Hijab: the protests ...

Though we are critical, the OFWI still deserves the support of all socialists for its political opposition to the oppression of women through the imposition of sharia law in Iraq, says Manny Neira

On Saturday January 17, a bewildering series of political contradictions were played out outside the French embassy in London. The setting was chosen by the Muslim Association of Britain, which had organised a protest against the proposed French ban on students displaying symbols of religious or political affiliation while at school. Nominally, the ban is designed to defend the principle of secular education, and applies equally to the kipa (or yarmulka or skullcap) worn by jews, the christian cross, and all other ideologically distinguishing clothing. The greatest immediate effect, though, will be felt by the large French muslim population: and the French government seems content that the suppression of the hijab, or veil worn by muslim women, is seen as their main target. President Chirac's aim is simple populism: gathering support through the demonisation of a minority, and all in the name of freedom.

From 11am, therefore, perhaps 1,000 protestors assembled across the road from the French tricolour. The Communist Party of Great Britain was one of a handful of left groups represented, along with the International Socialist Group, the Socialist Workers Party, and the Alliance for Workers' Liberty (though the AWL leaflet did not take a position for or against the ban being protested). However, MAB banners dominated, and their speakers and slogans characterised the event.

The justice of the protest seemed to me then, as it does now, clear. Communists are secularists: we believe that no state, bourgeois or socialist, should promote religion or have connections with any church. We consider religious belief a matter for the individual, and defend the right to hold or practise a faith, providing it does not infringe the rights of others.

We also defend the rights of the young, who face particular oppression by both their families and the state. Progression from helpless infancy to adulthood is a classic dialectical process, of quantitative change punctuated by qualitative leaps, but at no point in their lives is a human being without rights. The proper desire to protect the young must not become an excuse for oppression, and indeed the best protection they can acquire is a confidence in their own minds and the ownership of their own lives and bodies. My teenage self, wearing the hammer and sickle on my school uniform and asserting my views against the opposition and catholicism of both my family and my school, bristled at the idea that I would have been forced to remove such a symbol under the French law.

The main speaker was George Galloway. In a short address, he called upon people to oppose the ban, "whatever their religion, whatever their political views". He made no call on the Labour movement, or even for political organisation through Respect, but simply stood in solidarity with "the muslims of Britain, of France, and around the world".

However just their nominal cause, there was no question that the methods and aims of the MAB were deeply reactionary. They began by segregating their protestors by sex. I and other CPGB comrades had to argue with male MAB stewards who attempted to prevent us approaching female protestors. Slogans like "protect our modesty" chanted by women covered so completely that only their eyes were visible eloquently testified to a dark and unhealthy attitude to women and femininity. We were there to protest against an undemocratic law, and to talk with individual muslims, but the MAB was afraid. At 2pm a march organised by Hizb ut-Tahrir from Marble Arch reached the embassy. This group describes itself explicitly as a political party based on the ideology of islam, and campaigns to abolish democracy and secular society and re-establish the caliphate. Banners carrying the slogan 'Secularism has failed' represented the politics being offered to those young muslims the left fails to reach.

In fact, some of our friends and comrades were across the road, staging a counter-demonstration. The Organisation of Women's Liberation for Iran and the Organisation of Women's Freedom in Iraq had assembled a small group (including members of the Worker-communist Party of Iraq), of perhaps 50, in what they saw as a defence of secularism. I crossed the road to speak with them, and talked to Sohaila Sharifi. She was keen to emphasise the true nature of the hijab: "The headscarf is not just an item of clothing; it is a religious and political symbol of the oppression of women. Political islam is already oppressing women in the Middle East, and is now seeking to do so in Europe."

But, while we opposed political islam, should we not also defend the freedom of young people to make up their own minds? "Even now, you can't just wear what you want at school. You couldn't go in dressed, for instance, in a bikini: there have to be rules. We are talking about children: we must protect them from propaganda." Should this protection extend to banning political symbols, like my old communist badges? "Yes. Or conservative ones, or liberal. Adults can wear what they like, but these things have no place in school."

The theme of the protection of children was continued at a press conference called by the OFWI later that afternoon. Speaking were Nadia Mahmood and Houzan Mahmoud. I asked if school students should not enjoy the right to dress as they wished. Nadia replied: "Religion is a private matter. We think people should be free to practise their religion. But political islam is not just a religion. France has been a secular state for 100 years and political islam is trying to impose itself against secularism. The French are talking about the schools, but we are not: we are against the veil being imposed on girls anywhere. It stops them living freely. It stops them having a normal life. They are being abused by their families who force them to wear the veil." Though the OFWI demonstration had been prompted by that of the MAB, the comrades were keen that the press conference should not be dominated by discussion of the French ban. Houzan acknowledged that the subject was important, but asked us to focus on the question of the imposition of sharia law, and the oppression of women, in Iraq. They explained that with the complicity of the US occupiers, political islamists had been quick to seize the opportunity afforded by the defeat of Saddam Hussein, and his dictatorial but largely secular regime, to drag the country into fundamentalism. Women were already being denied access to schools and universities if they did not wear the hijab. The rape of women who were either ex-Ba'athists or seen as collaborators with the US occupiers was widespread: male collaborators, said Nadia, rarely faced sanctions. Most dreadfully of all, women raped in this way then faced the danger of being murdered by their own families in 'honour killings', as suffering the crime committed against them was taken as a sign of shame.

The brutality of the war being fought for the future of Iraq was never clearer. Secular and democratic forces face a vicious, daily battle with political islam, not only to shape the country in the future, but to defend human rights now. The passion with which Nadia and Houzan spoke was clear and understandable. They were not soft on the occupation, but they believed that by blindly chanting 'anti-imperialism' the British left was going soft on political islam. We were warned not to forget that while the islamists might oppose the US and the occupation, they also despised socialists and human freedom. This thought was echoed by a number of other speakers. It became clear that the attitude of some to the 'left' was actually a response to the politics of the Socialist Workers Party. Given the relative size of the SWP within the left, this was perhaps understandable, but only Houzan made the distinction between them and other socialists, saying: "The SWP is a different matter. They are gone, out of control. They are not on the left any more."

The SWP leadership has certainly been unprincipled in its attempts to accommodate the politics of the MAB, both in the abortive 'peace and justice' project, and through Respect. Their call not to treat the rights of women and gays as "shibboleths", but rather to allow them to be glossed over in order to permit alliance with political islam, warrants the suspicion with which they are now viewed. My own feeling is that the SWP contains many sincere socialists who will also be extremely uncomfortable with their leadership's opportunist manoeuvres, and with whom we must therefore engage through Respect. But our aim must be criticism, not complicity.

In fact, both the OFWI and the SWP may be falling into the same trap: believing that their enemy's enemy is their friend.

Rather than being a blow against political islam, the ban on the hijab is a gift to groups like the MAB and Hizb ut-Tahrir, who will organise enthusiastically against it and undoubtedly gather some support in the process. However, even if it has angered some islamist patriarchs, that does not mean we should support it. Freedom is not won through state bans on ideologies we find reactionary, but through struggle and solidarity. The French student who wears her veil because she is forced to by her family does not become free when she removes it because she is forced to by the state - and we stand with her against either compulsion.

But the OFWI is right to point out that the British left, largely through the politics of the SWP and George Galloway, is falling into the same trap. We are enemies of US imperialism, and so are the political islamists. However, that does not make them our friends, and should not lead us into political alliance and compromise with them. Though we are critical, the OFWI still deserves the support of all socialists for its political opposition to the oppression of women through the imposition of sharia law in Iraq. 

* Organisation of Women's Freedom in Iraq: 020 7263 1027, www.equalityiniraq.com