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

Fathi, who is French, remembers her own mother going on school trips in a headscarf without a problem.

“Sometimes I think tolerance has gone backwards,” she said.

Once stopped from accompanying a school library trip because of her hijab, she noticed another mother allowed on the trip was wearing a large, visible cross.

“That mother backed me, saying: ‘If they had asked, I would never have taken off my cross,’” she said.

Fathi said her problems did not start with her son’s school. She left her job in a private company after being told that her hijab was a safety risk while she operated a small sewing machine attaching labels to hospital sheets. She feels Muslims are unfairly targeted.

“Since Sept. 11, I haven’t really felt comfortable going out on my own in a headscarf,” she said.

There is no law that specifically bars mothers in headscarves from school trips — legal experts warn it would contravene European human rights legislation. Instead, after a Montreuil court upheld a school’s right to bar a mother in a hijab from an outing in 2011, Sarkozy’s education minister issued a memo last year recommending schools uphold the “neutrality of public service” on school trips, meaning mothers in hijabs should take off their veils if they want to help on a picnic or gallery visit. The memo leaves schools free to decide for themselves, so some bar mothers in headscarves and others do not. Despite petitions from Muslim mothers, the memo has not been annulled by the Socialists. The current education department said it was not about excluding parents from trips, but reminding them that neutrality applies when on school activities. Mothers said barring them from outings while at the same time allowing them to run school summer fete stands in their headscarves was absurd.

NEUTRAL CHILDCARE

In 2008, Fatima Afif was dismissed from her job at a private daycare center, Baby Loup, in Chanteloup-Les-Vignes, northwest of Paris. Located in one of France’s poorest towns, the daycare center was unique — open 24 hours, every day, to help single mothers with awkward working schedules, including nurses, police officers and waitresses. The center fired Afif for insubordination and misconduct. She said that it was religious discrimination because she returned from parental leave wearing a headscarf. The center had an internal rule book that banned religious symbols worn by any staff.

After years of fighting through the lower courts, which all found against her, the French high court ruled in March this year that Afif was wrongfully dismissed as a result of “discrimination on the basis of religious conviction” and that private firms could not apply blanket bans against all staff wearing the hijab.

The effect was a political bombshell. Many politicians and intellectuals were up in arms at the decision, warning that headscarves must be kept out of daycare centers.

Socialist French Minister of the Interior Manuel Valls told parliament he “regretted” the court decision, which “undermined” secularism in France. The feminist philosopher Elisabeth Badinter and other left-wing intellectuals demanded tighter laws enforcing secularism to keep religious symbols such as headscarves out of private creches to protect children and ensure “neutrality.” One lawyer for the daycare center spoke of the “danger” of the hijab to impressionable children.

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