Terra Incognita: Politics of the veil comes to east Jerusalem

But the issue isn’t really about openness as much as about politics and creeping attempts to insert “Islam” as an issue into public debate.

Students wearing headscarves. (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
Students wearing headscarves.
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
On August 24, 100 demonstrators gathered outside the gate of the prestigious Rosary Sisters Catholic girls’ school in Beit Hanina, a neighborhood in north Jerusalem. The protesters held signs demanding female students who wish to wear hijab or a headcarf be permitted to do so. The protest has created divisions between secular Muslims, Christians and outside political forces that seek to inject conflict into Jerusalem and is worth looking at as a symbol of various public battles regarding Islam, politics and Islamization.
Nassouah Nazzal of The Gulf News writes that “the Rosary Sisters’ School had always had a policy of not allowing veiled female students to attend graduation... however this year with more than 11 girls banned, the parents have decided to fight back.”
The issue is slightly more complex than that, however.
The Rosary Sisters is a uniquely Palestinian Catholic order, founded by a Palestinian Arab nun in the 19th century. Since 1886, when sister Marie-Alphonsine Danil Ghattas founded a school for girls in Beit Sahour, the Sisters have concentrated on encouraging female empowerment and education.
Their flagship school in Beit Hanina was founded in 1964. Over the years the policy has been that headscarves are not permitted on the closed campus, and since it is an allgirls institution, so the logic goes, there is no reason that religious Muslim girls should need to wear a veil. The issue of graduation became a contentious because it is a mixed ceremony, with many male family members attending.
In the Israeli left-wing press the hijab issue has been seen as an issue of “religious tolerance” when it comes to Muslim society (when it comes to Jewish society the opposite is true; the secular press sees religious Jews as ‘taking over’ or ‘penetrating’ secular society.) For instance in the one Haaretz report on this Nir Hasson writes, “But in recent years, these schools’ adamant refusal to let female students wear a hijab on school grounds has threatened to disrupt this openness.” A photo in the article which shows a woman clad head to toe in a black Saudi-style abbaya carries the caption: “Women have made the hijab into a symbol of Islamic feminism and empowerment.”
But the issue isn’t really about openness as much as about politics and creeping attempts to insert “Islam” as an issue into public debate.
The German Catholic Schmidt school near Damascus Gate, whose student body is thought to be about 95 percent Muslim, has a similar policy to that of the Sisters. When a teacher and a student wanted to wear a hijab at graduation the student’s name was removed from the graduation list and the teacher was fired. The principle, Nikolaus Kircher, told reporters afterward that “this policy was very successful for 125 years and I am very proud when visitors come from abroad and ask about the relations between Muslims and Christians, students and teachers.
I tell them, look in the yard, do you see differences? The school’s board is very clear that there be no difference between teachers and students, and we were very successful at keeping it that way until this case.”
Articles about the case note that Yasser Arafat had attempted to intervene in this issue before he died in 2004, and that in front of the Beit Hanina school demonstrators had demanded Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas intervene.
The hijab agenda posits that it is just about “religious freedom,” as some girls protesting in May against the Sisters told those present. Saeed Qaq, a photographer from east Jerusalem, posted his photos on Flickr, noting, “Palestinian female students hold placards calling for freedom of religion during a protest against the school administration... Muslim students accused the administration of Rosary Sisters’ School of ‘racism’ after [they were] prevented...from wearing hijab in the graduation ceremony.”
The girls in the photos wore red and black plaid Catholic school skirts, black slacks underneath and white headscarves.
Newspapers in the Muslim world also report it this way, such as The News in Pakistan: “Now the parents are fighting for the right to have their daughters attend classes veiled. Members of the parents’ union held a protest in front of the school. They said it’s not a religious issue but a personal freedom that should be respected by the school’s management.” Notice how here, the initial desire to just attend graduation has become a campaign to have all-hijab, all-the-time classes.
IN A post in Arabic on Facebook Professor Mohammed S. Dajani, a well known Palestinian academic who has often been outspoken in favor of religious moderation and tolerance, said he “could not stand silent about what is happening at Rosary Sisters... the demonstrations and sit-ins under the pretext of supporting demands of some local activists who want to impose wearing of the headscarf in a Christian school.” He connected the dispute to other politicizations. He noted that the policy of the Sisters in forbidding the veil among its mostly Muslim student body “aims to prevent discrimination and segregation between Christian students, Muslims who don’t want to wear the veil and those with the veil... it is not from a perspective of disrespect to the Islamic teachings, of which there is no consensus on the obligation of the headscarf.”
I spoke to a former student from the school who notes that this issue is galvanizing extremists on both sides.
“Many Christians have made the nuns who have stood firmly against changing the rules into icons, even though they are not. The nuns exacerbated the situation by forcibly removing scarves in a mean way over the years. At the same time there is a Facebook page now where extremist Muslims say Christians should pay the [jizya] tax for living on the land or be treated like da’aesh [the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria] treats Christians.” It entered the Palestinian discourse as well, as she noted some Christians began to object to the boycott of Israeli goods encouraged due to the Gaza war, noting, “if this is how our ‘nation’ treats us then why should we comply?” It has caused strained friendships.
The former student also noted the blatant hypocrisy of the “freedom of religion” claims; in Muslim private schools, such as al-Iman, the hijab is a compulsory part of the school uniform.
Only a decade ago, there were few girls, who often come from secular Muslim families, who wore the hijab outside of school, or demanded to wear it in school. “Now it is like 20, or 50 girls” who wear the hijab outside, said the former student. The school has instituted a policy of forcing newly admitted students to sign a paper saying they accept the conditions and rules.
The hijab issue is not about “freedom,” but about a combination of factors, one of which is, as the former students revealed, that it has become “cool” and “classy” in Islamic society to wear it. Teenage girls even wear it to rebel. But once a critical mass of head-scarf wearing is reached, “coolness” changes into a societal norm and imposition. And the feelings of the girls who once thought it “empowering” change over time.
“I had a friend who wore it her first year at Hebrew University and she said it changed everything. She lost many friends, her personality changed and she felt she was always talking to people behind a curtain,” an Arab friend of mine recalls.
Shaimaa Khalil of the BBC recently described in an article her journey into and out of the hijab.
“My family’s old photo albums speak volumes about Egypt in the 1950s and 60s...women are dressed in short-sleeved dresses...and the hair!” But then Saudi Wahhabi Islam penetrated Egypt and the hijab became the norm."
Shaimaa notes that she wasn’t forced to wear the veil, but nudged by her mother, and says she felt it was important to “do the right thing.” When she stopped wearing it in public 10 years later she was greeted by some scorn on social media for “abandoning my religion.”
The campaign for hijabs at Rosary isn’t about “religious freedom” or a more “open” society, and the fact that the few on the Left in Israel who know about it see it that way is the classic betrayal of secular values in the face of Islamification.
The Sisters is a private school with a dress code. No one minds the millions of Muslims attending private Muslim institutions where veils are forced on the students. No “religious freedom” there. That is always the irony of how these arguments work.
Saudi Arabia will endow a “religious tolerance” center in the West to teach “Islamic studies,” and order “religious freedom” for the West; while at home denying the most basic freedoms.
The combination of factors arrayed against the Rosary sisters: leftist journalists, hardcore Islamists, Palestinian officials, teenage girls engaged in a “cool” rebellion, is unfortunate.
It is also, unfortunately, the same kind of grand alliance that undermined brief attempts at secularism in Egypt and attempts to do the same in Turkey. The Sisters’ school in Beit Hanina is a symbol of that larger motif.
Follow the author on Twitter @sfrantzman