Veiled concerns

The French state's proposed ban on schoolgirls' headwear seems unlikely to make Muslims feel more French.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

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A commission of French MPs has backed the outlawing of religious symbols – including Muslim veils, skullcaps and large crucifies – in schools. This has provoked a furious reaction from many of France’s five million Muslims, who have seen the ban as deliberate persecution of their community.

On the face of it, the proposed ban seems to be an expression of France’s secular, republican values. The revolutionaries of 1789 fought in the name of secularism against the clericalism of feudal society, and enacted a firm separation of church and state. French schools were considered to be at the forefront of the project of forming French citizens, and winning allegiance to the republic.

In fact, the move to ban headscarves today shows the shakiness of republican values and the failures of the project of integration. It is only a besieged republicanism that bans schoolgirls’ headwear as way of trying to win their allegiance. And such a ban is only likely to further alienate French Muslim communities.

The fact that girls are choosing to wear veils signals the sense of marginalisation among Muslim youth. Muslim girls are today wearing veils when their mothers, many of whom came over from North Africa in the 1970s, did not. Two schoolgirls who were banned from school in October 2003 for wearing scarves had begun covering their heads only earlier that year; their Algerian-born mother does not wear a headscarf, and their father is Jewish (1). The headscarf has become a way in which young Muslims express their rejection of mainstream French society, to show that they don’t feel French.

Disputes about the wearing of the veil ran for much of the 1990s in France. It is in the early 1990s, as Gilles Kepel commented in his book, Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam, that ‘a class of young urban poor’ came of age – people who had been born and brought up in France, but ‘faced major difficulties because of the uncertain job market, compounded often by poor school records’ (2). During the 1970s and 80s, French Muslims had mobilised in strikes and protests demanding equal rights and opposing racist violence; with the defusing of many of these movements at the end of the 1980s, Muslim groups turned inwards. Some French Islamic organisations spent the 1990s arguing for women and girls’ right to wear the veil – in this campaign, argues Kepel, they were commencing ‘a process of controlled rupture with the state’.

The veil is the symbol of the Muslim community’s rejection of republican values, so it is not surprising that it makes the French state nervous. But attempting to ban the veil means attacking the visual symbol of a problem, rather than the problem itself. Rather than making immigrants French, this is an attempt to make them look French. A secular society becomes equivalent to rows of schoolchildren shorn of scarves, skullcaps and crucifixes – rather than a society where citizens are committed to republican values.

The proposal to ban the veil comes from the top of the French elite, from MPs, teachers and other officials. French President Jacques Chirac has said that there was ‘something aggressive’ about the veil, and that the state could not tolerate ‘ostentatious signs of religious proselytism’ (3). Bernard Stasi, who headed the commission of MPs, said that the proposed law was aimed at countering ‘forces that are trying to destablise the country’ (4). ‘There are indisputably Muslims or…groups seeking to test the resistance of the Republic, that bear a grudge against the values of the Republic, that want France to no longer be France’, he said (5).

‘Defend the Republic, ban the veil!’ goes the cry. All the French state’s concerns about integration seem to have been displaced on to this one issue. In the past, the banning of veils has come as part of a national programme of integration and secularisation – as was the case in 1930s Iran, for example, or 1920s Turkey. However, these countries were extreme Islamic societies, where the veil was a sign of Islam’s dominance of the public realm. Sharia holds no sway in France, so a woman’s veil is merely a sign of personal religious belief. That the French elite’s integration policy hangs on the banning of personal religious symbols, indicates its lack of belief in secular republican principles.

It is telling that the MPs’ report promotes many of its claims in the language of multiculturalism, rather than Jacobinism. Schools were presented as a refuge from religious and cultural prejudice, from the ‘violence and furies of society’, rather than as a place of positive commitment to secularism. In school playgrounds, said the report, Jewish children are commonly insulted as ‘dirty Jew’ and it ‘can be dangerous’ for them to wear the skullcaps in public (6). Stasi also said that secularism was ‘a chance for Islam’ because it represented ‘the respect of differences’. In this vein, the report allowed the addition of one Jewish and one Muslim holiday to the national calendar and creating a national institute to study Islam.

In fact, feminism seems to have been stronger than classical republicanism in the battle of the veils. Elle magazine published a petition signed by 60 prominent French women calling for a ban on ‘this visible symbol of the submission of women’. Feminism has a long history of trying to achieve liberation through clothing – just think of those campaigns against the burqa in Afghanistan (see Nothing to lose but their burqas?, by Josie Appleton). In these cases, Western feminists have focused on analysing and criticising the symbols of women’s oppression, rather than its causes. But in the French case, we are talking about Muslim women in a Western society – women who wear their veils in offices and schools in French cities. Their veil is more a lifestyle choice, a gesture, than a sign of their subordinate position in society.

Because the ban on headscarves bears the load of the state’s concerns about integration, it appears arbitrary and harsh – and is likely to further alienate Muslim communities. Girls who wear pieces of cloth on their heads have become the target of the highest powers in government: they are denounced as ‘aggressive’ by Chirac, and as ‘[testing] the resistance of the Republic’ by Stasi. Casting immigrant communities as enemies of society would seem an odd way to assist their harmonious integration.

Already there have been signs of protest. ‘I urge all our brothers not to take their kids to school!’, said one Muslim man. ‘If you make me choose between breaking the law and breaking the Koran, I’ll break the law’ (7). If the French government bans the veil, it will be the one testing the resistance of the Republic.

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(1) Economist, 25 October 2003

(2) Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam, Gilles Kepel, IB Tauris, p195. Buy this book from Amazon UK

(3) Something aggressive about veils, says Chirac , Guardian, 6 December 2003

(4) French Panel Favors Ban on Head Scarves, AP, 11 December 2003

(5) France Divided on Islamic Head Scarves, AP, 12 December 2003

(6) Proposed ban on head scarves angers many in France, AP, 12 December

(7) France Divided on Islamic Head Scarves, AP, 12 December 2003

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Topics Politics


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