Banning Hijab is not Secularism

Can banning a piece of cloth from public institutions demonstrate a government’s secularism? Some people seem to think so, but I can’t understand how.

Recently, The New York Times reported the Stavropol region in Russia banned headscarves from government schools. Journalist Ellen Barry quotes Marina Savchenko, a school director:

“This is an institution. Secular attire should be worn here, business formal … That’s all. This is not a subject for discussion.”

Oh, but isn’t it a subject for discussion, Ms. Savchenko? Banning the hijab or any other religious symbol does not make an institution any more or less secular than it already is. Secularism is the separation of church and state — or religion and ruling body. With this definition in mind, a secularist might be opposed to a public school forcing children to begin their day by reading verses from the Bible or Qur’an each morning with the hope of earning God’s blessings. This could understandably be considered blurring the lines between a secular government school and a religious one.

However, obliterating a person’s individual religious marker does not enhance the secular status of an institution; rather it exemplifies a desire to erase particular identities and restrict freedoms. That’s not the reputation I would aim for if I was in an authoritative position. (By the way, hijab can still be business formal.)

I discussed this topic with my older and wiser sister, and she pointed out average residents of the area won’t interpret the ban as a one-up on the secular scale. Instead, they’ll see it as ridding the school of the “Other,” further deepening the ethnic hostilities between neighbors.

Unfortunately, these policies that are oppressive to Muslim women have become very common in countries, especially in Europe, that hypocritically stand for modernity. Yet, they inflict policies upon a part of the population that is different from them, instead of progressively accommodating it. Not only does this come from the rampant Islamophobia that is present in today’s society, but it is also representative of the patriarchal belief that society may dictate the way women choose to dress.

Someone needs to inform Ms. Savchenko that forcing a woman to take off the hijab is just as oppressive as forcing her to wear one, thus such a policy exercises a much worse ideology than the one the government schools are trying to distance themselves from.

Plus, it just shows that Stavropol’s government despises diversity. We’re in the year 2013. Why are we still dealing with institutionalized racism like this?