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Thursday, October 21, 2004

The fallout from the French headscarf ban

    Posted by Reena Ganga

The start of the school year in France re-ignited the debate over the wearing of the Muslim headscarf or "hijab". A new law banning conspicious religious symbols in French schools came into force, but hundreds of girls chose to challenge it, donning headscarves in protest of a law they considered "anti-Islamic".

Now the consequences are being felt. Two young girls have become the first French pupils to be expelled over the controversial law. The 12 and 13 year olds had refused to remove their headscarves despite repeated requests. About 600 cases of similar incidents have been counted since the academic year commenced in September, though most have been resolved through dialogue (which the law requires as a first step). Still, around 70 students across France who have defied the ban face expulsion. Those expelled will likely end up attending private fee-paying schools - resulting in greater segregation of religious groups.

However, it's not just Muslim students who have challenged the ban. Three French Sikh students have been suspended from school for refusing to take off their turbans and are now proceeding with a court case against the decision. Although France's Sikh community is small (consisting of 5000 - 7000 people, as compared to the 4.5 million-strong Muslim population), they've been among the first to take their case to court.

The religious symbol law is intended to reassert the neutrality of France's state schools as well as counter anti-Semitism and what is seen as rising Muslim fundamentalism. This has been reflected in the growing number of young girls wearing headscarves in public schools - a practice widely viewed in France as submissive to men.

Yet the ban appears only to have strengthened the militants. In August, a new element came into play when a group calling themselves the Islamic Army in Iraq kidnapped two French journalists. The fact that the French should become a target of Iraqi hostage-takers despite their strong opposition to the US-led invasion of Iraq highlights the significance of this event. The rebel group's demand: that France revoke the ban on Muslim headscarves. French Government officials rejected the demand, but continue to negotiate the hostages' release. Their fate remains unknown.

Despite heated debate that the law is aimed at Islam, secularism is deeply rooted in French society and the separation of the church and state has been constitutionally guaranteed since 1905. In 1937, the education minister instructed teachers to keep religious symbols out of schools and since then, various attempts have been made at clarifying what exactly constitutes a religious symbol. This latest law bars "conspicious" signs of faith, including Muslim headscarves, Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses. (The BBC has an excellent site on the issue of French Secularism).

In Germany, a similar ban on religious symbols has created conflict between Muslim and Christian school teachers. In September last year, Germany's highest tribunal, the constitutional court, ruled that the south-western state of Baden-Wuerttemberg was wrong to ban Muslim teachers from wearing headscarves in public schools since the rule didn't also apply to Christian nuns. But the states were given permission to ban religious apparel if it was deemed to unduly influence children. It now means that nuns, who often work in public schools in the predominantly Roman Catholic Black Forest region of the state, will be required to remove their habits before entering the classroom. However the author of the legislation argues that nuns' habits are considered to be "professional uniforms" in the region and thus exempt from the religious symbols law. Not surprisingly, the situation has angered Muslim groups.

France and Germany aren't the only countries to enforce such rules in the desire to separate the church and state. Endeavours to assert the neutrality of public institutions have resulted in headscarf bans (and controversy) in several other countries as well, for example, Turkey and Singapore. Secularism as a pillar of society is nothing new. But clearly, the reassertion of its principles in recent years has resulted in misunderstandings, such that rather than encourage unity and nationalism, the new laws have created a divisive rift between religious groups.

Links: Read exerpts from French President Jacques Chirac's speech on secularism and the religious symbol law.

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