Your Choice: Your Career or Your Identity Or other stories of Empowerment, Lebanese Style
The new regulation adopted by the Lebanese Internal Security Forces to prevent women from wearing the hijab to work on the field has stirred a lot of debate and controversy in the highly sect-sensitive state of Lebanon. Invoking the military Code of Conduct that purportedly doesn’t allow any member of the security forces to wear a confessional sign, military officials have requested the 40 or so women concerned to take off their veil in order to be able to serve on the field, something about 20 of them complied with. It is worth nothing that the women who have been asked to take their veils off had just successfully passed all their exams, a process during which absolutely no one told them they will have to choose betwwen the veil or the career later on. “According to the military code of conduct, whether it is for the police, army or general security, all religious symbols are not allowed,” said the security official interviewed by the AFP, who requested anonymity.
“Any symbols linked to a community or religion are banned, whether it be a cross, a veil or any other symbol,” he added. “We are simply applying the law[i].” Such confidence in the presence of a law or regulation may come as a surprise, especially after the thorough investigation of Rouba Abou Ammo for Al Akhbar[ii] which reveals politicians and high ranking security forces officials are passing the hot potato to one another, one stating “the law is unclear” while the other claiming “it has nothing to do with the Cabinet”. Surely, if the law was there and clearly stated, there wouldn’t be so much tiptoeing around? Truth is, while there are regulations preventing military and security forces recruits from openly practicing religious rites while on duty, there is nothing about the hijab per se, something that is confirmed by the many hijab wearing women from the airport security forces who check passengers for example. So why all the outrage in this instance?
The issue of sectarianism, is, as usual, closely intertwined with the issue of women’s rights and freedoms. While some feminists argue the decision is a step forward towards a confessionalism-free state, others are shocked to see that Lebanese security authorities are implementing a so called laic policy while keeping the system intact, making women pay the burden of phony rules once again, for this measure is highly stigmatizing and discriminatory for women wearing the veil who would like to have a chance to fulfill their positions to the maximum of their abilities, without being hindered by created barriers (others than the ones already in place thanks to our patriarchal society).
I feel the debate is on many layers here and I would like to study each point that seemed worth of importance to me.
First of all, it has been seen on many social media patforms and heard in conversations that activists against the sectarian system should rejoice because of that measure being a first step towards the end of the confessionalist state. In her article What is Political Sectarianism[iii]?, Maya Mikdashi indicates that it is, indeed, secular. Indeed, on paper, Lebanon has no official State religion and governmental bodies are separeted from religious entities. I stress the locution “on paper”, as it is clear to all of us that a truly secular state would not allow religious entities to meddle in the preparations of an anti violence against women law, nor would it calculate everything in terms of religious demographical balance. As activists, our struggle should therefore be aimed at getting rid of this religious influence and stranglehold over public matters, keeping religion at the level of the private, and that is my point: wearing a hijab should be a private decision, one that no one forces upon a woman, and that no one takes away from a woman. It is time we ask ourselves what type of state do we want. Do we really want to copy the French pitiful model of laicism that has done nothing except exclude and stigmatize? Don’t we want a state that includes and gather and strengthens the social fabric rather than divide and isolates? We’re not only talking about laws and systems here, we’re also talking about a political agenda that would encompass social justice for all, and civil and political and economic, and cultural and social rights for all. In that instance, the initiative to force women to choose between a career or their veil will have no impact on true secularism, it will only exclude women from applying to these positions and taking the test while they could have been fully qualified to start off successful careers.
Secondly, in the heat of the debate around allowing internal security forces women to wear the veil, the issue of the veil being oppressive because it’s a religious sign came up. This claim shocked several of my veiled friends who do not consider themselves submissive or oppressed by their headscarf in the slightlest, but who really feel agressed by such rhetoric. Religion and faith are private and that privacy should be respected, if a woman feels she wants to live her faith in a certain way and that covering her hair is an aspect of the practice of her faith, then where’s the oppression? The only instance in which the veil, or any other item of clothing is oppressive is when it’s imposed on someone, be it by way of peer pressure, social stigma or down right direct threat. The hijab isn’t a sign of being submissive, just as a mini skirt isn’t a sign of being a teaser, looking to attract men, as long as they are conscious, free choices made by women for themselves. The level of empowerment and agency of a woman should not be measured by the way a woman dresses, end of story. Isn’t forcing someone to take off her veil a measure as violent as forcing someone to put it on?
Lastly, I know Lebanon has always an eye toward the West, but it’d be nice that for once we create our own model. The pervasive trend of islamophobia currently happening in Europe, even in some leftist crowds where certain ideas of feminism and how an activist or a feminist should look like are rife , should not affect the way we think. It’s not because Frane has enacted a law prohibiting the veil and other religious symbols in all public spheres that Lebanon should embrace the action and do the same, then claim the country is on its way to modernization.
Let us not fall into the authorities’ trap of giving us decoys and crumbs to try and divert us from our aim of doing away with the sectarian system. Forcing a woman to shed a part of who she is in an attempt at showcasing a certain truncated version of progress has a name, and it’s called discrimination.