A French government agency has recommended that 2004’s ban on wearing “conspicuous religious symbols” in schools should be extended to universities, particularly the Muslim headscarf.
And here we go again.
France’s obsession with the hijab (Muslim veil) continues. The issue first arose in 1989 in relation to wearing headscarves in public schools and since then the government has responded to the debate by enacting two controversial laws, one banning religious symbols in state schools (2004) and another banning the full-face veil in public (2011).
According to Reuters, the details of the report were leaked to Le Monde. The French daily reported that the High Council for Integration (HIC), which is supposed to promote harmony in French society, suggested the law be extended to prevent tensions caused by religious identity particularly with regards to the veil.
Universities have thus far not been part of the ban because students are adults with free choice.
Why are the French so sensitive about the hijab? Back in April a high court decision related to the legality of firing a private caregiver on the basis of her headscarf, inflamed public debate.
Just last month France’s ‘Burqa Ban’ sparked a mew wave of violent clashes after police officers asked a woman wearing a head-to-toe veil to show her face. Her husband intervened but the police accused him of being a violent aggressor while the couple, including eyewitnesses, maintained that they were subjected to police brutality. This enraged the Muslim community.
All this fuss can’t just be in defense of secularism. France’s landmark 1905 law regarding the separation of Church and State takes into account religious freedoms.
Proponents of the ban often refer to the veil as a symbol of oppression while opponents advocate the opposite – it’s a fundamental freedom that’s nobody else’s business. So it seems that the hijab is not just a question of religious secularism, but one of feminism as well.
If feminism is real reason for opposing the Muslim veil (over other religious symbols) then why not have a similar reaction to the country’s track record on other women’s issues? According to Amnesty International at least one woman is killed by domestic violence every 4 days in France. Other issues such as rape and gender income disparity could be more productive subjects to preoccupy the feminist mind than a piece of fabric that does not directly affect those who oppose it.
Whatever the reason, the hijab remains a touchy and sometimes dangerous subject for the French.
Muslim groups have expressed grave concern over the leaked report.
"The separation of church and state cannot be reduced, as some want it to be, to an arsenal of laws against Muslims,” the March 15 Liberty Committee, a Muslim group opposed to the school headscarf ban, told Reuters on Tuesday.
Unless something is done on a national level to balance France’s secular identity and religeous freedoms. the country risks further isolating and stigmatizing Europe’s largest Muslim minority.