Panel Debate During the 37th Regular Session of the 2018 UN Human Rights Council: The Headscarf Represents a Source of Commonality Between Islam, Christianity and Judaism

GENEVA, Feb 23 2018 - Renowned experts representing the Islamic, Christian and Jewish traditions concluded that the headscarf is a source of commonality between the three main Abrahamic religions: Islam, Christianity and Judaism. The joint call to action was made during a panel debate organized by the Geneva Centre for Human Rights Advancement and Global Dialogue (hereinafter “the Geneva Centre”) and the Permanent Mission of People’s Democratic Republic of Algeria to UN Geneva on 23 February 2018 – on the margins of the 37th regular session of the UN Human Rights Council (26 February to 23 March 2018 ) – at the United Nations Office in Geneva on the theme of “Veiling/Unveiling: The Headscarf in Christianity, Islam and Judaism.”

The objective of the panel debate was to deconstruct existing myths regarding the use of the headscarf and its politicization in modern societies. It likewise aimed to explore the role of the headscarf as a source of unity and communality between different cultures and religions worldwide.

The moderator of the panel debate – the Geneva Centre’s Executive Director Ambassador Idriss Jazairy – observed that the objective of the debate and of the exhibition is to address stereotypical views on the use of the veil and “reveal the headscarf as a connecting thread and an element of convergence in Christianity, Islam and Judaism. The headscarf represents commonality, rather than discord; it should connect and build bridges between cultures, rather than divide. It has played an important role in defining identities in all three Abrahamic religions.”

The Geneva Centre’s Executive Director added in his statement that the use of the so-called “veil” must not become the subject of politicization and deny women their personal freedom of choice regarding the use of the headscarf. He said that “denying women their right to wear or not to wear the headscarf” violates Article 18 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. “Imposing it on women or prohibiting it by law represent a violation of their basic rights. The only way to defend women’s rights and to promote the advancement of their status is to respect their right to choose,“ said the Geneva Centre’s Executive Director.

During Ambassador Jazairy’s presentation, a video was projected to the audience in which showed the act of the Australian Senator Pauline Hanson in August 2017 to request the Attorney-General George Brandis to ban the use of the Islamic burqa in Australia. In this regard, the Executive Director of the Geneva Centre stated that this “display of Islamophobia and cultural insensitiveness” was an “illustration of the ways in which the Islamic headscarf is being manipulated for political ends.” The reply of the Australian Attorney-General – he said – condemning the “mockery of religious garments in the Australian Parliament” as he objected was a “symbol of Statesmanship,” according to Ambassador Jazairy.

The Deputy Permanent Representative of the People’s Democratic Republic of Algeria Mr. Toufik Djouama said that a “degrading image about the Islamic headscarf” is being cultivated by numerous groups that believe in the “clash of civilizations.” The use of the veil – he said – is “a personal choice” taken by Muslim women. “Others see it as an attachment to their identity and cultural heritage. Others see it just as a traditional dress or a symbol of decency,” added the Deputy Permanent Representative in his statement.

In order to address prevailing stereotypes about the use of the headscarf, Mr. Djouama observed that promoting “dialogue, mutual understanding, respect of human rights and diversity” must remain key priorities for governments, civil society organizations and academia. The freedom to manifest one’s religion or belief in public – he concluded – as stipulated in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights must allow women to decide themselves whether to wear or not to wear the headscarf.

The use of the headscarf is a common tradition of humanity and a source of liberation for Muslim women

In her statement, Ms. Elisabeth Reichen-Amsler – the Director of the section “Church and society” within the Evangelical Reformed Church of the Neuchâtel Canton (EREN) – remarked that the use of the headscarf cannot be considered as solely belonging to Islam – as often presented in public discourse – as its roots can be traced back to ancient cultures in Mesopotamia, Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire and the birth of Christianity. “The obligation for married women to wear the headscarf was already mentioned in an ancient law written in 1120 B.C. by an Assyrian king,” said Ms. Reichen-Amsler.

In the letter of Paul of Tarsus to the Corinthians in Genesis 2:21 – she added – women were obliged to wear the headscarf. This obligation lasted for approximately 1900 years in Christianity. It was only during the 1960s that women were no longer obliged to wear the headscarf for religious purposes. This explains the different interpretations of Islam, Judaism and Christianity regarding the use of the headscarf.

She remarked as a Christian in her statement that “our multiculturalism can be a source of insecurity for some.” This can however trigger people’s interest in the Other – it was noted – but also in their own roots so as to compare differences and similarities between cultures and religions. Ms. Reichen-Amsler concluded that it is important to bridge gaps that exist between traditional and modern cultures and to “reflect on how we can respect each other while maintaining our individual freedom.”

Dr. Malika Hamidi – author of the book “Muslim feminism – why not?” – highlighted in her statement that feminist and secular movements in France had objected to the wearing of Islamic headscarves by Muslim women as it allegedly violated the right to their liberty and dignity. However, Dr. Hamidi remarked that numerous women in political and secular movements have recalled that there is “no contradiction between the headscarf and freedom” and “between the dignity and respectability of women.”

In this context, feminist movements in French-speaking Europe – she said – remain “shaken” by the fact that some Muslim women hold the view that the headscarf has “liberated them in their relationship with men and European societies.” “The fact that women are wearing headscarves, within the limits determined by Islam may allow them to gain more respect but represents a vector of social, political and cultural participation which is strongly questioned in the West,” she remarked.

Dr. Hamidi concluded her statement underlining that the headscarf is considered by a sizeable proportion of Muslim women as a condition for “feminist liberation” and as “a mode of existence and a way of being” which should allow Muslim women to have a voice in modern societies.

Dr. Valérie Rhein – an expert on theology holding a PhD in Judaism at the Institute of Jewish Studies, University of Bern – stated that the use of the headscarf is an ancient tradition of Judaism. It was a custom – she said – “for a Jewish bride to veil her face before the marriage ceremony” as this practice is mentioned in Genesis 24 of the Bible which describes the first encounter between Isaac and Rebekah.

She added that the Talmudic law – rooted in the concept of Zniut/Modesty – also required women to cover their hair after marriage as it symbolizes belonging to “observant Judaism” and of being married. It was also incumbent on men to wear a headgear (kippah) as it symbolises a “sign of respect” and a “relationship towards God.” She concluded her statement saying that the “more commandments a person has to fulfil, the better,” underlining that the use of the headscarf would be “considered a privilege.”

Addressing prejudice and intolerance must remain on the agenda of decision-makers

Following the intervention of the panellists, the moderator opened the floor to the audience. The counsellor for human rights of the Permanent Mission of Australia – Mr. Kevin Playford – welcomed the Centre’s comments on Australia and underlined that the “veil can often be misunderstood” as a symbol of religious expression. The act of the Australian Senator Pauline Hanson to wear a burqa in the Australian Parliament – he said – does not represent the true values of Australia. Her acts were meant to “marginalize the Muslim community” in Australia and were strongly condemned throughout the Australian society. “Australia is a country of rich multiculturalism and religious diversity and a tolerant and inclusive society,” stated Mr. Playford where one in four inhabitants were born overseas and one in two were either born abroad or had parents coming from overseas.

The Ambassador of the Permanent Delegation of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) H. E. Nassima Baghli asked the panellists to express their views on the restrictions on secularity in relation to the expression of people’s religious beliefs. Dr. Rhein said that different religious groups “must work together and fight for their rights” in order to address factors impeding their right to express their religious beliefs. Ms. Reichen-Amsler added in her statement that Switzerland is based on the ideal of inclusive secularity and not on secularism. “Everyone must be included because of their specificities” – she said – in order to allow members of society to live in peace.

H. E. Ambassador George Papadatos – the Head of European Public Law Organization’s delegation in Geneva – stated that the main triggering factors behind Islamophobia and the politicization of the use of the headscarf are ignorance and prejudice. Ignorance – he underlined – could be erased by disseminating information whereas prejudice requires a multifaceted approach to deal with its root-causes. In reaction to Ambassador Papadatos’ statement, Dr. Hamidi stated that access to education was hampered by not permitting girls to attend school while wearing a headscarf in some advanced countries. However, education had priority over concern of girl students to comply with tradition in terms of headwear.

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