France: Headscarf banning

I’m not sure if this issue has been discussed here, but since it’s happening now, at my husband’s university, I thought it would be interesting to see what Dopers think of this issue.

Just one example, excerpted below

“January 1999: French Teachers Strike Over Muslim Headscarves, RENNES, France (Reuters) - Tensions between Muslim fundamentalists and France’s lay school system bubbled to the surface Wednesday as teachers at a junior high school in Normandy refused to teach Muslim students wearing headscarves. Teachers at other schools in and around the northwestern town of Flers announced plans for a mass demonstration and strike Friday in support of the teachers who have refused to report for work at the College Jean-Monnet since Monday. The majority of the school’s teachers walked off the job after education authorities ordered the school to take in a 12-year-old student of Turkish origin whose family insisted that she wear an Islamic headscarf to class. Tuesday a second Muslim student sought to be enrolled after presenting a letter from her parents saying she too planned to cover her head with an Islamic-style scarf in school. Segolene Royale, junior minister for secondary education, sent a government mediator to Flers Wednesday morning. The current controversy has divided Flers, with a minority of teachers favoring the Muslim girls’ enrollment and the town’s association of Turkish residents criticizing the girls as isolated cases. Islam is France’s second largest religion after Catholicism, estimated at four to five million people, most of them from former French colonies in North Africa. Controversy has simmered in France for years over the extent to which the school system had to accommodate Muslim students. But the dispute in Normandy marked the first time the issue had flared up since the current leftist government took power in mid-1997. In 1994, the conservative government then in power issued rules banning “ostentatious religious symbols” from secular state schools. It said the ban applied only to Islamic-style headscarves, however, and not to similar religious symbols like crosses worn on necklaces or Hebrew skull caps. Over a hundred girls were subsequently expelled from their schools while several hundred others defied the ban. The girls and their families said they were merely observing the Muslim religion but the French government and many teachers argued the scarves, as symbols of Islamic fundamentalism and the repression of women, were preventing their wearers from becoming integrated into French society.”

My husband, as some of you know, works at a French university, just outside of Paris. Last night he was telling me that one of the professors in his department (Theoretical Physics) resigned (not fully, just refused to teach a particular class) because one of his female students was wearing a hejab (head covering worn by Muslim women). The person who relayed this story to him (his office-mate) believed strongly that the professor who resigned was right in his actions. My husband asked her if the student was in any way causing any disruptions in his class because of the head covering. She answered, “No, but it’s not right.” He asked if there would be a similar reaction if a student were wearing a crucifix or Star of David, or in fact, a yarmulka (head covering worn by Jewish males)? She replied that those were “normal” while a headscarf was not. She claims that now that this student is in France, she should abide by French customs and styles. I’m sure she didn’t appreciate the irony that the student is Algerian.

Please review the following facts about this particular case:

  1. He didn’t ask the student to remove the head covering. I’m not certain of how he treated her during the course of the class.

  2. The head covering was in no way a safety hazard; it’s a fundamental theory class, not a laboratory.

  3. The student was participating fully in the activities and projects in the class, including interaction with males.

  4. The student did well in the class and caused no disruption because of her style of dress.

  5. The student did nothing to promote her religion or bring her religion into the discussions in class.

I’m not certain if this issue is one of women’s rights or of religious rights. I’ll need to do a bit more research on how this decision was made and what the law actually says. Perhaps someone with better French (clairobscur) can shed some light on the actual wording of the law.

Until I heard of this particular case in my husband’s university, I was unaware that there have been continued problems with French teachers striking because of female students wearing headscarves. When I first heard of this situation, I was incredulous. I couldn’t believe that this was actually occurring in modern times. I couldn’t (and still cannot) think of any reasons why these actions by teachers are justified. I say this as a devoutly atheist person who has no personal investment in any organized religion.

I think this brings up a fine opportunity to discuss the issue of a government’s role in the religious and public life of its citizens. Is a government right in dictating what a person can wear? Is this the same as religious persecution? What should the punishment (?) be for a student who refuses to abandon her religious dress? Was the professor in this case justified? Is this just a case of institutional racism? Sexism? A matter of integration of immigrants? Something else?

The outcome of this particular case remains to be seen. I know the head of the CNRS (The National Science Research Center) is involved at this point, since the professor technically works for the CNRS.

An aside: OT - For those who believe the French government is pro-Arab and anti-Israeli, this issue should be considered.

BBC article about this issue

Good Lord, what possible justification could there possibly be for this blatant discrimination? Is this just a French thing or a European thing? Can’t the student file a lawsuit alleging discrimination or something and bring it to the courts?

Neurotik, I’m not certain if it’s a French thing exclusively. The article linked above says this law is also used in Belgium.

I really don’t know about the lawsuit thing, since it’s a law (the banning is, anyway).

I’m wondering the same thing myself. By the way, it’s described as ‘religious ostentation’ to wear a hejab, but not a crucifix. So, it’s not just ‘no religious symbols at all’ but ‘no headscarves.’

Does the French school system require Jewish males to wear foreskins too? :wink:

jimm are you channelling someone? Someone with the initials JDT?

It’s disgusting. Pure, unadulterated intolerance. Sort of gives the lie to the recent “the French are biased towards the Arabs” spiel we get from some posters, but it sure doesn’t say very much for the intelligence or ethics of French teachers.

Singapore has a hang up about this…

I know that in Hong Kong (and in the UK) it is not only OK for Muslim girls to wear a hijab at school, but they even issue these garments to Muslim women in the police and other uniformed services. And Sikh men can have turbans.

What’s the French problem???

I agree completely with you, RickJay. Especially since it’s in some ways a teacher’s responsibility to encourage tolerance and acceptance of others.

I didn’t open this thread in the Pit deliberately, because I didn’t want to bash the French decision to pass this law, I wanted to understand it. I’m hoping someone with more knowledge about this will come in and bring us more information, possibly give us some (is there one?) of the justifications for the decision.
(As an aside, I’m not bringing up this point to French-bash. As many of you know, I’m also deeply critical of other countries as well. I’m an equal-opportunity critic! :wink:

I don’t know who JDT refers to, but what I meant by the crack was that there is a grey area between that which is cultural and that which is religious, and that banning something in this grey area is absurd and intolerant.

And of course I expected you to infer all of that from a single non-sequiteur…

jimm, JDT is Jack D Tyler, a poster who had a particular ahem interest in foreskin and the preservation of it.

I’m wondering how a scarf, (which is often worn in France, as I’m sure you know, as a fashion statement) could be considered ‘ostentatious.’

Actually, there’s no law on this precise topic, only jurisprudence from the “Conseil d’etat” dating back to 7-8 years ago, following the major “scarf issue”, when several girls were excluded from their schools, teachers refused to work when students wearing a scarf were attending the class, and many cases were bring to the courts.

Basically the “Conseil d’ Etat” ruled that indeed “ostentatious religious symbols” were forbidden in schools, but that the scarf wasn’t such an “ostentatious religious symbol” (I assume a tee-shirt claiming “Jesus loves you” in big red letters would be, for instance…but that’s just a personnal guess. It implies there’s a will to publically claim, advertize the person’s religion). So, the scarf could be banned only as long as there was another valid reason to forbid it. In particular safety reasons. For instance, the girls could be legitimely asked to remove the scarf during the physical education classes or when operating machines. But they can’t when attending, say, an history class.
So, the teachers in this case have no legal ground to stand on when they demand the ban of the scarf. By the way, I would add that you exerpt is incorrect when it states the government banned the scarf. At this time, the governement cautiously waited the ruling of the courts, and avoided to be involved in the issue as much as possible.
This issue has calmed down over time, but still from time to time there’s a new case where some teachers go on strike or a principal decides to exclude a scarf-wearing girl.
Anyway, I don’t think racism is really the origin of this issue (though the extreme-right later used this problem as an electoral argument, but they weren’t involved originally). The involved teachers were mostly leftists. They wereopposed to the scarf for two main reasons :

-The very old and strong tradition of laicity in french school system

-The fact that the scarf was viewed as a symbol of the oppression of women, and teachers didn’t want to be “accomplice” of a supposed repressive parental education by allowing the families to have their children wearing this symbol at school (something like “here at least these girls must be free from this backward sexism”). Of course, some of these girls were very willing to wear the scarf (and in some case did so against the will of their parents). But these examples didn’t change the mind of the involved teachers (and more common cases of parents actually keeping their daughters in a religious and social mental jail fed their arguments).
So, I wouldn’t say that a negative perception of Islam is absent in these cases, but it’s not racism per se at work.
And Neurotik : AFAIK, it’sonly a french thing, not an european one. Though I could be wrong and unaware of similar situations in other european countries.
Oh! And Anahita, I just noticed that you’re husband is refering to a situation happening at the university. That’s an entirely different kind of fish. All the issues I mentionned above were refering to high school or junior high school. The rules which apply, traditionnally and legally, at the university are totally different, and the teacher has absolutely no basis in this case for his stand. There’s no rules about laicity, absence of display of religious opinions and beliefs, etc…at the Uni. Also, students are assumed to be fully responsible for their acts and choices, and able to handle controversial issues at this point. So, I can’t see from where this teacher is coming, nor where he’s going (nowhere, most probably) with this decision to refuse to teach in the presence of students wearing scarves.

A quick comment, as I have followed this for a good many years now.
The context is best understood in the context of:
(a) historical anti-clericalism of the French state , e.g. the near repression of the Church in the 19th cent. under Republican gov’t.
(b) Anti-Muslim prejudice, dressed up as ‘secularism’

It is wrong and stupid on several levels.

(1) The French must find a way to truly integrate their Muslim minority. The methods of integrating say the Spanish or the Italian immigrants, already close in religion and culture, are not going to work here.
(2) The discriminatory banning of headscarves (hijab) simply feeds the extremists’ martyr mythology and makes other Muslims feel as if they have more in common with the extremists than the other French.

Requiring girls interact fully in school - no seperation per the secular state etc.; all that is good. Banning the head scarf is simply idiocy.

clairobscur, thanks for participating. I was hoping you’d come in and sort it all out. And you have.

I apologise for the error in my quote, it was difficult finding sources in English with this information.

My understanding is that since the university (I’ll tell you privately, if you’re interested in knowing exactly which university) is a public institution (it’s part of the national system of universities) and presumably gets funding from the government, that the code applies here also. Again, that’s my understanding, I could be wrong.

My husband’s office-mate voted for LePen. 'Nuff said about that issue, but I’m sure that many traditional French people feel this way as well. They’d like the immigrant community (largely from countries that were once under French rule) to leave their own customs and values in favour of the French ones. Clearly, this is can be a stated desire of a country such as France, but making laws to force it to happen is problematic.

This cannot be compared to something like Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), which is outlawed in many western countries, because although FGM is a ‘cultural tradition’ it’s also abusive towards minors, so that case is a different one. In the case above, the student (not a minor) is doing no harm to anyone by her actions.

As far as other European countries, I can tell you that in Ireland, non-Catholic students are permitted in the national schools and are allowed to wear whatever religious garb they wish. My sister-in-law has a girl in her class who wears a burkha!

I also know that in many countries, Iranian students (mostly children of diplomats) often have their own schools where the classes are separated by gender. They often do NOT send the children to the national schools, because they want them to have the religious education that is part of the Iranian curriculum, so that when they repatriate, they’ve not missed anything. (I’m not referring to expatriated Iranians, but diplomatic families.)

Rubbish. Racism or prejudice is right at the heart of the matter – the Left is equally capable of racism as the right, only they express it differently. I am sure you are aware of the rather convoluted history of the French Left in re the colonies. (I recall a quote the citation of which escapes me that went ‘The surest way to turn a Communist into a Poujadist is to send him to the colonies.’).

Laicisme is one thing, the scarf issue goes rather beyond that, as does the rather differential attitude. That is not to say I do not agree it is actually there, but in my opinion anti-Muslim prejudice boudn up with anti-Arabism under the guise of opposing ‘oppression of women’ etc. is at the very heart of this.

The same bloody excuses were made up until the late 1950s by the French Left in re Algeria. There is a deep and unexamined reservoir here.

Rot. Anti arabism runs deep in the anti-Islamic feeling, in my personal experience (based on far too many convos with French “cooperants”, condescending racist bastards by and large for all their leftism.)

Having read the entire OP, and the article: My input, just MHO, and coming from the American perspective, is that it’s nothing but pure institutionalized bigotry. I mean, you guys can rationalize it all you like by saying things like “they have a very old and strong tradition of laicity”, but I’m sorry, from where I’m sitting it still smells like racism.

Is a government right in dictating what a person can wear? No.

Is this the same as religious persecution? It’s hard to tell–are the Muslims of Flers also having a hard time in other areas? Are they harassed by shopkeepers? Do the local cops seem to give out speeding tickets only to people wearing Muslim dress? Are ordinances being passed that seem to target only Muslims?

What should the punishment be for a student who refuses to abandon her religious dress? Nothing at all. Geez. :rolleyes:

Was the professor in this case justified? Well, if there was an official ban on the hijabs, I suppose he was only “following orders”. :rolleyes: But if there wasn’t an “official” ban–that is, if it was his call, then no, from an American perspective, he wasn’t justified.

Is this just a case of institutional racism? Got that in one.

Sexism? Again, it’s hard to tell, since only the girls are wearing the hijabs. Is the ban against “ostentatious religious symbols” enforced against guys wearing yarmulkes or big golden crosses?

A matter of integration of immigrants? I guess so, but historically speaking, bigotry never really goes away, as long as there’s a majority and an “other” minority, especially if the minority continues to mark itself by wearing different clothes.

Something else? Nah, just plain old garden variety “bigotry”.

Trying to extrapolate this to America and failing utterly:

“She claims that now that this student is in America, she should abide by American customs and styles.” Nope, can’t get it to fly.

One wonders how Hubby’s office mate would feel about a Mennonite or Amish girl wearing her prayer cap. Or would it be okay with her because it’s a Christian sect and not Islam? That would be my guess.

Just want to clarify, DDG, I am appalled by this decision. In trying to understand it, I mean that I’d like to be sure I understand the facts and the details of the law and its interpretation in this case. I’m afraid you might’ve read my OP in a different way than I’d intended it to be read. I meant for it to spark a debate, not to be the defender of this code.

Trust me, you cannot find one more critical of this issue than me. I’m trying to understand how such a decision was made, not trying to justify it.
Re: the punishment for the student–of course there shouldn’t be one.

I just find it ironic that the punishment historically has been to pull the student out of school, thereby putting her in the situation where she is missing an education which would allow her to ‘break the chains’ to which they believe (because she wears a hejab) her gender and culture tie her.

Won’t speak to the cultural or legal isssues, because I know next to nothing about them in this situation. It does seem awfully unfair, though, to force a twelve-year-old girl to choose between disobeying her parents and disobeying her teachers/school administration.

It sucks when the poor kids are put in the middle, especially when they’re too young to do anything meaningful about it. University students are another story; they’re supposed to be adults, at least nominally.

I’m for a unified ethic of men not coercing women to dress as MEN decree. Let women decide for themselves what to wear. This applies equally to Iran and Saudi Arabia forcing women to cover up, as it does to France and Turkey forcing them to strip off. In any case it’s MEN forcing women to do as they say. Rot, say I. The only ethically consistent stance is absolute laissez-faire in favor of the women.

I mean, this shouldn’t even need to be said.

Rather disgustingly ironic, that the French and Turkish authorities, claiming to oppose Islamisme by this means, instead wind up replicating in mirror image the very male coercive behavior they are supposedly combating. Any such coercive system, pro-Islamiste or anti-Islamiste, has no business existing in a wholesome free society.

I know that governments have some standards of dress that they can and do enforce. I mean we generally can’t go around butt naked most places in public. And that’s fine. I can work with that. Still, the thing that I don’t understand is what is so threatening to these folks who’re denying women who opt to wear a hijab the right to an education and therefore further disempowering them. I confess. The logic is escaping me here. These young ladies ain’t hiding anything dangerous underneath a head scarf. :confused: Just what exactly is the threat?