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February 23, 2004 by AK

Headscarves for natives only

I’d rather not discuss Headscarves at state schools as a free speech issue; after all, the libertarian take on that is “there shall be no state schools”. A few years ago, a Mississippi public school demanded that a boy take off a necklace with the Star of David as it was allegedly a gang symbol. I don’t know if the prohibition was later voided by a court, but the school must have anticipated a law suit and decided that the ban had a good chance of standing. France, I suppose, is less fidgety about free speech than Mississippi and the US in general, so the recent veil — no, headscarf ban did not take many aback.

What about common sense then? It’s unbelievable that the forced bareheadedness will help Moslem students integrate — why should it? But a more important question is what right the French nation, of which most of those students are part, has to require them to integrate? I’d say, by the host nation’s right.

As in the 19th century and in most of the Soviet period, Russians have internal-use IDs called passports. A passport, of course, requires a photograph. The Ministry of Internal Affairs (essentially the police ministry) requires that citizens get photographed bareheaded for their IDs. Indeed, headwear does not help identification. For a while, though, the Ministry didn’t mind if Moslem women were pictured in kerchiefs; then Moscow started insisting on universal bareheadedness. A group of Tatar women sued; Tatarstan’s supreme court ruled in favor of Moscow. But eventually (2003) Russia’s Supreme Court struck down the Ministry’s regulations.

Tatars are Russia’s largest non-Slavic-speaking minority, so a compromise should have been expected. But it’s not just size that matters here: Tatars and Russians have been living side by side for ages. It was not Tatars who immigrated en masse to Muscovy; it was the Moscow czar who came to them and asserted his sovereignty over Tatarstan in the 16th century. (The genesis of the Tatars and relationship between Tatars and Muscovites are too complex to be discussed here.) It was also normal for Russian, Tatar, and Lithuanian nobles to switch sovereigns, so that a lot of Tatar lords were in the service of the Moscow great prince. The latter allotted a special fiefdom to Tatar princes in his service, the so-called Kasimov Czardom, which lasted until 1681. (I’m not sure all Kasimov “czars” were Tatars in the modern sense.) Later, Tatars spread all over Russia and its dominions. But the fact remains that they did not choose to move to Russia.


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