The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

Religious Fundamentalism and the Oppression of Women

Nov 3, 2003

The last decade has a seen a very big increase in religious fundamentalism in the so-called "advanced"countries. And the basic human rights of women have become one of the main targets of this exceedingly reactionary trend. In the U.S., Christian fundamentalists push to deny women the right to choose abortion or even have access to many birth control devices or medicines. In some Western countries, where Muslim fundamentalism plays a role, the veil has also become a symbol of the growing oppression of women.

The following article is taken from several different articles which appeared in various issues of Lutte Ouvrière (Workers’ Struggle), the weekly newspaper of the French Trotskyist organization of the same name. They recount the struggle carried out by teachers in some French schools against the wearing of the veil in school.

The veil in the classroom

A number of teachers who tell the Muslim girls to remove the veil do so, not because it’s a question for them of maintaining schools free of religious symbols, but because it’s a question of the oppression of women. The veil is a symbol of the oppression which reserves to women the sole function of reproduction. In the name of barbarism left over from the Middle Ages, today in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, as well as in many other countries, hundreds of thousands of women live shut in behind walls and bars of their homes and behind the wire netting that shows only their eyes in the "burka" which covers them from head to toe. It’s in the name of this same backwardness that women are prohibited from carrying on a profession, from visiting a doctor, having an operation or even driving a car.

In the same way, family councils (of course constituted only of men) condemn certain women to be stoned to death, have lye or acid thrown on them or to be strangled, for the simple fact that they bear a child out of wedlock or refuse to marry an old man who is the friend of the men of their family or simply because they don’t remain in the place that’s imposed on them.

In France today this isn’t the condition of women. But there are changes going in this direction. Some young women are forced by their families to wear the head scarf; they are prevented by their families from taking part in Physical Education classes. Some towns have segregated swimming pools and there is a push to segregate the schools by sex. All of this is the beginning of setting up a ghetto for women, imposing on them a life of inferiority and submission.

In the name of "the right to cultural difference" or a pretended respect for "roots," some well-minded people and leftists call for the "right" of Muslim girls to wear the veil in school. They sometimes add that if the girls are told they can’t enter the classroom with the veil, the girls won’t attend school and will lose access to culture and learning that schools provide. It’s a way to give in to reactionary pressure. What’s at stake isn’t the "right" for a few girls who want to wear the veil, but the right of thousands of girls and young women NOT to wear the veil. Today they can rely on the fact they aren’t permitted to wear the veil in school to stand up to the reactionary pressures which their families or religious fundamentalists in their neighborhoods want to impose on them. What’s at stake is whether women, often from childhood, will have a yoke imposed on them, a yoke which in the name of "tradition" denies their human worth and tries to make them wear a badge saying they are beings of a lower order.

Of course, some girls say it’s their personal choice to wear the veil. Lila and Alma Levy, for example, assert they willingly wear the veil, that it’s their choice. Certainly it’s not imposed on them by their family. Their father comes from a Jewish background and is an atheist. Tomorrow, when they decide it, they will be free to throw their veil in the garbage. If they feel like it, they could embrace any other belief or none at all, they could marry the man of their choice or just live with him. But it’s not a question of the personal choice of these two individuals who will not suffer the oppression the veil signifies. It’s a question of the liberty of hundreds of thousands of girls of Muslim origin who don’t enjoy this cultural and social environment and the freedom that goes with it. If it becomes possible for these two young women to attend class with a veil on their head, others will be forced to wear it by the men of their family and neighborhood.

Once the schools give in on this issue, this contributes to the oppression of all those other girls, by far the majority, who would like to resist wearing the veil and want the support of schools which prohibit it.

"For women’s rights and freedom, against the veil in school"

On October 16 the teachers of the Henri-Wallon high school in Aubervilliers organized a press conference: "For women’s rights and freedom, against the veil in school." This is the school where two students, Lila and Alma Levy, were expelled by the discipline council because, after months of discussion with the school’s teachers, they persisted in their refusal to take off their veils in class.

Gisele Halimi sent a letter of solidarity with the teachers in which she recalled that, " ...the veil is a weapon turned against these principles (secularism and equality between the sexes). It’s not a question of freedom of expression but a wish to flaunt a religion and, often, a political choice. Especially, it attempts to make women inferior and maintain them in a true sexual apartheid."

That’s exactly what it’s a question of: the oppression of women by men, of their freedom and their rights. The veil isn’t a simple piece of cloth, it isn’t only a symbol, but also the concrete mark of the situation of inferiority in which certain people want to maintain women in the name of religious freedom.

Chahdortt Djavann, who knows what she speaks of because she lived in Iran under the weight of the veil for thirteen years, recalled that the veil, which hides the hair and the entire body of women from the gaze of men, is a true moving tomb. "As they (Muslim fundamentalists) can’t exterminate women, because they are used to satisfy their desires and for reproduction, they hide them in the veil," she emphasized.

In the course of the press conference, Mimouna Hadjan, a feminist who lives and has been a militant for 21 years in the housing development in La Courneuve, where she is a leader of the Africa Association, denounced the responsibility of the state in the rise of fundamentalism in the suburbs: "For generations, they have condemned immigrants of the housing developments to live in insecurity and unemployment. Fundamentalism is nourished on this misery. The state has let this happen and has sold these housing developments to the Islamists to get peace ... Certain youth have gotten off drugs, but have fallen into another drug: religious fanaticism ... In the 1980s, after the Islamic fundamentalist revolution in Iran and the arrival of Islamists from the Algerian FIS (Front of Islamic Salvation), in our housing development we see a return to polygamy, men have taken the road of the mosques."

With emotion, she concretely described the increase in her housing development of the wearing of the veil under the pressure of the fundamentalists and the physical and moral attacks against girls of Muslim origin who refuse to wear it.

Bernard Tepper, president of UFAL (Union of Secular Families), who is currently circulating a petition for a law against all religious symbols in the public schools, emphasized, "North Africans and Muslims living in France today make up the majority of signatures on this petition," adding that they are "in their majority favorable to secularism and opposed to the wearing of the veil in school."

He added, "The struggle against the headscarf in school is a legitimate struggle for equality between men and women and for the continuation of the movement of emancipation of women ... There are thousands of girls to be supported against fundamentalists who wish to oblige them to wear the veil."

It’s these girls who in fact risk being the first victims if the schools cave in.