HRS International

Have we really no choice?

We’re lucky. We live in an open, liberal society based on human rights. The hijab is an emblem of opposition to these values. I believe that the increasing use of hijab that we have witnessed during the last decade is a storm warning – an alert informing us that our values are under siege. I hope I’m wrong – totally wrong. But that hope is fading day by day. When will it be possible to hold a substantial public conversation about all this with our leading politicians?

Hege Storhaug, HRS

I want to be personal. There are two reasons for this: I have an immeasurable appreciation for a society that prizes the personal and the intimate. I fear we are in danger of losing it. I do my best to show respect for those who do not share my views, even if now and then I fail to do so. Patience, year in and year out, is not necessarily a simple challenge. And one really does have to be very patient after having seen the various statements made in recent days in the wake of the Progress Party’s proposal to forbid the hijab in elementary schools. Intellectually and factually, alas, the level of the discussion has been beyond belief.

The principal message of my 2007 book Tilslørt. Avslørt. Et oppgjør med norsk naivisme (Covered, Uncovered: A Critique of Norwegian Naivete) is one that not very many politicians, now as then, don’t seem to want to hear – namely, that the totalitarian religio-political ideology of Islam is on the advance, and that its most vivid public symbol is the covering of girls and women. It is an ideology that is engaged in full-scale war against all human rights and liberties. A refugee whom I greatly respect, the French-Iranian Chahdortt Djavann, has underscored the crucial significance of the veil for Islamists by describing it as the chief weapon in their war machine. The higher the number of girls and women they manage to cover with veils, she explains, the more our society will be riddled with symbols of their ideology. The Danish-Syrian Naser Khader, one of Denmark’s most popular politicians, also warns in no uncertain terms of the symbiosis between the veil/hijab and Islamism. The Iranian refugee Mehdi Mozaffari, a professor of Islam at the University of Århus in Denmark, makes the same point. So do several leading European figures with roots in the Muslim world. But why doesn’t this issue seem to awaken the attention and concern of the overwhelming majority of politicians? This question greatly puzzles me. In my innocence, I thought that politicians, no matter what their party, valued our society’s personal freedoms as much as I do.

Then there’s the unpleasant claim that the hijab is a form of “protection” from “undesired sexual attention.” This makes no sense, if we listen to women in the Muslim world and others who have experienced the “atmosphere” in Muslim countries, myself included. Public spaces in those countries sizzle with sexuality. Men’s sexual harassment of women is violent. Allow me to illustrate this with an anecdote. My best friend in Islamabad had culture shock when she visited Norway (and the West) for the first time. She thought that sexual harassment by men was a worldwide phenomenon. But here she was able to walk alone in the streets, sit alone at a café – without a veil! – and not one man bothered her. For the first time in her life she experienced what it was like to ”be treated as a person, not an object,” as she put it. What is this about? It is about Islam’s view of women. Women are to be separated from and subordinated to men. They are human beings with fewer rights – second-class citizens. Control over their sexuality is a critical element of the Islamic social system. A woman’s sexuality is viewed as powerful and dangerous. She is the temptress; man is the victim. The primary responsibility for preventing extramarital sex is placed upon her. This is why she must be covered. And what is the result of this prohibition, this covering? ”Attentive, indecent, and filthy looks, which seek to penetrate the veil,” as Djavann puts it. It is a view of humanity, and a system, that I know Norwegian politicians do not support – far from it. It is partly for this reason that it is entirely incomprehensible for me that they want to be so “generous” – that they will even let women walk in Norwegian streets wearing burkas, the most terribly designed chamber of horrors of a garment that the world has ever seen. One thing I am sure of is this: these same politicians would not have hesitated to take part in a furious international protest if, say, the apartheid regime in South Africa had forced that country’s black population into burkas. If that had happened, politicians across the political spectrum would have stood shoulder to shoulder in opposition. But not now. Now it’s about women and religion.

I can almost hear my opponents mumbling something now about “free choice” – about the fact that some Muslim women say that they have chosen to wear the burka (and other forms of covering, especially hijab). As Amal Wahab, the “revivalist commentator” in Cairo for the Norwegian newspaper Klassekampen, reported in that newspaper in 2007, she began wearing the hijab at age 38 after having read the Koran for two years. ”It was,” she wrote, “the happiest day in my life!” In response to which, let me first say this: not all choices deserve respect. And let me add the following: Wahab notes (correctly) that female TV hosts in Egypt will lose their jobs if they wear hijab. Which raises the question: why are Egyptian authorities so on guard against these garments? Because they know from experience that extreme public expressions of religious belief represent an ideological threat – a threat, especially, to women’s freedom. Turkey has also experienced this, which is why hijabs are banned at Turkish universities.

I’ve suggested many times that the burka and niqab – covering up in public space – be forbidden. My choice was a simple one, from the perspective of both human rights and security. But I don’t like proposing bans. It’s almost unendurable for me to take such a position – because I love freedom. But it’s precisely this gratitude for our freedom that has compelled me to overcome my own inner resistance to my position on this issue. We must, I believe, be firm and unambiguous in our attitude and conduct toward the forces that are out to imprison half the human race. It’s for this reason that I also want hijabs banned from schools, universities, and public workplaces. Quite simply, the hijab is ideological propaganda for a harsh social upheaval – whether the wearer is aware of this or not.

I must admit that a few years ago, on the difficult road to my current conviction, I went through an internal struggle over this highly fraught question. At first I only wanted to ban hijab in schools – not the Christian Cross, for example, because the Cross doesn’t stand for a bleak transformation of the political and judicial landscape. This issue is, after all, a minefield in which we quickly find ourselves dealing with questions of conflicting rights and ethical dilemmas. But there are two things, when you come right down to it, that I consider fundamental. One of them has to do with the ostentatiousness of Muslim coverings. Political or religious symbols that have an aggressive impact on their surroundings should be forbidden in grade schools and in public workplaces. Of course, there’s no way to draw a clear line when one formulates the issue in such a way; it’s all a matter of judgment. A small trinket in the form of a cross or Fatima’s hand is hardly aggressive. But flashy marks on one’s clothing are. Caseworkers at welfare offices should not be allowed to wear sweaters that read “Jesus lives.” In the same way, schools and employers are fully within their rights to restrict the wearing of visible thongs or other sexually provocative attire, and such restrictions are indeed in effect in many places.

The other thing that I consider central is the question of the symbol’s meaning. It should, for example, not be permitted to wear images of cannabis or LSD in school, even on a small trinket worn around the neck. It is of no use for pupils to say that “for me the cannabis leaf is not about drug-taking but about photosynthesis and oxygen.” The image has a conventionally constituted meaning that is irreconcilable with the school’s basic values. Nor are students allowed to flaunt Nazi symbols in school, or public employees permitted to wear swastika armbands to work, precisely because Nazi ideology runs contrary to the state’s and the schools’ basic values.

The hijab should be banned in schools and in public workplaces for both of these reasons: both, that is, because the hijab is an aggresive politico-religious symbol and because the symbol’s meaning is one that simply cannot be accepted in public institutions. What it all boils down to, in the end, is that the hijab represents an ideology that runs counter to human rights and secular democracy.

Are you following me now? If not, listen up. In 2007, the Dutch security services reported that radical Muslims in Europe are entering a new phase in which they’re abstaining from the use of violence and are instead working to break down Western values – especially women’s freedom – from within, and are thus pressuring more and more girls and women to wear hijab. The strategy, it’s said, is winning converts among the young. And from the other side of the English Channel came this shocking statistic in 2006: 37 percent of young British Muslims want a sharia-run Britain. No fewer than 75 percent think women should be veiled. Several studies since then have shown significant radicalization at British universities as well as among young Muslim Turks. And here in Norway we can see for ourselves the things that are going on at our own universities – such as the rapidly growing influence of the perfidious Islam Net. But do politicians hear the alarm going off? Or do they think (as I think they think) that this is a passing phenomenon – even an innocent one?

I don’t think this phenomenon will pass. Far from it. And in any case it certainly isn’t innocent. We can now see that we’re past the beginning of yet another violent struggle for the ideological soul of Europe. We won the struggles against Communism, fascism, and Nazism. This is my hope today: that Europe will once again prevail in the great ideological struggle of the day. This will only happen, however, if we undergo a widespread awakening – and see real and meaningful political action – as soon as possible.

The train has left the station. The destination remains unknown.