Monday, December 12, 2005

The Islamic Headscarf in France.

The point was raised over the weekend about France and the headscarf (also called veil). Most of our readers will recognize this as a reference to the 1989 incident which saw three girls expelled from school for refusing to take off the headscarf in the classroom. And also to the recent law passed in 2003 banning the wearing of ostentatious religious symbols. While both sides have fought and argued well, the media can sometimes oversimplify things (something which we’re all guilty of) so we thought it might be useful to provide a little perspective on the current situation.

Some people outside France sometimes think that Muslim women are not allowed to wear their religious headscarves even in the streets. The law only banned ostentatious religious symbols in schools. While I’m personally convinced that the law was pointless – in fact very few Muslim girls were going to school with their headscarves (at the most, 12,000 out of 200,000 girls), and most of those who did found some form of agreement with the school - the laws was passed to prevent religion from becoming too visible in the School of the Republic. [In the end, 639 girls came to school with a headscarf after the law was passed and only 47 were actually expelled - the rest made some form of compromise.] (here in French)
Interestingly, in the end the law was not really so controversial among Muslims. What changed the minds and attitudes of the few who had opposed it was actually the demand by the Iraqi kidnappers that the law be abolished in order for the French hostages (French journalists Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot ) to be liberated. Many Muslims demonstrated in the streets to defend their own right to have their own French Islam. What the exteremists in Iraq had accomplished was to "rally-round-the-flag" a majority of outrage muslims, giving them a sense of uniy and outrage, that it is not up to some foreigners to tell them what to do. (read here, here or here)
It seems that a lot of those Muslims who grew up learning French values and French history have integrated the idea of a secular state.
One other point: during the riots in France last month, there was absolutely no demand for a repeal of the law – in fact there was no demand at all. It was mostly an (improvised) expression of frustration, anger and boredom borne out of miserable living conditions. If anything, it showed that the youths in those impoverished neighborhoods want to be more like the rest of the French. They do not want to be a separate (religious or not) community and have no special demand other than becoming mainstream.
But that has unfortuntaely been missed or simply not taken into account by most analysts outside France. This is because the role of religion in France is often greatly misundertood. Once you understand better the French context and its historical context, the law banning headscarves makes sense, even if I personally still think it was not needed.
More on France and religion in a subsequent post....

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