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bullet"Hijab is a divine obligation and not a religious symbol," Slogan on a banner held by a demonstrator in Jordan. 1
bullet"Wearing a veil, whether we want it or not, is a sort of aggression that is difficult for us to accept." President Jacques Chirac of France. 2
bullet"signs and behavior...whose wearing immediately makes known a personís religious faith." Excerpts from a French law which bans such items in government institutions, including public schools. 3

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Prohibition of the wearing of hijab (Muslim headscarves):

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).

Some of the students who were expelled from school because they wore the hijab successfully sued the French government and were reinstated.

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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.

bullet2003-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
bullet2003-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 France." 2
bullet2003-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." 2
bullet2003-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
bullet2003-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 recommended:
bulletThat religious symbols, including those worn by students, be removed from the public school classrooms
bulletThat 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.
bulletThat companies allow employees to choose a personal religious holiday to be added to their vacation entitlement.
bulletThat clergy be appointed for Muslim inmates.  5
bullet2003-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
bullet2004-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."  1
bullet2004-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." 6
bullet2004-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.

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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:

bulletAlthuhami 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
bulletThe 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,' he said."
bulletThe 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 Roman Catholic Church, Protestant denominations and Eastern 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 from Christians.

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The law comes into effect:

bullet2004-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." 9

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." 9
bullet2004-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 turbans. 10
bullet2004-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. 11
bullet2004-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."

By 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. 12

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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.

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References used:

  1. "World Protests Against French Hijab Ban," IslamOnline, 2004-JAN-17, at: http://www.islamonline.net/
  2. "Chirac's Hijab Remark Antagonizes French Muslims," IslamOnline, 2004-DEC-07, at: http://www.islamonline.net/
  3. "Religious Dress Show-down," International Confederation  of Principals, 2004-AUG, at: http://www.icponline.org/
  4. "France's Churches Urge Chirac To Support Hijab," IslamOnline, 2004-DEC-09, at: http://www.islamonline.net/
  5. "French Commission Recommends Hijab Ban," IslamOnline, 2004-DEC-11, at: http://www.islamonline.net/
  6. "French Senate Approves Hijab Bill By Majority," IslamOnline, 2004-MAR-04, at: http://www.islamonline.net/
  7. "Hijab Religious Obligation, Not Symbol: Egypt's Mufti," IslamOnline, 2004-DEC-21, at: http://www.islamonline.net/ 
  8. "French Muslim group courts showdown over headscarf law," The Peninsula, Qatar, 2004-JUL-27, at: http://www.thepeninsulaqatar.com/
  9. Hadi Yahmid, "I would go to school bare-headed till the end of this year," IslamOnline.net, at: http://www.islam-online.net/
  10. "School expels girls for refusing to remove Muslim headscarves," Toronto Star, 2004-OCT-20, Page A12.
  11. Elain Ganley, "Muslim girls barred for wearing bandannas, group says," Associated Press. Published in the Toronto Star, 2004-OCT-22, Page A15.
  12. William Kole, "French ban cuts both ways," Associated Press, 2004-DEC-13.
  13. Sheema Khan, "Banning Hijab in Canada: It can Happen Anywhere," undated, at: http://www.themodernreligion.com/.

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Site navigation: Home > Religious hatred, conflict...  > Intolerance > France > here

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Copyright © 1996 to 2004 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Essay created: 1996-SEP-27
Latest update: 2004-DEC-13
Author: B.A. Robinson

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