Some of the most heated arguments at the European Social Forum in Paris on Friday took place at the "Dimensions of Islam" conference.
The forum is a space for people from all over Europe to come togther to discuss how to build another world, and to organise opposition to corporate globalisation and war.
Salma Yaqoob, the chair of the Birmingham Stop the War Coalition in the UK, locked horns with French sociologist Chahla Chafik Beski, in an evenly divided auditorium.
“Why don’t Muslim men wear the veil?” asked Chafik Beski. “Because the veil symbolises the inferior status of women under religious law.”
Modesty and chastity
“Most Muslim women, like myself, don’t wear a veil. If you accept it as a necessary rite of passage, you are saying that we have no modesty or chastity. I reject that. I want to be a free citizen, and I want to be part of a movement to build a better world.”
Salma Yaqoob, who wears the hijab, countered: “Muslims in France are in the unenviable position of being vilified by the left and by the right.
“The attack on the right of women to choose what they wear, including the hijab, mirrors the imposition of clothes by the Taliban.”
“I also want a better world,” she added. “But we have to say to people from very different backgrounds outside of this room that there is room for all of us in it."
“Women wearing veils in the UK were spat at during the Iraq war. And in that situation, I stand 100% behind women who choose to wear the veil”
A British speaker
In the debate that followed, speaker after speaker pitched their coins on the issue.
To those like Chafik Beski, who lived through the Iranian revolution, the veil was a life or death issue that could not be used as a stick to beat the West with.
For many Muslim women in the audience though, it was an equally vital affirmation of religious and cultural identity in a racist society.
“Women wearing veils in the UK were spat at during the Iraq war,” one British speaker said. “And in that situation, I stand 100% behind women who choose to wear the veil.”
Another said she was a Marxist, but would wear a veil in solidarity with Muslim women who faced racist attacks.
Speaking to Aljazeera.net after the meeting, Salma Yaqoob said the French left could learn from the experience of the Stop The War Coalition in the UK.
Defending the oppressed
“The debate was powerful and very important,” she said. “We also faced these sort of questions from some on the left in Britain when we got involved in the anti-war movement.
“But there they seemed to be in the minority, whereas here they are the majority. In England, defending the right to choose to wear a veil is seen as an issue of defending the oppressed.”
However, Chafik Beski told Aljazeera.net that she also favoured the right to choose whether to wear a veil.
She said: “The problem comes when it ceases to be a question of individual choice. I work with Muslim migrants and because of religious dogma, they are not seen as real Muslim women when they exercise their right not to wear a veil.”
“The attack on the right of women to choose what they wear, including the hijab, mirrors the imposition of clothes by the Taliban”
Stop the War Coalition
The question of traditional Islamic dress is at the centre of deliberations by a national commission on France's secular principles.
While France is mainly Catholic, five million of its 58 million inhabitants are Muslim.
The debate over whether Muslim women have the right to wear headscarves at school, at work or even on identity photos, regularly causes a furore in France which is fiercely proud of its secular nature.
Although the headscarf is officially banned in French schools some feel the current law is too vague and is being abused.
Some Muslim groups say the ban is an attack on Islamic culture which alienates Muslims from French society rather than endears them to it.