Atheist Jew fights for Muslim scarfs in French schools

HOLY WAR: A Paris lawyer has become a champion of religious freedom after his two daughters were expelled from school because of their head gear


Wed, Oct 01, 2003 - Page 7

A Jewish man is taking on France's educational establishment, defending his two teenage daughters' right to wear the Islamic headscarf in school.

Laurent Levy, a Paris lawyer who describes himself as an atheist, has become a champion for the freedom of religious expression since Lila, 18, and Alma, 16, were barred from their lycee (high school) in the northern suburb of Aubervilliers last week.

The girls -- whose mother is a non-observant Algerian Moslem -- were told the manner in which they wore the headscarf was "ostentatious" and unsuitable for sports lessons. The school authorities also accused them of taking part in a demonstration by around a hundred fellow students in their defense.

They have been forbidden access to the Henri Wallon lycee and are pursuing their studies at home pending a decision by the local education authority's disciplinary board.

"They are stigmatizing the religion of reference of millions of French people. Even if not all of them practice Islam, they feel the insult," Levy said in an interview.

"At my daughters' school three-quarters of the pupils are from immigrant families. Perhaps half are of Muslim origin. Saying to them that just by practicing the religion of their ancestors they are doing something ugly is a sure-fire way of creating an explosion," he said.

The drive to keep religious insignia out of the classroom in France is led by fervent disciples -- on both sides of the political spectrum -- of the country's secular constitution, which was confirmed in a 1905 law separating church and state.

Levy said the instigators of his daughters' exclusion were staff members from the hard-left Workers' Struggle party, but he also accused the center-right government of Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin of using the headscarf issue to divert teachers from other grievances.

His strongest words were for what he termed the "Ayatollahs of secularism" -- who by their intolerance towards those who chose to show their religious identity were breeding a resurgence of rejection and anger. There is such incredible rigidity, such inflexibility here. That the land of Voltaire could show such intolerance!"

Lila and Alma are also furious, accusing the school authorities of fabricating reasons to bar them. They point out that they were wearing the same head gear for much of last year, but it was only this term that the school objected.

"They told us we have to show the roots of our hair, the lobes of our ears and our necks. But if we do that we might as well not wear a headscarf at all," said Lila.

Levy said he was not exactly happy with his daughters' religious outlook, but that he respected their choice in the same way they respected his atheism -- and that they remained as tolerant as they were brought up to be.

"It annoys me a little -- the choice they have made. I think it is a mistake. I think it is a misunderstanding of the world ... And I worry that the life of a woman in Islam may not lead to self-fulfilment," he said.

"We took this decision ourselves. No one forced us to do it. And if Islam did not allow us to fulfil ourselves, it would not have been our choice," said Alma.