Head Scarves Ban in France set off culture clash


Multicultural (or intercultural) education focuses on endeavors which deal with the rich diversity of cultures within the United States. According to the American Council on International Intercultural Education, we tend to approach multicultural education with a set of predispositions. There is an aspect of our nature that keeps diverse peoples from living in harmony.

Some attribute this to the limits of our comfort zone, our attraction toward the familiar, our fear of the unknown, family pressures, our lack of knowledge of others and limited opportunities to interact.

The intensified desire for peace and international understanding in this post-9/11 world has validated efforts to incorporate multicultural education in academia. Yet multicultural issues can be intensely personal, challenging and, in many ways, threatening to us as individuals and institutions. This topic clearly deserves attention and deliberation. Through this case study, students and educators will look critically at these issues and possible solutions.

The number of Muslim girls in France who wear religious scarves have for a long time now uncovered deep tensions across the country.

The French government introduced a bill several years ago in the National Assembly that would ban religious symbols in public schools. The bill, backed by then-President Jacques Chirac, would also forbid large crosses, skullcaps and Sikh turbans. But the measure is aimed mainly at headscarves worn by some Muslim girls.

France’s Prime Minister in those days opened four days of debate on the bill by laying out the reason for the ban. “Certain religious signs, among them the Islamic veil, are multiplying in our schools. They are taking on a political meaning,” he said. “Some want to know how far they can go. We are giving them a response today.”

On the surface, the new law was aimed at protecting France’s secular culture and the strict division between church and state. But the public debate has spread to much broader issues including immigration, women’s rights, education and concerns about Islamic fundamentalism. “This issue over the veil has become a flashpoint for so many tensions and is still actual,” said Sharon Gracen, head of the Office of the Congregation at the American Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in Paris back then.

The bill is passed the 577-seat assembly in a vote years ago. The Senate also approved the bill so it became law before school began that year in September. “I would hope they wouldn’t rush the legislation through,” Gracen said. She said there could be “unintended consequences.” How different from things that happen in China.

The secular tradition

Of France’s hundreds of thousands of Muslim students, only a few thousand had insisted on wearing headscarves then, though that number has significantly increased over the past decade. Just a few were expelled for disobedience back then, according to The Tablet, a London-based Catholic weekly newspaper.

French revolutionaries separated church and state in the 18th century. The constitution signed in 1946 declared France “an indivisible, secular, democratic and social republic.

The debate over religious symbols in public schools isn’t confined to France, which hosts the largest population of Muslims in Western Europe. Belgium has introduced a bill that not only would ban students from wearing religious symbols in public schools, but also would include government employees. Some German states are considering similar laws.

There also is a growing controversy within the European Union over whether God should be mentioned in a new constitution.

Some years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to reconsider a ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that said reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools in nine states was unconstitutional because the words “under God” were a government endorsement of religion.

A matter of faith or force?

The headscarf, or hijab, is part of the Koran’s teachings. The scarf was designed to ensure women would not “inflame the passions” of any men except their husbands. Today, some women say it is a mark of oppression. Others say it is a matter of choice.

Polls show more than 70% of French people support the ban on religious symbols in schools. But the debate has opened rifts in the Arab community and among educators, families, and friends.

Many first-generation Muslim women stopped wearing the headscarf as they adapted to French culture and freedoms. But some of their daughters started donning veils because their brothers or fathers made them, or because the girls wanted to make a political statement or reclaim their ethnic identity.

“The girls are trapped in the middle. The father says they have to wear it, and the school says they can’t. The girls pay the price,” said Vida, 20, an Iranian who didn’t want to give her last name. She said she recently began wearing a headscarf as a political statement of her Muslim identity.

Sikhs also would be affected. Sikh boys wouldn’t be able to wear turbans in school to cover their long hair, required by the 500-year-old Indian religion. A few hundred protested the proposed law on Saturday.

“This is our culture. We are very proud of it,” said Inderjit Dhandon, who traveled from Cologne, Germany, for the rally. “We won’t give up.”

Two weeks earlier, thousands of Muslims held rallies throughout France and in other countries to protest the proposed ban on headscarves.

The French Cabinet passed a draft of the legislation some years ago, saying the law would help protect France’s secular culture. “The decision to ban conspicuous signs (of religion) in school is a decision that respects our history, our customs, and our values,” a Government spokesman said at that occasion. “To do nothing would be irresponsible. It would be wrong.”

Others say the law itself is wrong. “It’s very bad to make a law,” said Caroline Fontaine, a journalist for the magazine Paris Match. Although she disapproves of head scarves, she said, “The Muslim population in France is young, and we are a little afraid of them. And instead of trying to understand their culture and their needs and about the fact they are not very accepted in France, we make a law against them.”

Fontaine’s mother, Laurence, a university professor back then at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Science Sociales in Paris, said eliminating religious symbols in schools would help immigrants integrate into society. “It’s a diverse country, but we are all very much French,” she said. “This is one of the reasons we have to merge.”

Debate among Muslims

There also were disagreements within France’s Muslim community, and this has only become stronger and more intense of the past years, especially after the Chalie Hebdo and the Nice truck incidents.

Farida Lesbet, who in 1982 founded the Association for the Triumph of Women’s Rights, the first women’s rights movement in Algeria, was initially adamantly in favor of the law. Lesbet fled to Paris after receiving death threats in her home country for her political and religious stands. She later sold cars. “The veil is fascist” because it is used by men to dominate women, she said.

But a friend of Lesbet’s, who asked that her name not be used because she fears for her family’s safety in Algeria, said the French law was and is missing the point. She said the debate should not focus on the veil. Instead, it should center on problems such as poverty and unemployment that may be the root of the growing Islamic fundamentalist movement.

“It is not essential to have a law (for head scarves),” she said. “But it is essential to make political decisions to stop the fundamentalist movement.”