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

Baby Loup became a byword for a new debate about tighter laws on the veil.

Hollande swiftly announced on TV that a new law on religious symbols such as Muslim headscarves was a “necessity.” He said that when there is “contact with children” in a private daycare center, there should be a similar approach to the state sector. He went further, suggesting that in private firms where there was “contact with the public,” a law may also be needed to limit religious symbols.

The president quickly reactivated a consulting body, the Observatory on Secularism, which is expected to report back in the coming months on how to frame a new law restricting headscarves and religious symbols in private daycare centers.

Aware of the explosive potential of this public debate, Hollande called for “calm and constructive dialogue.”

In the political class, some questioned the initiative.

French Junior Minister For Urban Affairs Francois Lamy warned that for years, French secularism was just being built on “laws banning things,” resulting in “rifts” and cracks in society.

Socialist Member of Parliament Christophe Caresche cautioned against the danger of the “recurring political debate on the wearing of the veil,” saying that passing a new law would just “fan the flames” of a French identity crisis and lead to “exclusion.”

Francoise Laborde, a senator for the Parti Radical de Gauche, who sits on the Observatory on Secularism, had previously proposed a law to restrict religious symbols worn by people working with children, including childminders who look after children in their own homes.

France’s high number of state-registered childminders includes many Muslim women. That their work might be limited on the basis of religious beliefs and clothing was controversial and caused a row on the left.

Laborde recently told Liberation she still believed in ensuring religious “neutrality” for private creches and childcare professionals. She said she was skeptical about whether the Muslim headscarf could be worn by women of their own free choice.

“In a way, it’s the same question as prostitution. There are choices which are non-choices,” she said.

Djamilia Latreche, 50, an experienced childminder in Nanterre, west of Paris, who wears a headscarf, said there is a mood of dread and disappointment among childminders.

“Currently, I look after three children from families of all beliefs, Christian to atheist. They have never minded about my headscarf. For childminders now, it feels like the state wants to question us about our religion in terms of being fit for the job. This is unfair, discriminatory and absurd. I feel I have to hide the few religious books in my apartment, hide my identity. I was really happy when the high court found in favor of the Baby Loup creche-worker over religious discrimination, but what worries me now is the government deliberately stirring things, creating divisions in society by pushing for new laws. It’s sending the wrong message to a society which should be inclusive. What if I’m out with the children I mind and someone tries to pull off my headscarf or throw stones at me?” she said.

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