You can leave your hat on

Originally published in the Daily Maverick.

this-hijabIn a phone call to Redi Tlhabi’s Radio 702 show last Wednesday, Caroline (or something) from Claremont was outraged. Children should not be allowed to wear Muslim headscarves, she said, because headscarves are a sign of Muslim “infiltration and indoctrination”. Furthermore, she repeatedly asked, if kids can go to school wearing a hijab, why can’t they also (or rather, alternatively) go to school naked?

Another caller agreed that religious garb should be outlawed at school, on the grounds that this would somehow curb the (presumable) infiltration and indoctrination of atheists, who wear black. Apparently. In other words, just another day in the parallel universe of talk radio, where common sense goes to die.

But beyond the hysteria, there are some issues worth addressing here. Not Caroline’s apparent racism (in this case Islamophobia, although that remains a word we should use sparingly, because that’s clearly inadequate grounds for policy. Neither need we address the non-analogous case of nakedness, nor the various other failed attempts at analogy (why is my child forbidden from wearing cowbells!). Whether what currently counts as legitimate religion is right or wrong, our current legislative framework is the one by which the Eben Dönges case needs to be assessed.

For those unaware of this case, the nutshell version is that two children were sent home from Eben Dönges, a high school in the Western Cape, for wearing religious headgear. Sakeenah Dramat (16) was asked to remove her hijab, and her brother Bilaal (13) was asked to remove his fez, and they were told that they could not come back wearing their respective headgear. This was on the first day of the new term, and the children were only able to return to school a week later, after the Western Cape Educational Department intervened.

The first issue worth addressing is the error of referring to Muslim children, Christian children, or [insert any other religion] children. Until a child is old enough to choose for itself, it is the parents who are religious rather than the children. Indeed, this particular case is notable for the fact that it’s the mother who is quoted as saying “I can’t allow them to take it off because it is against our Islamic beliefs.”

She’s then quoted as saying “It is very sad. It is very disturbing” – and while she clearly means the actions of the school, those words could easily apply to some cases of children who are given no option but to believe what their parents do – and thus also easily apply to her previous quoted sentence.

But a 13 and a 16 year-old could also be Muslim by choice. Unfortunately, we often only get to know how much volition is possible when people try to change their minds (through observing how their families and community react), but it’s certainly possible that these two children are contented in this particular faith, and proud of being identified as members of it.

To go back to our caller to Redi Tlhabi, though: that account of how much choice was involved ignores the issue of how early indoctrination can start, and how powerful it can be. By the time one is 13 or 16, it can be difficult to see any other choice than the one your family made as being the appropriate or sensible one. You might never think of changing your mind, and we would then never get to see how unwelcome doing so might be.

These concerns need to be applied consistently, though. Given the high proportion of Christians in South Africa, the chances are good that many anti-hijab callers (and many of the hundreds who have expressed anti-hijab sentiments on the poll IOL is running) would see no problem with a child wearing a crucifix necklace. Because your indoctrination is evil and mine not, I suppose.

We can’t guarantee that these sorts of choices are made freely. But we can help to create a climate that encourages free and rational choice, and also taking responsibility for choices. Forbidding the hijab while permitting the cross encourages inconsistency and bigotry. Permitting them both – as well as any other outward signs of religious affiliation – can be done alongside restrictions that encourage civic virtues such as understanding and compassion.

I mean two things: first, that allowing the hijab, but insisting that it be in the colours of the school uniform, reminds the scholar that a plurality of values are competing, and that none should be assumed to have priority until the relevant debate has been held. And second, allowing religious headgear avoids sending a signal of prejudice, which will hopefully result in an increased chance for people like me to argue against the choice to ever want to wear the headgear or the crucifix.

The system of thought – or sometimes lack of thought, to be more honest about some forms of religious indoctrination – that forces some women to cover themselves near-completely does merit opposition, as does a tradition that won’t allow women to be priests, or to have abortions, or whatever the case might be.

But expressions of those ideologies are not equally thoughtless, and treating them all as if they are – or not allowing them at all – runs the risk of acting no differently to that which you’re protesting. If you don’t think children should wear a hijab or a fez, persuade them and their parents that they shouldn’t. As David Mitchell puts it, “It bears restating that it’s not bigoted to disagree vociferously with people’s choices, as long as you’re even more vociferous in defending their right to make them”.

And finally, if a public school doesn’t allow for the expression of alternative religious views (including the non-religious view), please report them to your local education board.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.