Does banning the hijab enhance freedom?

“We received testimonies of Muslim fathers who had to transfer their daughters from public to (Catholic) private schools where they were free of pressure to wear the headscarf. Furthermore, in the increasing number of schools where girls wear the hijab, a clear majority of Muslim girls who do not wear the headscarf called for legal protection and asked the commission to ban all public displays of religious belief.”

Peter Northup at Crescat Sententia refers to Patrick Weil’s defense of the French ban on wearing the hijab and other religious symbols in the public schools.

Northrup is right to say that Weil’s account shows that the ban responded to a real problem, rather than being merely a silly, illiberal act of secularist excess. According to Weil, the majority of Muslim girls wanted not to wear the hijab, but faced pressure, including threats of violence, if they did not do so:

… in schools where some Muslim girls do wear the headscarf and others do not, there is strong pressure on the latter to “conform”. This daily pressure takes different forms, from insults to violence. In the view of the (mostly male) aggressors, these girls are “bad Muslims”, “whores”, who should follow the example of their sisters who respect Koranic prescriptions.

We received testimonies of Muslim fathers who had to transfer their daughters from public to (Catholic) private schools where they were free of pressure to wear the headscarf. Furthermore, in the increasing number of schools where girls wear the hijab, a clear majority of Muslim girls who do not wear the headscarf called for legal protection and asked the commission to ban all public displays of religious belief.

Weil concludes:

Either we left the situation as it was, and thus supported a situation that denied freedom of choice to those — the very large majority — who do not want to wear the headscarf; or we endorsed a law that removed freedom of choice from those who do want to wear it.

We decided to give freedom of choice to the former during the time they were in school, while the latter retain all their freedom for their life outside school.

Northrup is impressed but not convinced. If the problem is violence rather than simply the usual social pressures for conformity, he asks, why not address the violence directly?

The answer, it seems to me, is not far to seek. Given the ratio of students to adults in a school, the actual capacity of the adults to control the behavior of the students always falls well short of their legal authority, and responsibility, to do so.

If some girls are scarved and others aren’t, those who aren’t present themselves as a target for harrassment. If all girls are unscarved, no one presents such a target. So though it’s not quite the same coordination problem as the one Northrup discusses, it’s still a coordination problem.

The issue of intimidation, as Northrup notes, continues outside the schools, but outside the school it’s easier for victims to elude predators.

The ban was written in general terms, to include all obtrusive religious symbols, including yarmulkes. I understand the desire of the commission not to single out Islamic symbols for particular attention. On the other hand, if the necessity arose specifically in the context of the hijab, it would have been more liberal, though less multicultural, to be specific rather than generic.

Jacob Levy spoke out strongly against the ban when it came out. I’d be interested in his response to Weil. [Update: Levy’s not persuaded by Weil; Kleiman’s not persuaded by Levy. (I fail to see the analogy between banning a behavior that is being repressed by violence and banning a behavior that is being enforced by violence.) So it goes.

In the meantime, all I can say is that this is one of many problems I’m glad I’m not in charge of.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com