Gender, diversity philosophical problems and political reality: Group affiliation and secular nationality conflict

By By Chandran Kukathas

By Chandran Kukathas

Last month, the French parliament passed legislation limiting the right of school children to wear clothing or ornaments symbolizing their religious affiliations. Though the law applied equally to those who might choose ostentatious displays of crucifixes, it was aimed largely at Muslim girls wearing the hijab-a head scarf regarded as symbolizing their religious commitment.

The law was passed after weeks of debate, which came after several years during which this issue has simmered in the melting pot of French politics.

Should the state be able to dictate whether and how people may express their religious commitments?

That this issue should be so important in France is understandable. For one thing, the tradition of secularism in the modern French state is something that was built expressly for the purpose of limiting the influence of the church in national affairs.

Any challenge to secularism is something France is bound to take seriously. For another, Muslims are a significant presence in French society, so any challenge, however mild, to the tradition of secularism from this quarter in particular was even more likely to provoke a response.

Yet this issue has become one that many outside of France are also struggling with, as scholars and philosophers on both sides of the Atlantic have engaged with the questions it raises. Why?

One reason is that the “affair of the head scarves” has brought into political focus in a dramatic way a number of philosophical questions about the nature of identity and the claims of gender and group affiliation in a culturally diverse society.

We are all individuals. But we are also men or women and people with loyalties to particular groups, religious communities or nations. Some say we have many identities-others say identity is complex, embracing a variety of attachments.

Whichever way one chooses to look at it, however, there is no escaping the question of what weight should be given to the concerns who wish to protect particular aspects of their identities and whether some identities should be given any protection at all.

Some feminists-particularly in the developed West-have concluded that when the claims of culture and the interests of women come into conflict, culture must give way. When the interests of women are adversely affected by practices or beliefs that harm them, they argue, we have reached the limits of cultural tolerance. For example, when some groups wish to limit the access girls have to education or insist on educating them into lives that subordinate them to men, the state should intervene to ensure that women are properly educated-even if this goes against the wishes of their communities.

Yet on these issues, feminists remain divided. While some see head scarves as symbols of women’s subordination to men, others think that such matters should be resolved within cultural and religious communities.

The question is, which identity should take precedence: the secular, cosmopolitan identity of the individual as a member of a nation-state or the particularistic identity of the individual understood as a member of a group or a community? And who, in the end, should decide?

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