portada de BMM

by Joan Subirats

While people like Samuel P.Huntington or Giovanni Sartori strive to "enlighten" us with regard to the great dangers of multiculturalism, a recent survey (April 10th, 2001) shows that Catalan people think that immigration is Catalonia's main problem. It may sound like an exaggerated statement. It may be a standpoint we do not share. But we cannot deny that something is happening here. We can see how the streets and districts of Barcelona are gradually filling up with people who exhibit attires and other signs of cultures different from ours. Some indicative occurences here and there, a number of explicit conflicts and an increasing undercurrent of social tension are patent signs that this is a potentially complicated issue.
We do not have clear-cut answers to that problem. And it is most unlikely that we'll ever find any. So I merely wish to contribute ideas so that we might formulate better questions and, maybe, learn together how to work out the answers. My impression is that it will become more and more difficult to approach those issues related to cultures and citizenry from abstract and generic perspectives. We need to become deeply involved in those issues, in every single detail, instead of searching for reassurance and taking refuge in general categories that can be stretched to take everything in.
The case of the "chador"-wearing schoolgirls in France is a good example through which we could attempt to proceed beyond abstract considerations. As you know, in France, three young girls were expelled from public schools because they wore the "chador" or "hijab" at school. The expulsion was based on the argument that the girls' attitude was violating the principle that establishes that, in France, religion is a strictly private matter and public institutions such as schools are meant to abide by the rules of strict secularism. But the fact is that, in many countries and according to many creeds, to wear a given kind of dress is not merely a way to express adherence to a particular religious faith, because, for the believers, it is more a matter of compulsoriness than of personal choice. Let's consider the Sikh, the Jews, the priests and monks who still don the traditional religious habits, the penitents in purple dress or, as we mentioned earlier, the practitioners of some forms of Islam. If we acknowledge this situation, the prohibition of a given kind of dress should be supported by more solid arguments than the mere affirmation that our social and political tradition is based on the secularization of public powers. In France, the Council of State (a kind of constitutional court) reported that wearing religious symbols or attires could not be subject to official probihition. It merely admitted that pupils could be prevented from wearing them at school if such behaviour was considered to be aimed at proselytizing or exerting pressure on schoolmates.
In England, following years of debate about such issues, they seem to have worked out some fairly pragmatic solutions. In some cases, students are allowed to use certain pieces of clothing of great religious significance for those who wear them (the Jews' skullcaps, the Muslim girls' chadors or the Sikh's turbans) as long as all these garnments bear the distinguishing colours of the school they attend. In other cases, the Sikh are obliged to take off their turban at least during chemistry practicals. However, where the "chador" is concerned, we tend to consider that such a piece of clothing is a patent manifestation of women's submission and, by rejecting it, we seem to find reassurance in a certain feeling of cultural superiority. And such a prepotent point of view might well be the reason why some women from Islamic countries now choose to wear the "chador" or "hijab" as a way to manifestate their rejection of western cultural values, even though they had never worn it before. We should reflect and think about whether - as some people claim - the kind of clothes and shoes Western women wear might not also be expressions of submission, though based on different cultural patterns. All things considered, I think that nobody can deny that the wearing of the "chador" or "hijab" is part of a long-standing tradition of religious significance in some Islamic countries and, leaving out all ulterior motives for that survival, easy to imagine though they might be, I think that it is impossible to prevent people from dressing the way they want to, and that, therefore, we should be careful in delimiting the contexts in which we should place restrictions on the use of those garnments. (...)