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Case scenario Islamic head scarf versus freedom.

Taraneh Assadipour walked briskly through the international arrival terminal of the Orly Airport in Paris. Her flight from Tehran had landed a few minutes earlier and Taraneh, accompanied by her 13-year-old daughter Shireen, was back in the city she had known as an undergraduate student, more than 20 years ago. She felt exhausted: it had been only a six-hour flight from Tehran, but a long and arduous journey for the 44-year-old woman. Taraneh was leaving behind the constraints and rigors of life under the strict Islamic code enforced in her homeland, to start a new life abroad.

She had not left Iran for 15 years, and the sight of bare-headed, smartly dressed Parisian women was startling. Taraneh loosened her scarf and let her neatly combed black hair free. Her daughter looked on disapprovingly; the slightly built teenager, her round face enveloped by a tightly knotted white scarf, had been reluctant to leave the only country that she had ever known. In contrast to her mother, she wholeheartedly embraced the Islamic code of behavior and vehemently rejected any suggestion that they restricted women's basic rights.

Shireen had been raised in an environment where gender segregation had become the norm. Women were separated from men in all public places, in schools as well as on city buses, at cultural and sport- ing events, even on the beaches. Shireen maintained, with all the conviction of her 13 years, that the constraints imposed on women, such as the mandatory use of head scarves and loose fitting garments in public, actually enhanced the status of women. Toeing the arguments put forth by the fundamentalist rulers of Iran, the young girl denounced Western attire as demeaning to women: fashionable clothing made them physically attractive to men, she said, thus reducing them to mere objects of desire. Modesty, on the other hand, underscored the Muslim woman's dignity.

Taraneh, a professional woman who had fought to preserve women's rights in her country, and had suffered subsequently the consequences of their loss, had resigned herself to her daughter's intransigence. She felt confident that once Shireen was exposed to a different environment, her views would moderate. One day, maybe, they could understand each other better. For now, however, mother and daughter were walking silently side by side.

A sensation of freedom seized Taraneh: she felt eager to rush forward and embrace a new life full of promise as well as uncertainties. Memories, however, kept racing through her mind. She remembered the heady days of 1979, when like so many other young Iranians, she had left a lucrative job abroad to come home and help build the new postrevolutionary Iran.

'How enthusiastic and naive we were' she thought to herself. Like many other members of the secular middle class, she had been slow to acknowledge the ominous signs of a new dictatorship taking shape: anticlerical publications were shut down, peaceful demonstrations were repeatedly and violently disrupted by young toughs - the self-described members of a shadowy and nebulous 'Party of God' and increasingly stringent demands were raised for the so-called Islamization of public life. As the noose of the newly established theocracy tightened, fear fast replaced the enthusiasm of yore. Taraneh vividly recalled how the newly consolidated regime required all women to wear the 'hijab', either a full-length cloth covering from head to toe, or, at the very minimum, a head scarf concealing the hair.

To protest these new restrictions on clothing, a group of educated urban women, braving the rising tide of intimidation, had called for a demonstration on the International Woman's Day, March 8, 1980. Taraneh could never forget that day: as demonstrators gathered to march, they were quickly surrounded by young toughs, some carrying clubs or chains, who mercilessly threatened and taunted them, before actually assaulting many. Taraneh remembered the fear that gripped her as the bearded young men lunged at her, chanting 'Yah roossaree, yah toossaree' - (either scarf on the head or blows to the head), and the stream of insults, especially the cries of 'Prostitute! Prostitute!' leveled at female demonstrators. Soon, panic set in, and the demonstrators, some wounded or badly beaten, dispersed. That night, Taraneh watched in dismay as the state television news broadcast reported, 'The outraged citizens of our Islamic country spontaneously stopped a group of provocateurs, remnants of the ousted imperial regime and other counterrevolutionaries, from defiling the dignity of the Muslim woman'.

The short-lived transition period between the fall of the imperial tyranny and the consolidation of the new dictatorship, which had witnessed the blossoming of freedoms and the rise of great expecta- tions, had drawn to an end. Most people withdrew from the public sphere and took refuge in their private lives. Many women were forced to resign from their jobs in public and private institutions as the expropriations and policy uncertainties contributed to deepen an economic downturn. Then came the Iraqi attack and a protracted and bloody war that was to last eight years. It was a time of extreme hardship with scant hope for better days. It was also then that Taraneh met Behrooz.

Like Taraneh, Behrooz had pursued graduate studies in the United States. It was difficult and risky to meet and virtually impossible to go out together, given the extraordinary circumstances of war and the newly enacted rules banning intermingling and socialization between the sexes as being tantamount to debauchery and perversity. As a result, the two married before they could get to know each other well. It was an unhappy marriage. The only fleeting moment of joy came when Shireen was born. After several years of strained relations, Taraneh sought a divorce. She then discovered, much to her dismay, that profound changes had taken place in the country's judicial system: the civil laws had been replaced by an Islamic code in various legal areas, from business practices to laws governing family matters. The rights of women, in particular, had been severely curtailed. Taraneh could not get a divorce unless her estranged husband consented to it. Further, the courts gave custody of children to fathers, in most cases.

For four long years, Taraneh tried to obtain a divorce and leave the country to join her brother Khosrow in France or her sister Afsaneh, a resident of the United States. Finally, shortly after Behrooz met and married another woman, he consented to the divorce and gave his first wife the custody of their daughter. It took Taraneh another year to sell off her belongings and secure the necessary documents to travel. She had eagerly awaited the day when she could start a new life abroad and that day had finally arrived.

Taraneh quickened her pace, tugging Shireen along. After undergoing extensive questioning by stern and suspicious immigration officials, the mother and daughter emerged into the crowded arrival hall. Khosrow was waiting there, beaming. The brother and sister embraced. Khosrow then turned to the niece he had never met. Shireen gingerly stepped back and extended her arm. They shook hands.

It took several months for Taraneh to adjust to the new environment. France had much changed from the days when Taraneh haunted the hallways of its venerable universities. The number of immigrants from Third World countries had risen and so had resentment against them. This hostility extended to the French-born children of immigrants, especially those of North African origin. Known as 'Beurs', these young French citizens of Arab origin were mostly the offspring of unskilled workers who had settled in France during the 1960s and 1970s to work in the factories or to take menial jobs that the French-born increasingly shunned. They grew in the sprawling housing developments that ringed the major cities. As economic conditions deteriorated in the 1980s and 1990s, unskilled immigrants were the first to lose their jobs and many became dependent on public assistance. The younger generation of people of North African ancestry was also besieged by a high incidence of unemployment. Some of its members had turned to petty larceny or other illegal activities. Most felt alienated from their parents' culture and, at the same time, rejected by French society. Indeed, populist and outright xenophobic political parties were successfully exploiting the resent- ment and fears of the populace. The National Front, in particular, had grown from a marginal and insignificant organization of the extreme right in the 1970s into a major political party of the 1990s, capturing 15 percent of the popular vote in the 1995 presidential elections. Its leader, the charis- matic Jean-Marie Le Pen, repeatedly demanded that France be for the French, denouncing the loss of national character, rising crime rates, unemployment and empty public coffers, all allegedly resulting from the presence of immigrants and their offspring.

A National Front mayoral candidate darkly warned of a future where a mayor could be named Mohammed, while others raised questions about the influence of Islamic fundamentalists among the several million Muslims living in France. The specter of a rising Islamic tide lapping at the bor- ders of the secular French republic and threatening its very foundations had become a popular and entrenched image. Muslim residents, especially observant or pious individuals, were facing deep suspicion. Although many among them rejected religious intolerance, they were widely viewed as the Trojan horses of fundamentalism. Taraneh was anxious. She was especially concerned about her daughter Shireen, who steadfastly refused to take off her head scarf in public. Shireen had made great strides in learning French and had started to attend the local public school. Her attire, however, had given rise to strong objections from the school administrators.

The principal and her associates were well prepared to manage the situation. As early as 1989, indeed, in the Paris suburb of Creil, a schoolgirl's insistence on covering her hair with a scarf had caused a nationally publicized confrontation. School authorities considered that wearing the scarf was tantamount to religious proselytism, and thus incompatible with the secular nature of the French republic and its institutions. The public school system was always considered a pillar of secularism and a conduit through which children of immigrants could be inculcated with ideas and beliefs that would facilitate their insertion in the French society. Thus the defiance of Muslim schoolgirls, first in Creil and later in a number of other localities, was considered a serious threat that had to be thwarted. The tug-of-war between school administrators and a majority of instructors, on the one hand, and devout Muslim girls and their parents on the other resulted in several expulsions of students and a call for national guidelines. In the fall of 1994, Francois Bayrou, then minister of education, issued a decree, formally prohibiting the use of any â??ostentatious religious signsâ? in public schools and mandating punishments, starting from initial warnings to eventual expulsions, for those who did not obey the new regulations. As a result, scores of Muslim high school students were forced to stop attending the public school system.

Taraneh had tried to coax her daughter into removing her scarf during school hours, but to no avail. The school had already issued several warnings to Shireen, and Taraneh knew that ultimately, she may have to leave for a country where her daughter's beliefs, as well as her own, could be accommodated. In fact, Taraneh had decided to move to the United States, should the pressure on her daughter become unbearable. She had already contacted the Houston, Texas, company where she had worked in the late 1970s, and knew that she could be rehired.

One day Shireen came home in tears. 'I am not allowed to go to school anymore', she announced. Taraneh took her aughter into her arms, and while consoling her, tried one last time to persuade her to submit to the school regulations. 'Never!' cried out the adolescent girl. 'It is not my head scarf that they hate, it is me!'

Three months later, Taraneh was sitting in the personnel manager's office of the Houston company, listening intently. 'Things have changed a lot since you were last here, Terry, I can call you Terry, right?' The lanky Texan continued without waiting for an answer. 'Our company has grown tremendously, but we have maintained our employee-friendly orientation: indeed, we are very much aware of the diverse backgrounds of our staff and try to be very responsive to their special needs. In particular, we are committed to create an environment where cultural diversity can thrive. As you have noticed, you will be working with people of many different ethnic backgrounds. Our company has been a leader in promoting multiculturalism in the workplace.'

Questions:

1. It is said that a person's freedom ends where it encroaches on another person's rights. Give your interpretation of this idea using examples. Do freedom and individual rights have a universal meaning or should they be defined differently in different countries?

2. Consider the headscarf controversy as a symbol of the broader debate on the status of women. Develop a cultural relativist approach and take sides in the events depicted in the case, accordingly. What can you say about the mandatory use of headscarves in Iran? About their mandatory removal in French public schools?

3. In the controversy over headscarves in French schools, many liberals and intellectuals have found themselves siding with extreme rightists and national groups denouncing the use of headscarves. What are the likely motivations of the first group and what probably incites the nationalist groups to oppose headscarves?

4. What may explain American society's greater tolerance for publicly expressed differences in religious or cultural behavior? Does the emphasis on multiculturalism reduce the possibility of minority groups to fully participate in mainstream society? How could it strengthen or weaken the national unity and sense of purpose of a country?

5. What factors affect the status of women in a society beside the cultural tradition? In what way the attitudes toward women in conservative Moslem countries may be reminiscent of those prevailing in America, at an earlier time?

6. Imagine that you are the manager of a French subsidiary of an American multinational company. How would you handle the problem of several of your French managers objecting to the Islamic dress code observed by immigrant women secretaries?

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Questions:

1. It is said that a person's freedom ends where it encroaches on another person's rights. Give your interpretation of this idea using examples. Do freedom and individual rights have a universal meaning or should they be defined differently in different countries?

The interpretation of this idea is pretty straightforward. There are individual rights that are guaranteed by a nation to its citizens. These rights take precedence over another individual's freedoms of expression or action. My neighbor has the freedom to have a party in his house on a Friday night. If however his party gets loud and out of hand and if his guests are loud, are staggering around in his front yard and urinating on the lawn then his freedom to have a party has infringed on the individual rights of his neighbors to privacy. A reporter has the freedom to search out a story in order to make a living. However, if the reporter invents information about a celebrity in order to sell a story the individual's right to privacy and freedom from libel has been violated.

Freedom and individual rights do not have a universal meaning but should rather be defined differently in different countries. Americans value their right to own guns, however many nations around the world cringe at such a thought. Many European countries allow the freedom to engage in nude sunbathing on their beaches but one should not assume that Israel, Arab countries or Asian countries should allow the same practice. In Thailand it is a federal crime to insult the king or vandalize his image. That is accepted as normal and is encouraged and embraced by the citizens. In America we laugh at this idea and think that it is our God-given right to insult and mock our leaders.

2. Consider the headscarf controversy as a symbol of the broader debate on the status of women. Develop a cultural relativist approach and take sides in the events depicted in the case, accordingly. What can you say about the mandatory use of headscarves in Iran? About their mandatory removal in French public schools?

The use of the headscarf makes some sense from a Muslim cultural point of view. If you stand back and take a look at Western images and perceptions of women it can be appalling. Women are treated as sex objects by and large. This is true in the entertainment industry, magazines, sports and unfortunately even in the family. Few pictures of the "average" woman will ever grace a magazine. Even the models have been airbrushed and "photo shopped" in order to maximize their sensuality and remove "imperfections." Our growing and detestable appetite for pornography, especially child pornography is a stain on our culture. The world views America as a mixture between "Baywatch", "Sex and the City" and "American Pie" so it is no wonder that they perceive us to have objectified women. In the Arab mindset the way to keep a woman from being an object ...

Solution Summary

This solution is a response to a case scenario regarding the wearing of the Islamic head scarf. The scenario is included as well as response to several questions that are raised. Individual rights, freedom, tolerance, religious observance and cultural realities are examined. Nearly 2,000 words of original text are included as a response to the original case scenario.

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