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Opinion: Is the Immorality of France Prohibiting the Hijab Equivalent to Iran Enforcing the Hijab?

On one hand France, as a Western secular democracy, prides itself on conferring innumerable freedoms and rights to women while on the other hand, it legislates a discriminatory law that specifically targets Muslim women.

Despite the plethora of issues plaguing France such as one out of every five children living below the poverty line, or the infringement of freedom of speech when pertaining to criticizing Israeli, the increasing rates of teenage prostitution, and the growing unemployment rate, the French Senate decided the most pressing concern to tend to is outlawing women from dressing modestly.

Concerned with religious extremism harming innocent girls, the French Senate passed a measure that would ban anyone under the age of 18 from wearing a hijab in public – of course, this is all whilst prostitution remains as a protected form of expression in France. Although teenage prostitution is booming in France, and approximately 10,000 young women are being groomed into selling their bodies across the country, the most rational response is outlawing millions of other teenage girls from observing a religious garment meant to privatize their sexuality in a hypersexualized society.

Albeit the absurdness of outlawing the hijab should be crystal clear for any person with a functioning brain, many retort that it’s hypocritical to criticize France for prohibiting the hijab whilst remaining silent, even worse supporting, Iran’s enforcement of hijab. In what follows I wish to provide two reasons why critiquing France whilst supporting Iran’s enforcement of hijab is not hypocritical.

Firstly, France’s decision to prohibit the hijab contradicts the democratic values it prides itself by. Secondly, Iran’s decision to enforce an Islamic form of dress code in the public sphere of society is merely an extension of the form of governance and law that a majority of its population wants. 

Objections targeting Iran often cite infringement of autonomy as the primary issue with hijab laws in Iran. Although autonomy has received much-elevated status in contemporary socio-cultural discourse, it is still a vague notion and doesn’t, contrary to popular belief, reserve an unconditional status in law. In fact, many laws restrict autonomy when it conflicts with the common good as understood by that particular society. I will be fleshing out these two points in hopes of illustrating how one can critique France for betraying secular democratic values whilst supporting Iran’s decision to enforce the hijab.

Lastly, one mustn’t conflate supporting imposing a dress code with the topic of how to impose such a law. One can be in favor of imposing a dress code whilst opposing contemporary mechanisms employed by Islamic countries to enforce it. Thus, supporting the dress code should not be conflated with supporting harsh ways it may be implemented. Lastly, for the sake of brevity, I will be assuming that the near consensus on this issue by scholars is enough, for the purposes of this discussion, to assume that the hijab is an Islamic precept ordained by Islamic law. 

As a secular democracy, France is infringing upon democratic values and principles such as the right to religious freedom by unjustly targeting Muslim women who wish to observe a religious garment. Since the hijab exerts no harm on those who don’t observe it, nor does it exert any harm on the individual observing it, prohibiting observing it is a blatant example of discrimination on the basis of religion.

On one hand France, as a Western secular democracy, prides itself on conferring innumerable freedoms and rights to women while on the other hand, it legislates a discriminatory law that specifically targets Muslim women.

Comparing the dress code prohibitions of France with Iran is a clear example of a false-equivalency logical fallacy. False equivalency refers to drawing an equivalency between two subjects simply because they share some characteristics, despite the fact that there are also notable differences between them. Just because France and Iran enforce certain dress codes, it does not necessarily follow that they are committing a shared injustice. 

There are very stark differences between the political system of Iran and France, and as such, one should naturally expect different laws. As much as the West wishes to paint Iran as a repressive country filled with resentful citizens who wish to overthrow the government and replace it with a Western democracy, this is far from the truth. France outlawing the hijab is the product of decades-long of anti-Islam bigotry in France whereas Iran prohibiting immodesty and enforcing an Islamic dress code as understood by certain interpretations of Islamic law is a form of protection for society from indecency, for an Islamic country that primarily consists of Muslims who want an Islamic form of governance.

Iran isn’t enforcing hijab in the West, nor in non-Muslim countries. Iran is enforcing it in a country that most people want Islamic law to be the mode of governance. By predicating the law based on Islamic rulings, it is governing society based on the belief system of the majority of people – the West cannot impose its standards, principles, and values on others. To respond by saying, “But many are against the hijab laws in Iran”, is meaningless because there will always naturally be those who disagree with the laws of their country – we have no shortage of that in the West either.  

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One may respond to Iran having the right to govern on the basis of the belief system of the majority of people by saying, “Just because a lot of people want that law, it doesn’t make it right!” That’s certainly true, majority support for a law does not prove its morality. However, deviance from the Western standard of values also does not prove immorality. Iran mustn’t be critiqued through a Western paradigm, as such a perspective presupposes the West’s principles and values being the benchmark of morality and “progress”. If one is to criticize Iran enforcing an Islamic dress code despite the predominant support for it on the basis of it “violating autonomy”, then the same criticism can be applied to the West, and nearly every country.

However, such an argument is absurd because autonomy is routinely restricted for the sake of the common good. A clear and simple example are restrictions placed on drinking alcohol whilst driving. Such laws infringe upon one’s autonomy, yet they are accepted because otherwise drunk drivers place others in harm’s way. Autonomy is not uninhibited and totally free, and every country’s law acknowledges this in accordance with its understanding of the common good.

When it comes to the topic of clothing and dress code, autonomy is restricted in virtually every country. Rather what occurs is a demarcation of what is considered socially acceptable, and within those bounds, one is free to wear as they wish. In America, nudity, also known as naturism, is illegal for the very fact that it damages the common good. Does it infringe on women’s right to dress as they wish? Yes. Is this law adopted by nearly every country? Yes. Is this law commonly contested? No, because it is understood that normalizing nudity in the public sphere can be incredibly damaging to the social and moral fabric of society.

Within the realm of sexual ethics, incest, polygamy, necrophilia, and a whole host of other matters are considered illegal precisely because they are judged to contravene common social goods, irrespective of personal choice, consent and other ideas. When we come to the matter of hijab and the perceived elements of social goods, we have an analogous case to that of public acts of drinking and drunkenness. If women are to wear absolutely what they want, (which occurs in no country whatsoever in the world), there are a range of social harms that can potentially occur.

It would be no good to object that equating the enforcement of preventing nudity to enforcing hijab are radically different cases, because the former is almost unanimously accepted worldwide whilst the matter of hijab is contentious and has religious connotations. This is because if the objection to enforced hijab stems from perceived infringement of autonomy, then this infringement occurs in the case of naturism. There must be a morally relevant difference between the two infringements to autonomy that justify it in one case and not the other. Simply to say that one case is immediately justifiable whilst the other is not, is to merely to prefer one worldview over another.

Whilst this is okay to do on a personal level, it can hardly be considered a devastating and sophisticated argument. If one is consistent and says that both acts of infringement are morally impermissible, a deeper discussion would be needed on public and private goods and autonomy, which means the matter takes a deeper philosophical dimension which requires an entirely separate discussion. If we assume that the first infringement is acceptable, we must give a different reason, other than the violation of autonomy, as to why the second infringement is unacceptable.

Of course, the second way in which one can object is to say that there are no common goods obtained by such an enforcement or even that the resultant damage is greater than any common good. Whilst clear reasons can be given for why preventing naturism is necessary, the same cannot be said for the case of hijab. However, such an objection simply begs the question. That there are no common goods to enforcing hijab is precisely what is at dispute and thus to assume this premise immediately without argument is incorrect. Therefore, if one were to critique the dress code enforced in Iran, it cannot be on the basis of it infringing upon the autonomy of women – because autonomy is restricted in nearly every country for reasons provided above.

In conclusion, it is clear that France’s recent hijab laws are a clear violation of secular democratic values, and believing so whilst supporting the dress code enforced in Iran does not contradict such a stance. Iran is enforcing the dress code in a predominately Muslim country that wants an Islamic form of governance. Furthermore, invoking upon infringing autonomy to contest Iran’s hijab laws is unsubstantiated since autonomy is restricted in every legal system.

If Iran’s dress code laws are to be contested, it cannot be on the basis of conferring women with the right to decide how to dress, as such a right does not exist anywhere. It would be more meaningful to have a deeper philosophical and moral discussion over whether the Islamic worldview and understanding of the common good is justified or not.

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