Wearing the veil in Australia
Signs and expressions of faith
This article was published in Living Ethics: issue 61 spring 2005
Many readers would remember heated debates in France following the French government's decision to place an outright ban on the wearing of items associated with religious belief in French schools. Muslim girls across the country defied the ban and risked being expelled by continuing to wear headscarves to school. The debate raised questions about religious freedom and the separation of church and state. Simon Longstaff reflects on calls by two federal politicians to introduce a ban on the wearing of headscarves in Australian schools.
What once seemed a peculiarly French obsession with the veil has recently become the focus of debate in Australia. Two members of Federal Parliament, Sophie Panopoulos and Bronwyn Bishop, have proposed that Muslim girls be forbidden to wear the veil if attending public schools. Although such calls were immediately rejected by government ministers, it's a fair bet that Panopoulos and Bishop were expressing views entertained by others in the Australian community.
The French government's policy is one of opposition to the display of all religious symbols in state schools. On the other hand, the Australian politicians’ reported comments have been more narrowly focussed on the choices of girls who profess faith in the tenets of Islam. No mention has been made of banning the Christian crucifix, Sikh turban or Jewish kippah (or yarmulke). Indeed the wearing of the head scarf or veil has been labelled by Ms Bishop as “a sort of iconic item of defiance” (presumably against the secular character of Australian public schooling).
It seems to me that any proposal that is exclusively focussed on the head dress of Muslim girls will appear capricious – rather than the product of principle. As such, it is perhaps too easily dismissed. The better issue to consider would be the French policy which at least has the virtue of consistency. So, what can be said about this matter?
The first thing to note is that there is an important distinction to be made between those who wear religious symbols as a sign of their faith and those who do so as an expression of their faith. In the first case, a person might be at liberty to live their faith as a private (or even internal) practice. Many people choose to behave in this way – offering no visible signs as to their spiritual or religious orientation.
To an observer watching the passing traffic of people, there will usually be no way to distinguish between the devout Christian and the Atheist. On the other hand, there will be those who choose to make their private commitment a matter of public record – for example, by wearing a crucifix or some other symbol. Such people adopt a sign of their religion.
But this is not so for all. In many other cases, a particular mode of dress may be a mandated expression of religious conviction – required as an intrinsic element in the act(s) of devotion. In these circumstances, it may be that a failure to dress in a particular manner would be a breach of faith.
As such, there is no real choice for the conscientious believer to make – to wear particular clothes in a particular way may be a religious duty, required as a matter of conscience. One difficulty in all this is that it is virtually impossible to tell whether a person is wearing a religious symbol as a ‘sign of’ or ‘expression of’ their beliefs. Just looking at a person and their habits of dress will tell you little or nothing of what is going on in their head, heart or soul. Given this, the prudent policy is to err on the side of caution and assume that what is observed is a public expression of faith – unless this assumption is overturned by clear evidence to the contrary.
Given this, the proposal to ban the wearing of head scarves or any other expression of religious conviction in state schools amounts to a restriction on liberty of conscience – and that requires extraordinary justification. Arguments about the need for assimilation, or the separation of church and state may be potent. However, it is not clear to me that they do enough work to justify the kind of intrusion proposed by the French. If people are concerned about social harmony, then there are far better ways to address this concern than run roughshod over the consciences of students and their families.
Of course, it could be argued that no person is forced to attend a secular state school – that religious people can send their children to private schools where religious convictions can be freely expressed. However, this seems to me a repudiation of the founding principle of state education – that it be open to all citizens irrespective of race, religion, wealth, gender, etc.. That is, no Australian child should be denied access to public education because of what they believe.
The French government and some Australians may be sincere in their concern to minimise the possibility for division within society. They may also be rigorous in their commitment to the principle that church and state be clearly separated. However, there are some things more important than these laudable objectives – and in a liberal democracy few things are more important than freedom of conscience.