role of political islam in the world, and produces excellent polemics. But its failure to look at the whole picture and recognise imperialism as the main enemy leads it to some erroneous positions. One is the belief that the French or any other imperialist state could ever deliver a solution to the problem of women's oppression; another is the WCPI view of the potentially progressive role of the United Nations in Iraq.

Comrade Manson summed up the CPGB view in his final remarks. We want women to join with the working class in order to free themselves. If you try to impose 'emancipation', you are making a terrible mistake.