In the mid 1990's, religious freedom in France was restricted by a law
which outlawed religious proselytizing by persons of all faiths. The French Minister of Education
strictly interpreted this law as prohibiting the wearing of the hijab. This is a
scarf that covers a woman's head, neck and throat. It is traditionally worn by
teenage and adult Muslim women for protection, and to display modesty. It is not
simply an expression of religious affiliation, like a Christian cross or
crucifix. It is considered an obligatory covering for devout Muslim women.
The Minister of Education ordered the expulsion
from schools of all female students who wore the hijab. The French government took no
action against Roman Catholic students wearing a crucifix, Protestant students
wearing a cross, Sikh male students wearing a turban, or Jewish male students wearing
a yarmulke (skullcap).
the students who were expelled from school because they wore the hijab
successfully sued the French government and were reinstated.
Passage of a law restricting religious expression:
The French government set up a Secularity Commission in 2003-JUL to
determine whether a new law was needed to ban religious signs and apparel in
public institutions, including public schools.
2003-DEC-03: Campaign against the law: The Islamic Human
Rights Commission (IHRC), located in London, UK, launched a
worldwide campaign, urging Muslims to write to European officials,
foreign ministers and French ambassadors, expressing their opposition to
the proposed bill. 2
2003-DEC-5: Secularity Commission hearings:Islam Online
reported on testimony before the government commission which was
investigating restrictions of religious expression in government
institutions: "Fathia el-Gibali, a French Muslim woman rights
activist, said that enacting such a law would create a generation of
introverts, who would crawl into their shells. She asserted that hijab
can in no way be an obstacle to public life, being herself a
hijab-wearing NGO activist. On the other extreme, the commission
listened to Nadia el-Emari, a university professor who does not wear
hijab. She called for enacting two laws: one banning hijab in schools
and the other penalizing racial discrimination against Muslims in
2003-DEC-06: Presidential speech: French President Jacques Chirac
told students at the Pierre Mendes-France School in Tunisia that:
"Wearing a veil, whether we want it or not, is a sort of aggression
that is difficult for us to accept."
2003-NOV?: Poll: A French research center reported on a
public opinion poll on the proposed law. Results indicated 57% support;
41% opposition and 2% no opinion. 4
2003-DEC-11: Government report: The Secularity Commission
issued its report. It was composed of 20 people and chaired by Bernard
Stasi. The report expressed concern that French society might
break down into competing racial and faith-based groups. It
That religious symbols, including those worn by students, be
removed from the public school classrooms
That Yom Kippur -- the Jewish Day of Atonement -- and that Eid
al-Adha -- the Muslim day which ends the holy month of Ramadan
-- be observed as school holidays.
That companies allow employees to choose a personal religious
holiday to be added to their vacation entitlement.
That clergy be appointed for Muslim inmates.
2003-DEC-17: Presidential speech: French President Jacques Chirac said in a televised speech in December
2003 that the "Islamic veil - whatever name we give it - the kippa and a
cross that is of plainly excessive dimensions" have no place in the
precincts of state schools." 6
2004-JAN-17: Demonstrations: Public
protests against the proposed law were held in dozens of locations, from
Washington to Cairo; Amman to Khartoum; Montreal to Beirut. One source
reported that over 20,000 people demonstrated in Paris, about 2,000
protested in front of the French Embassy in London, England. British
Foreign Office Minister Mike O'Brien issued a statement saying that the
British government supported the right of all people to display
religious symbols. It said: "In Britain we are comfortable with the
expression of religion." French Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy,
said protests would not further the debate over the law. He said: "If
there is a protest one day, there will be a counter-protest the next."
2004-FEB-27: American reaction:Human Rights Watch, a civil liberties group, issued a
report stating that a proposed law would be "discriminatory" as
it disproportionately affects Muslim girls. It said: "The impact of a
ban on visible religious symbols, even though phrased in neutral terms,
will fall disproportionately on Muslim girls, and thus violate
anti-discrimination provisions of international human rights law as well
as the right to equal educational opportunity."
2004-MAR: Law passed: The new "secularity law" was passed
with overwhelming support and a vote of 276 to 20. The law will take
effect at the start of the school year in 2004-SEP. It bans the wearing of
Muslim hijabs, Sikh's head coverings, large Christian crosses or crucifixes,
Jewish yarmulkes, etc. Small Christian jewelry is permitted.
Response to the new law:
As noted above, there was strong opposition to the law from Muslim groups and
individuals in France and elsewhere. In addition:
Althuhami Ibriz, deputy head of the French Muslim Council,
commented on President Chirac's 2003-DEC-06 statement that a hijab is "a
sort of aggression." Ibriz called this "unacceptable." He said
that they contradicted a decision issued in 1998 by the Council of State
which said that the hijab did not represent a problem unless it was of "an
ostentatious character." 2
The Union of Islamic Organizations in France (UOIF), issued a
statement on its Internet site recommending that girls should wear "discreet"
head coverings because, in their view, these would not violate the law. UOIF wrote: "The
ban on head-coverings in school is not universal...[The law] does not call
into question the right of pupils to wear discreet religious signs." The
Peninsula newspaper reported: "UOIF President Lhaj Thami Breze said
'discreet' head-coverings include bandanas or pieces of cloth tied at the
back, and he warned school authorities not to 'twist the law' by trying to
prohibit them in September. 'We have been asked not to break the law, but to
try to find a way to conform to it. It is not up to schools to tell us how,'
The Union of Islamic Organizations in Europe expressed concern
that the law is a blatant infringement on their right of freedom of
religion. They urged all religious communities and human rights organization
to oppose the law. 7
On 2003-DEC-08, a group of religious leaders from the
Catholic Church, Protestant denominations and
Orthodox Churches in France sent a message to President Chirac, asking him
to not enact a law banning the wearing of a hijab in public schools and other
public institutions. They based their request on the 1995 law guaranteeing
freedom of religion, and the historical neutral position that the state has
taken on religion. They argued that the principles of secularism should ensure
freedom of speech and guarantee religious tolerance. 4
The Roman Catholic Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger said that the law would
encourage an aggressive anti-religious trend. "This clumsy law risks
reopening ... a religious war." 1
In an apparent conflict with this statement, the French government
has issued guidelines to schools which states that the ban covers both: "signs
and behavior...whose wearing immediately makes known a personís religious
faith." In 2004-JUL, Education Minister Francois Fillon is reported as
saying that the law would be applied "with absolute firmness....I will
pay personal attention. There will be no exception."
8,4 However, small Christian crosses and crucifixes will be
allowed, even though wearing them "immediately makes known a person's
religious faith." Some speculate that the Government wants to first deprive
followers of small minority religions of their right of religious expression
before tackling the more difficult task of banning freedom of expression
The law comes into effect:
2004-OCT-1: Louis Pasteur Lycee high school in Strasbourg,
eastern France: Cennet Doganay, a French Muslim student, was
isolated from her fellow students and required to remain in a private
study space because she wore her hijab. She said to a news outlet: "Taliban forced women to wear
hijab and France forced women to remove it; what is the difference as
far as the issue of human rights is concerned?...Muslim women in Arab
and Muslim states are criticized for staying at home. The French ban is
designed to force French Muslim women at home."
When she complained to school officials that some of the other female
students were allowed to wear bandanas, the school headmaster responded
that the others were wearing a head covering for fashion reasons and not for
religious motives. She decided on a novel solution: she shaved her head
completely bald. She said: "I would go to school bare-headed till the
end of this year. For the coming year, I'm not sure of my final decision
as I could join a private school or go to study in nearby Belgium....My
decision to shave my head is dignified than committing sins by taking
off my hijab. Now I feel different, however, I don't feel insulted but
those who banned me from choosing my own clothes should feel so."
2004-OCT-19: Mulhouse: A school expelled two female students for wearing a
hijab. They are 12 and 13 years of age and were attending seventh grade.
They have refused to remove the covering since they resumed classes in September.
Education Minister FranÁois Fillon said
that about 70 girls in France risked expulsion by refusing to remove their
head coverings. Three Sikh male students in a Paris suburb are also fighting the ban on their
2004-OCT-22: France: The Associated Press
reported that some school officials were expelling Muslim female
students who wore printed bandannas in place of hijabs. "Several girls
have been expelled from school this week for breaking the ban, including two
yesterday." The Union of Islamic Organizations of France (UOIF)
urged the girls to take their cases to court.
2004-DEC-13: Northern France: At a
kindergarten class in rural northern France, gifts intended for the
students had to be sent back because they took the form of chocolates
shaped like Christmas crosses and St. Nicholas. Andre Delattre, mayor of
Coudekerque-Branche whose town has shipped traditional chocolates to local
schools for over a decade commented: "It's an unhealthy political
affair. Absolutely regrettable.. What's the point? It's the children who
are being penalized for this difference of opinion. They've been deprived
of a festive moment."
mid-2004-DEC, more than a dozen Muslim girls have been expelled from high
schools for refusing to remove their hijab. Three male Sikh youths were
kicked out of a school in the Paris area for wearing turbans.
An earlier similar situation in Canada:
During 1994-SEP, a similar event happened in Montreal, Quebec, Canada,
whose population is also predominately French speaking. Emilie Ouimet, 13,
was sent home from school for wearing a hijab. The school had a strict code
that prohibited the use of caps or clothing that distinguished one student
from the others. A few other female students were similarly treated. This
triggered a debate in Quebec society. "...the issues raised were
similar to those [now] raised in France: religious belief in a secular
system; the fear of religious fundamentalism; Hijab as a symbol of
oppression versus liberation; and integration of 'immigrants' into Quebec
society..." 13 The
Quebec Charter of Rights guarantees religious freedom, just as the
French constitution does.
The Quebec Council for the Status of Women
supported the school students, fearing that many of the expelled students
might not further their education. The Canadian Jewish Congress
argued in favor of religious rights for minorities.