|Maryam Namazie: The recent European
Human Rights Court’s decision in support of the Turkish government’s
ban of the Hejab in state schools and universities says this does
not violate freedom of religion. Does it?
Azar Majedi: It depends. I agree with a ban of the veil in schools,
including a ban on both teachers and under age girls. As it regards
banning of child veiling, my demarcation point is protection of
children’s rights. Veiling of under-age children is in fact violation
of their rights. Veiling has adverse effects on both their physical
and mental well-being. It deprives them of a normal, happy childhood
It segregates girls in school and in the society. By imposing veil
on girls you are categorizing them as completely different species
vis a vis boys, assigning different roles to them, setting totally
different goals and expectations for them in life. In short you
create and establish a system of sharply differentiated gender roles,
which in turns creates an unequal environment for their growth.
Child veiling discriminates against girls, and therefore it must
As far as teachers are concerned, I come to this position from
a defence of secularism’s point of view. I believe human’s rights
and women’s rights are better safeguarded in a secular society with
a secular state. Creation of a secular state is an important condition
for establishment of equal rights and equal opportunities for women.
From the stand point of secularism, religion and state, and religion
and education must be separated. State must not represent any particular
religion, i.e. it should take a neutral position vis a vis religion.
To do that I believe employees of the state and educational system
must not carry or wear any religious symbols. This is why I defend
the banning of veil for schoolteachers. Furthermore I agree with
a ban of the veil in public schools because it is a restriction
on the role of religion in the affairs of civil society rather than
religious freedom as such. The ban is aiming to restrict the meddling
of religion as an institution in the running of the state and society
Religious freedom is commonly understood as freedom of religious
beliefs and practice. However, depending on your point of view,
practicing one’s beliefs takes different dimensions. In a secular
society, religion is and must be separated from the state, education,
citizens’ formal identification and so on; it must be a private
matter. Therefore, from a secular point of view, the state and educational
system must not represent any particular religion or religious belief.
Using religious symbols, such as veiling, would be considered a
denial of the principle of secularism, and contradicts the principles
of a secular society. By banning religious symbols in public schools
and state institutions, one is aiming to safeguard a freer society
where religion remains a private affair.
Going back to your question, this ban is a restriction on religion
but not a restriction on individual freedom or individual rights.
In my opinion, this ban is a necessary step towards a freer society,
and furthermore, I believe restricting religion will help create
a more equal society, particularly for women. By restricting religion,
society is in a better position to respect individual/citizen rights.
But when you talk about adult women students attending universities,
then I have a problem with the ban. Such a ban then does not allow
adults to exercise their conscious will. I won’t get into how much
of those veiling are actually exercising their choice freely but
nonetheless it is something that should be respected.
Maryam Namazie: Some would argue that since the university is a
place of social gathering, it has different rules than let’s say
in one’s home or on the street. And so it is legitimate to ban the
veil in universities as well. What would you say?
Azar Majedi: I don’t agree totally. It depends on the circumstances.
There could come the times when in order to defend women’s rights,
you might take such decisions. I’m not sure this is needed in the
case of Turkey. Whereas in the case of a child you cannot recognize
veiling as a mere clothing, and the issue of free choice or freedom
of clothing does not enter the scene, in the case of an adult the
issue of free choice, freedom of clothing does come into the scene.
It doesn’t matter how oppressive or reactionary such clothing is
in my opinion; how much I think veiling discriminates against women
and places them in a lower status vis-à-vis men but if that’s what
they choose, then this is their choice. I do recognize the fact
that in actual reality women are either intimidated or pressurized
morally, emotionally to observe the veiling. But to offset these
pressures we need to change the fabric of the society, the value
system and create a freer society. In cases where it becomes apparent
that intimidation is used to impose veiling on women then I believe
the state must intervene to fight this intimidation, and in order
to do so it might come to the decision of banning the veil.
Maryam Namazie: So when it comes to adult women, you say it is
a question of freedom of clothing?
Azar Majedi: Exactly, but again if it is an adult woman working
in or representing a public institution, then any manifestation
of religion should be banned. Otherwise, it is a question of freedom
Maryam Namazie: The reasoning the court gave – which is important
given the advances of political Islam – was that "Measures
taken in universities to prevent certain fundamentalist religious
movements from pressuring students who do not practise the religion
in question or those belonging to another religion can be justified."
Do you agree?
Azar Majedi: This argument is a valid one and has its own merit.
But it has to be applied to specific circumstances. In the case
of Turkey I am not sure this is the case. If it is the case that
the force and impact of political Islam’s intimidation is felt so
strongly that young women are forced to observe the veil, then I
agree with the banning or other kinds of state intervention to fight
the intimidation. For example, I strongly believe that in case of
Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, there should have been
a ban in order to defend women’s rights because women were afraid
to leave their homes unveiled and that thugs would attack them in
their neighbourhoods and in the streets. In that situation that
measure had to be taken so women could dare to come out without
Maryam Namazie: so it depends on every situation, with the primary
focus of defending women’s rights.
Azar Majedi: Exactly, there is not just one golden answer to all
social and political situations. You have to take each one into
consideration and you have to uphold certain principles. The principle
for me is defending people’s rights, women’s rights and children’s
rights and so on. I think that is the main question you have to
answer. How can I defend rights the best; how can I make a society
in which these rights are best protected. Thus, in Afghanistan,
I would say a ban should be enforced – we could argue about that
- whilst in Europe I would say not. Here you would create a backlash
and be discriminating against a section of the society and a minority
following a religion, however reactionary the religion may be. A
ban here would be a violation of rights. If women are choosing the
veil, then you have to find other ways to fight religion, and defend
women’s rights. It is a delicate situation to reach the right answer.
You have to have a defence of rights and human principles like secularism
as your main framework. Other rights, such as freedom of expression,
freedom of clothing, freedom of religion – they are also important
rights. When fighting for women’s rights, you can implement other
measures than just banning veiling altogether. We have seen backlashes
in these societies, e.g. in Turkey. In Europe the question is not
so much religion I believe, especially among the second generation;
it’s more a question of fighting racism, alienation that western
society has imposed on them and a question of identity crisis.
Maryam Namazie: But don’t governments often defend rights via a
ban – and again it is not governments but movements that have imposed
progressive values on states – e.g. banning child labour. Isn’t
it important for states to ban in certain instances to defend rights?
Azar Majedi: Sure. This is a valid point and I quite agree with
your point. And it is from this point of view that I defend banning
of child veiling; it’s like banning child labour; it’s like banning
child caning in schools. But banning veiling for adult women in
all circumstances is going too far. I understand in public institutions,
teachers or employees of public institutions but banning the veil
for university students or for those who are customers or clients
of the state – that I am against. A change there can come about
via a change in culture, with educational measures and creating
situation where intimidation doesn’t work. Clearly women are forced
to choose veiling because of intimidation in many situations, because
they are under the moral pressure of the communities or families.
The state has to be ready to fight all forms of intimidation but
for the veil to disappear altogether, there are many measures that
need to be taken.
If the basis is defending rights, what happens when rights conflict?
E.g. right of clothing for adult women and secular schools?
Azar Majedi: Rights are not absolute. Any given right in the society
is conditioned by different social restrictions or constraints.
This is even true about unconditional freedom of expression that
we regard so highly, one is free to express oneself in any way one
wishes, but accusing others, making accusations against other individuals
is not permitted. This is a rather straightforward issue. But even
to decide on this straightforward issue, you need laws and legislation
in order to safeguard individual rights.
Some areas are more complex, and you enter the so-called gray
area. Religious freedom and principle of secularism may seem to
be one of these complex and delicate issues. One of the ways to
solve this conflict is to look back at history. The struggle against
religion’s role in the society and the state, the struggle to relegate
religion into private sphere, to restrict religion’s practices where
they violated human rights, children’s rights and women’s rights.
From the point of view of the man of religion the outcome of this
significant historical struggle might seem to have violated freedom
of religion, but from a libertarian’s point of view these restrictions
were essential for creating a more just and egalitarian society.
To get a clearer picture and to avoid any false assumptions, one
must look at the history of the development of modern and civil
society. Secularism is the product of this process and one of the
pillars of such a society. To eradicate the influence of the church
from the affairs of the state, to relegate religion to the private
sphere and to restrict the role of religion as an institution are
all significant achievements of modern society. The French revolution
is an important historical moment in this process. These restrictions
on religion became necessary in order to materialize the main slogans
of this revolution: ‘Freedom and Equality’.
As it regards freedom of clothing the same logic applies. Freedom
of clothing is restricted every day in society, for health reasons,
economic reasons, social reasons etc. Dress codes at work place,
uniforms at schools are very clear examples. People seem to accept
these codes. I might have objections to extreme dress codes, but
the discussion around these restrictions never enter a deep philosophical
debate on rights. If we agree that secularism is one of the important
pillars of a free and egalitarian society then I believe restriction
on so-called freedom of clothing in state institutions and schools
can easily be defended.
Religion is an outdated and outmoded institution with many practices
that violate the standards of modern civil society, genital mutilation
is an extreme case, and circumcision is another, the inhuman manner
in which animals are slaughtered according to Islamic laws. The
list is long. For me the key to reach the right and sound position
is respect for human rights and equality. I give prominence to those
rights that safeguard people’s equal rights and freedom.
How come in Europe it will create a backlash and not in Afghanistan?
Azar Majedi: We have to look at the socio-political framework or
context. I am talking about Afghanistan after Taliban. A society,
which was terrorized by a violent, inhumane movement, where religious
rule killed, tortured and terrorized people in unheard manners.
There, women were flogged, shot at and executed for non-observance
of religious laws, such as veil. To free such society from this
terror, to bring back any sense of normality to this society, to
establish freer relations you need to take so-called drastic measures.
If Taliban was overthrown as a result of a revolution the situation
would have completely been different. You would witness veil burning
at every corner of the country. The women’s freedom movement would
have risen to a prominent position in the society that could not
be ignored. In short Afghanistan after a revolution would have been
a different country. But Taliban was removed by American intervention,
and another Islamist tendency took over. Under these circumstances,
women, rightly, will not feel free to unveil themselves. The environment
of terror is not removed. It still feels strongly. Therefore, to
give any comfort and security to women would require a ban on veil
In the West, the situation is different. Political Islam lost
its legitimacy to a great extent after September 11. But after the
US-British attack on Iraq and its aftermath, political Islam has
gained some moral and political legitimacy in the eyes of those
opposing this atrocious act. In the Islamic communities many youth
have been recruited by political Islam, not for religious reasons,
but political ones. They are rightly angry at these atrocious policies,
they are under racist attacks and pressures from the wider society,
they feel isolated and alienated, so they choose political Islam
as defence mechanism, they see it as the only voice of protest.
In my opinion, to ban veiling at large will only intensify and aggravate
A rightful and just fight against political Islam and the other
pole of reaction, a progressive fight against racism will be the
answer to a complete defeat of political Islam. I believe, the ball
is in our courtyard. Our movement and trend is the answer. We have
to raise our voice and banner as high as for every one to hear and
see, then the majority of this youth will turn to us and turn their
back at political Islam. They should identify with us and not with