The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

"Banning Clothing Is a Violation of Human Rights"

Article 18 of the Declaration on Human Rights guarantees the right to freedom of religion. But increasingly many countries are outlawing religious dress, a trend that the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty tries to counter. By Imogen Foulkes

Article 18 of the Declaration on Human Rights guarantees the right to freedom of religion. But increasingly many countries are outlawing religious dress, a trend that the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty tries to counter. Imogen Foulkes reports

photo: AP
The Becket Fund not only defends religious rights of Muslims, but of all relgious groups - "from Anglicans to Zoroastrians", as it says on the NGO's web-site

​​On the 18th floor of one of Geneva's top hotels, crowds have gathered to view an unusual exhibition – the glass cases feature very ordinary, well worn items of clothing. Merve Kavakci's headscarf has pride of place in the exhibition. In 1999 she was thrown out of the Turkish parliament for wearing it.

"This is the headscarf I wore to the Turkish parliament as the first woman to be elected with a headscarf. They screamed 'get out, get out', and then the prime minister got up and pointed at me and said 'put this woman in her place'."

The exhibition is the work of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, an organisation devoted to defending – in court if necessary – those who are prevented from wearing religious clothing. Anthony Picarello, president of the Becket Fund, says banning clothing is a violation of human rights.

"We believe that religious expression is natural to humanity," Picarello says. "People are hard-wired to ask ultimate questions and come up with answers, and they want to express that. We think peaceful public expression should be permitted, so we are concerned when states start to forbid it."

The headscarf is the most well-known example of religious clothing which has run into opposition from secular states such as France and Turkey, but, as Anthony Picarello explains, there are many more prohibitions, in many countries.

"France has a ban on all ostentatious religious clothing, including Sikh turbans, Jewish yarmulkes, priest's robes and nun's habits. In the Middle East, Iran for example, neckties are banned because they are thought to be sign of the cross – the broader problem is that religious attire is an easy way to mark minorities and signal that they are not welcome."

"I could not wear a headscarf – so I shaved my head"

Cennet Doganay has come to Geneva to tell people just how unwelcome she felt, when she turned up for classes last September. The 15-year-old French school student knew the ban on headscarves was already in place, and she says she did her best to obey it.

"Actually I went to school with a hat on – not with my headscarf because I knew it was forbidden. And normally hats are okay in my school, but mine wasn't. They put me in a room on my own, without my friends, no school books, and it went on like that for a month. Finally I just cracked and shaved my head – my parents were very unhappy, my mother cried."

But to many people in western democracies, the headscarf is not just a sign of the Islamic faith. It's a symbol of the oppression of women. Why should young Muslim girls be expected to cover their heads when the fashion is more navel rings and visible g-strings? Merve Kavakci agrees – up to a point.

"I don't think Europe is approaching this in the right way. Yes it's true, women have been forced to wear headscarves against their will – and they've been forced to take them off against their will. Neither is right, we need to see this as a women's issue, about choice."

Meanwhile Anthony Picarello warns that suppressing religious dress is not likely to achieve anything positive. "What's the principle here? The principle is the right to expression. If there are concerns about the subjugation of women, I think there are better of ways of addressing that than outlawing clothing. We need to let a thousand flowers bloom, as it were, and be tolerant of all expressions of religious faith."

"It's not the scarf that makes you believe"

For Cennet, wearing the headscarf is very important, but, she insists, the crucial point is that religious clothing must remain a very personal choice.

"For me the headscarf is my dignity, it's my personality, because I practice my religion, I'm a Muslim. But there are plenty of girls who are Muslim and don't wear the headscarf – it's not the scarf that makes you believe. But for me it's important, everyone has their own ways of practicing their religion. If my daughter didn't want to wear it, I wouldn't be angry – it would be her choice."

Nevertheless, supporters of a prohibition on religious clothing in public places remain suspicious of organisations like the Becket Fund. Such groups, they claim, are fundamentally opposed to secularism, and would like to bring formal religion back into the education system, where, it's said, it simply doesn't belong. Anthony Picarello rejects such accusations.

"No, we are in favour of a secular state with no religion. Where we are concerned is when a state seeks to prohibit religious expression."

"They can take away my headscarf – but not my faith"

Cennet is not sure what her future holds, she's still trying to cover her head at school, with a small hat or a bandanna. Even this has caused her problems – but ones that have not at all caused her to doubt her religion.

"Well, even if they succeed in taking off my headscarf they can't take away my faith. No one seems to understand that – they seem to think that if I don't wear a headscarf, I won't be a Muslim anymore – that's ridiculous. Whatever I wear, they can never take my faith away."

Meanwhile, Merve Kavakci never gave up the headscarf. She believes Muslim women should be free to choose whether to wear it or not, with no pressure from anyone. Even now, she can't quite understand what all the fuss is about.

"So here we are, six years later, looking at my scarf, and even now I can't quite believe it caused so many problems, and that so many people were more concerned with what I wear than with what I think and what I can do for my country."

During its annual session, the United Nations Human Rights Commission will examine the right to freedom of religious expression – supporters of religious dress will be hoping to persuade members that wearing it is a basic human right.

Imogen Foulkes


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