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

Hollande said a new law was needed over whether religious symbols such as headscarves could be worn by staff in private daycare centers, perhaps extending the law to other areas of the private sector.


Tension has been heightened by recent violent attacks on women in headscarves in Argenteuil, a Paris suburb, where a pregnant woman who was attacked miscarried days later. Hundreds of protesters at a street demonstration in Argenteuil last month condemned the toxic nature of the debate around the veil, weeks before the Trappes riots. Islamophobic attacks in France more than doubled between 2011 and last year — with women in headscarves the principle target, accounting for 77 percent of victims of physical or verbal attacks, according to the French Collective Against Islamophobia.

After the attacks on veiled women in Argenteuil, the French Muslim Council warned: “Attacks on women in headscarves multiply around the time of each debate about the wearing of the Muslim veil.”

“France is not like it used to be. When I was a child, there wasn’t a problem. I was born here. I was accepted,” said Yetto Souiriy, 37, a mother of five who had been barred from school trips with her son in Montreuil because of her headscarf.

“France now seems to be stoking a kind of anger against Muslims. You hear of women having their headscarves pulled off at the market. Even parents at my child’s school look at me differently since I was excluded from trips. I had a lot of hope for the left in France, but in terms of discrimination, nothing has changed. Even in shops, I’ve had people say: ‘Take off your headscarf. You’re only wearing it to be aggressive,’” she said.

The French Republic is built on a strict separation of church and state, intended to foster equality for all private beliefs rather than stigmatize any religion. Secularism is one of the few issues that unites left, right and the far-right of Marine Le Pen. At the heart is the rule that any state worker in the public service must be impartial and neutral, and so cannot show their religious belief with an outward symbol such as a headscarf. Public-sector workers — from teachers to post office or train station staff — are prohibited from wearing the hijab, a visible cross, turban or Jewish kippa. This legislation, dating back 60 years, is set in stone. However, difficulties are emerging under Hollande’s presidency as some politicians and philosophers petition for the state rules to be extended to parts of the private sector, namely restricting the wearing of Muslim veils by carers in private nurseries and asking mothers to take off their headscarves if they help on school trips. That the debate is centered on young children and whether they should not be “exposed” to headscarves has made it seem all the more divisive.

Anissa Fathi, 34, stirs her coffee in a halal burger bar in Montreuil while her eldest son plays. She has three children. Since her eight-year-old second son’s primary school barred her from helping on outings because of her headscarf, she worries about the impact on a new generation who have seen their mothers picked out and excluded in front of the class.

“Children are not stupid. They understand. A lot of children who have been exposed to this treatment of their mothers have had psychological difficulties. My son would have fits of rage, he was self-harming and hitting his head against the wall at home because I couldn’t go. Whenever the date of a school trip approached, he would be extremely anxious and in tears,” she said.

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