Fri, Jul 26, 2013 - Page 9 News List

France’s new Muslim headscarf war

It is almost 10 years since France banned girls from wearing veils in its state schools, but the row over Muslim headwear has erupted again. Will it lead to a new law against women wearing headscarves? Could that fan the flames of a French identity crisis?

By Angelique Chrisafis  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Illustration: Mountain People

When Youssra’s three-and-a-half-year-old son started nursery school, he really wanted his mom to come on a school trip. So she signed up to help out on a movie theater visit. She buttoned the children’s coats outside their classroom and accompanied them to the front hall.

However, there she was stopped by the headteacher, who told her, in front of the baffled children: “You don’t have the right to accompany the class because you’re wearing a headscarf.”

She was told to remove her hijab, or basic Muslim head covering, because it was an affront to the secular French Republic.

“I fought back,” she said. “I brought up all the arguments about equality and freedom for all, but I was forced home, humiliated. The last thing I saw was my distressed son in tears. He didn’t understand why I’d been made to leave.”

The French charity worker is now part of the protest group Mamans Toutes Egales, or Mothers All Equal. Based in Montreuil outside Paris, it has blocked school coaches, boycotted outings and staged street demonstrations in protest at the growing number of mothers in headscarves being barred from school trips.

“This is an attack on freedom and democracy in state schools. They seem to want to wipe Muslim women off the landscape,” 36-year-old Youssra said.

Almost 10 years after France banned girls from wearing veils in state schools in 2004 — along with other religious symbols such as crosses or turbans — the Muslim headscarf is once again being pushed to the top of French political debate. France was shaken by two nights of rioting and car-burning in the Paris suburb of Trappes on the weekend after a police identity check on a French woman wearing a niqab, or full-face Muslim veil, raised questions about former French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s controversial 2011 law banning the niqab from public places.

However, even before the Trappes riots shocked the political class, tension had been rising for months in France over the broader issue of Muslim headscarves, including the simple hijab. Far from the headscarf debate being the preserve of the French right, the current Socialist government was already considering tightening laws on standard headscarves, despite France having some of the hardest-hitting legislation on veils in Europe.

The headscarf, a piece of fabric which one Socialist member of parliament complained was a French “obsession,” is still a major political issue in French President Francois Hollande’s France. Members of parliament are now considering passing a new, tighter law limiting the professions in which headscarves can be worn, including banning carers in private nurseries from wearing it in front of young children.

“The veil: The left wants its own law,” ran a headline on the front page of the left-wing daily Liberation in March. The debate is raging on several fronts.

First, mothers in hijab petitioned the government about being excluded from school trips, to no avail. Then the focus turned to babies’ nurseries after a high court ruled in March in favor of a woman it said was unfairly dismissed from her job in a private daycare center for wearing a headscarf. The judgement sparked a political frenzy. Intellectuals and politicians criticized the court for backing the woman and warned that headscarves worn in private childcare centers could be a danger to impressionable young children.

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