Islamic scarf controversy in France
The Islamic scarf controversy in France, referred to there as l'affaire du voile (the veil affair), l'affaire du voile islamique (the Islamic veil affair), and l'affaire du foulard (the scarf affair) among other bynames arose in 1989, pertaining to the wearing of the hijab in French public schools. It involved issues of the place of Muslim women, differences between Islamic doctrine and Islamic tradition, the conflict between communitarianism and the French policy of minority assimilation, discussions of the "Islamist threat" to French society and of Islamophobia and of strict secularity in state institutions.
The controversy over the Islamic scarf (hijab) was sparked on 18 September 1989, when three female students were suspended for refusing to remove their scarves in class at Gabriel Havez Middle School in Creil. In November 1989, the Conseil d'État ruled that the scarf's quasi religious expression was compatible with the laïcité of public schools. That December, minister of education Lionel Jospin issued a statement declaring that educators had the responsibility of accepting or refusing the wearing of the scarf in classes on a case-by-case basis.
In January 1990, three girls were suspended from Louis Pasteur Middle School in Noyon, a city in Picardy. The parents of one of the girls previously suspended from Gabriel Havez filed a defamation suit against its principal. Following these events, teachers at a middle school in Nantua held a general strike in protest against the scarf in school. A second government statement reiterated the need to respect the principle of secularity in public schools.
In September 1994, a new memorandum, the "François Bayrou memo" was issued, delineating the difference between "discreet" religious symbols able to be brought into classrooms, and "ostentatious" religious symbols (including the hijab), which were to be forbidden in public establishments. In October of that year, students at Saint-Exupéry High School in Mantes-la-Jolie organized a demonstration of protest in favor of the right to wear the veil in classrooms. In November, 24 veiled students were suspended from the same high school as well as from Faidherbe High in Lille.
Between 1994 and 2003, around 100 female students were suspended or expelled from middle and high schools for wearing the scarf in class. In nearly half of these cases, their exclusions were annulled by the French courts.
Political and cultural context
The most debated point is whether or not students have the right to wear the scarf in classes in public establishments such as primary and secondary schools, as well as universities. Meanwhile, the controversy has contributed to discussions of the principle of secularism, which is the foundation of the 1905 law of separation of church and state in France. The two principal positions that have emerged are:
- A complete preservation of the "principle of secularism" as an element of freedom. This is the position taken most notably by Jacques Chirac as well as by certain leftists such as Jean-Pierre Chevènement.
- An abandonment of the principle of secularity for the benefit of total religious freedom, and for the recognition of religious communities. This Anglo-Saxon-based community model was defended most notably by Nicolas Sarkozy, as well as some leftists and certain Greens.
This debate has thus contributed in blurring the limits between the left and right on the traditional spectrum in France, and has revealed divergences on new political levels, especially between "republicans" (proponents of intervention by the secular Republic) and "liberals" (in an older sense of the French term referring to those who support the liberties of the individual).
The tradition of the headscarf itself has been in existence since before the advent of Islam, and depictions of Mary, mother of Jesus, show her wearing a hair covering. It is not explicitly commanded in the Qur'an yet some consider it a part of tradition.
The importance assigned to head covering varies, from that of colorful head scarves that do not conceal much hair in sub-Saharan Africa, to head scarves that cover the hair and neck to the extent that it should cover all hair, as worn in much of the world, to cloths that cover parts of the face (Yemen), and in Saudi Arabia, the entire body, must be covered by the veil (burqa), as is the case in some areas of Pakistan.
In most Muslim societies, this obligation is not enforced by law. In Egypt and Turkey, for example, wearing the scarf is controversially forbidden in certain professional contexts. In reality, un-veiled Muslim women are a common sight in cities such as Istanbul, Karachi, Islamabad, Rabat, and in Jakarta, Indonesia (the largest Muslim country in the world). However, the obligation is legally enforced in certain countries such as Iran, and those who violate such laws are legally culpable for their dress. Most societies in the Muslim world take a more relaxed approach to the scarf where girls and women can be seen wearing hair coverings of all levels or none at all.
Motivations of French Muslims who wear the scarf
The wearing of the scarf or hijab in France, and in the main countries of origin of French Muslims (Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Turkey), is a relatively recent phenomenon that is at its core a general movement toward the traditional values of communities in and from these countries. Movements of this kind are not limited to the Muslim world, and can be observed in many different cultures, including those of the West.
This phenomenon has been coined "the new veiling" by A.E. MacLeod. This model does not always materialize perfectly or uniformly according to orthodox tradition; the veils of French Muslim women tend to be less austere in their use of color and material.
Other perhaps more specifically France-centered arguments were voiced at the time of this controversy in order to justify students' wearing of the scarf in public schools:
- "Respectability" and "discretion." News, movies, and music aimed at young men often contain stereotypical "easy girl" characters who are sexually taken at will and who are always un-scarfed. This leads many to entertain the idea that women who show their hair are not respectable and are offered (or are offering themselves) sexually to everyone. More generally, advertising and the media present a standard model of how Western women may be assumed to be. This vision of Western women offered by media may lead French Muslim women to wear the veil to affirm their respectability and, paradoxically, their independence in respect to their families. Some veiled women, while very independent, are using the traditional argument for discretion in order to insist on their right to wear the veil at school.
- Muslim identity in the face of what is considered French bigotry against Muslims. Wearing the scarf is also a way for French Muslim women to guard their identity.
- Avoidance of violence in poor neighborhoods, where unveiled women are not safe since they may be targeted for attack by Islamic morality patrols (a concept of the Wahhabi school of thought, a minority which is criticized by other schools of Islam).
Motivations of French people opposed to allowing hijabs to be worn in schools
According to some feminist groups, as well as some human rights advocacy groups, wearing the scarf can symbolize a woman's submission to men. It is feared that permitting the veil in schools risks opening the door to other practices that exist in the Muslim world.
It is often speculated that forbidding the hijab would limit freedom. Rather, the argument put forward by some feminists is that the hijab is not a free choice, but a result of social pressures (i.e., if a law does not forbid the practice of wearing the hijab, social pressure may render it obligatory).
These arguments are shared by some Islamic feminists. Thus, Fadela Amara, the former president of the organisation Ni Putes Ni Soumises, stated that: "The veil is the visible symbol of the subjugation of women, and therefore has no place in the mixed, secular spaces of France's public school system." Another francophone Muslim influential for his work on public welfare, Hedi Mhenni, shares the view of these Islamic feminists and similarly expressed support for Tunisia's ban on the veil in public workplaces in those terms: "If today we accept the headscarf, tomorrow we'll accept that women's rights to work and vote and receive an education be banned and they'll be seen as just a tool for reproduction and housework."
Certain individuals and associations consider the scarf to be a symbol of belonging to the Muslim community. According to this line of reasoning, women who wear the veil display their religious and community affiliation, which harms the unity and secularism of the French Republic. The position of the French government is that secularism in schools is incompatible with wearing ostentatious religious articles, whatever they be. However, in December 2003, President Chirac extended this policy for all public secondary education establishments, risking fanning the tensions between communities within the multicultural French society. France is home to both the largest Jewish and Muslim minorities in Western Europe.
A strong majority of French educators opposes the veil in general, and particularly in classes. The arguments put forward are connected to both secularism and feminist arguments, a majority of French educators being women.
In 2013, 86% of respondents in a poll for i-Télé were in favour of a ban for headscarfs and other religious and political symbols in both public and private institutions for children. The poll was made after the Court of Cassation ruled that a private crèche did not have the right to fire a woman who wore an Islamic headscarf.
Motivations of French people who do not oppose the hijab
According to the same surveys, more than 30% (about 10% of the population of France is Muslim) of the French do not want a law forbidding the veil in schools. Conversely, more than 60% of the French population (about 10% of the population of France is Muslim) want a law forbidding the veil in schools. Many individuals and organizations have been opposed to the idea of a law forbidding the veil since it was first proposed.
The collective "Les Blédardes" sees the controversy over the veil as a manifestation of colonialist sentiments. In 2003, they demand: "Give the veiled girls back their status as students - democracy and the State of justice will come out of this more mature, just as they matured through the rehabilitation of the Dreyfus Affair." Furthermore, some Islamic feminists have expressed offense at double standards implicit in some (non-Muslim) feminist arguments. Thus, when some feminists began defending the headscarf on the grounds of "tradition", Fadela Amara countered: "It's not tradition, it's archaic! French feminists are totally contradictory. When Algerian women fought against wearing the headscarf in Algeria, French feminists supported them. But when it's some young girl in a French suburb school, they don't. They define liberty and equality according to what colour your skin is. It's nothing more than neocolonialism."
A third interpretation of the principle of secularity based on its original formulation recalls that, according to the law, "all are equal to show and express their religious opinions in public as well as in private," and that the French state has the responsibility to guarantee access to free, public education to all Frenchmen.
Another argument is that making it illegal sends a message that hate crimes may be more tolerable.
Role of mentality
Above the previous arguments made by various parties over the law of secularism, the controversy over the veil in France may also be explained by lack of cultural understanding.
Demographer Emmanuel Todd has advanced a sociological explanation for the controversy over the veil by examining traditional familial structures in France and in the countries of origin of French Muslims.
According to Todd, if Muslims impose the veil on their children it serves to prevent them from meeting and eventually marrying non-Muslims. This preemption of mixed marriage would correspond to endogamous practices very present in many traditional Muslim societies, where it is acceptable to marry cousins in order to maintain the unity of the clan; a set-up Todd refers to as an "endogamous, community-based family."
The traditional French family would be, on the other hand, exogamous. Traditionally, young French men sought wives outside their villages. This tradition recalls images of Greco-Roman mythology and folk-tales in which a man travels far and wide to find a wife. Sometimes this is in order to save her (as in the cases of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty), and other times it is simply a jaunt for the purposes of kidnapping a woman and stealing her away (Zeus and Europa), but they always live "happily ever after" and have many children.
The veil is seen on a subconscious level as a refusal to marry, as a code which says, "I will never be a part of your family." Its prohibition would mean the suppression of this opposition to mixed marriage, a kind of marriage which is more widespread in France than in most other Western countries. One possible conclusion of this line of thinking would be to prohibit wearing any distinctive signs of religious or ethnic origin for those, particularly women, living in French territory. In multicultural countries where the veil is more widely accepted (UK, United States), the rate of mixed marriages is far lower.
Law and its application
In December 2003, President Jacques Chirac decided that a law should explicitly forbid any visible sign of religious affiliation in public schools, in the spirit of secularism. The law, sometimes referred to as "the veil law", was voted in by the French parliament in March 2004. It forbids the wearing of any "ostentatious" religious articles, including the Islamic veil, the Jewish kippa, and large Christian crosses. The law permits discreet signs of faith, such as small crosses, Stars of David, and hands of Fatima.
In many cases, the exact extent of possible application of the law is hard to ascertain, and has led to further complications: for example, is the law applicable to something other than the Islamic veil which covers the hair, such as a bandana, which does not outwardly indicate religious affiliation? Eventually, the case was settled in court (see below).
Would veiled parents be able to enter their children's schools? Former education minister François Fillon has stated that the law does not apply whatsoever to the parents of students. The Mediator of the Republic has agreed with this stance. However, in some cities, such as Montreuil, Seine-Saint-Denis, where integration of large numbers of Muslims is an acute problem, veiled parents are frequently denied entry. In May 2005 the mother of a student was denied permission to run a stand at her son's school festival. After much publicity, the interdiction was lifted. On May 14, 2007, the High authority for the struggle against discrimination and for equality (HALDE) affirmed that veiled parents should be allowed to attend school activities.
While the law forbidding the veil applies to students attending publicly funded primary schools and high schools, it does not refer to universities. Applicable legislation grants them freedom of expression as long as public order is preserved. However, veiled students are sometimes denied attendance.
In public hospitals, employees are expected to respect the principle of secularism. In nursing schools, interviews are an official requirement for entry, during which applicants may be asked if they are willing to remove their veil either altogether or for the purpose of wearing a disposable cap, such as those worn in operating rooms.
As far as patients are concerned, the rule is to respect religious preferences.
Some court decisions have clarified issues remained open by the law, and its legality. These jurisprudence were issued by the French administrative Supreme Court Conseil d'Etat and by the European Court of Human Rights.
Wearing items not outwardly indicating religious affiliation
The Conseil d'État affirmed on 5 December 2007 that the ban also apply to clothing elements that demonstrate a religious affiliation only because of the behaviour of the student. Wearing either a Sikh subturban or a bandana were then denied by the supreme court.
Infringement of right to practice a religion and right to education
On 4 December 2008, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) affirmed the legality of the ban. Although the cases dated prior to the 2004 law, the Court rationale was consistent with the law: the ECHR held that the national authorities were obliged to take great care to ensure that (...) the manifestation by pupils of their religious beliefs on school premises did not take on the nature of an ostentatious act that would constitute a source of pressure and exclusion.
Controversies over legal prohibition
Throughout the process legislation banning religious head-scarves in France has been met with widely varied reactions.
On 12 of August 2016, the mayor of Cannes in southern France has banned full-body swimsuits known as "burkinis" from the beach because it was considered as symbol of Islamic extremism and might spark scuffles, as France is the target of Islamist attacks.
After the mayor’s decision, the French council of the state has fully endorsed the Burkini ban, so the French police was tasked to force any Muslim woman who appears in public with burkini to remove it.
In France, particularly on Nice beach near to the location of the terrorist lorry attack where 84 people killed on Bastille Day, four armed police officers holding handguns, batons and pepper spray forced a Muslim woman, seems to be sleeping on the beach, to take off her burkini protecting her modesty.
Also, four women were fined 38 euros for wearing their burkinis on the beach in Cannes.
On the 25 August 2016, Human rights League and anti-Islamophobia groups have described the bar as a dangerous and illegal threat on the basic freedoms, particularly freedom of belief and religion.
The UN, Spain, Italy, Germany and Canada have criticized and ruled out France’s ban on burkini because it is a very clear violation of human rights and it doesn’t respect Muslim women’s dignity and modesty.
The burkini bans have triggered a fierce debate about the wearing of the full-body swimsuit, women's rights and the French state's strictly guarded secularism.
After hearing the arguments from Human rights groups and some other countries, the France's highest administrative court set to rule whether to overturn the ban on wearing the full-body burkini swimsuit.
The veil controversy and its legislative consequences have revealed problems associated with the practice of the Islamic faith insofar as religion in French society and institutions (as opposed to the problems of integration of individuals). Partially fueled by the fear of a "communitarization" or "Islamization" of French society, the controversy has also fed off fears in certain sections of the Muslim community in France of "forced assimilation" and a slippery slope that would seek to ban more and more expressions of the Muslim faith. The controversy has also, however, brought the issue of the place of Islam in French society to the forefront of debate.
The veil controversy has been used opportunely to promote the expression of a French form of Islam, distinct from the Islam in the French Muslims' countries of origin. The presence of Muslim Frenchwomen wearing tricolour veils and shouting, "I am French!" in protests in Paris against the law forbidding the veil is one example thereof. A survey conducted by the French polling organization CSA in January 2004, revealed that more than 90% of French Muslims claim to subscribe to culturally French principles such as the importance of the Republic and equal rights among men and women. The figure falls to 68% for respondents who believe in the separation of church and state. In contrast, a majority (50–60%) of those surveyed responded unfavorably to the law of laïcité, and would prefer to see their wife or daughter free to wear the veil.
In 2004, a year after the law was voted in, one organization opposed to it, called the "Committee of the 15th of March and Liberty," published a report on the law's effects. The report cites the files of 806 students affected by the law. Of the 806 students, 533 have accepted the law and no longer wear their veils in class. The report also gives an assessment of students who have left the French school system because of this issue. Among them, 67 have pursued their studies abroad. Another 73 of those 806 suspended or expelled from schools over the veil have chosen to take government-run CNED correspondence courses in order to finish their studies. The number of those who have chosen to study via other, non-government forms of correspondence schools is unknown.
The opening of the 2005 school year passed largely without incident, and opposition to the law seems to have given way to broader public opinion. However, the actual number of those who no longer attend French junior high and high schools over their veils is unknown.
Banning of full face covering in public
In 2010, a public debate arose and France passed a law that bans the wearing of full-face covering, including but not limited to burqas and niqābs, in public. The law was constitutionally cleared so that it came into force in April 2011. That debate and ban are separate from the above-discussed debate on the hijab in public schools, in that the new law does not pertain to Islamic scarves but rather to the much rarer full-face versions, as well as other full-face coverings (such as masks and balaclavas), and in that the new law applies to all citizens in public spaces regardless of religion or claimed tradition (and regardless of gender).
- Anti-mask laws
- British debate over veils
- French ban on face covering
- French law on secularity and conspicuous religious symbols in schools
- Ni Putes Ni Soumises
- Islamic dress in Europe
- Valérie Amiraux. "France needs to start facing up to Islamophobia". the Guardian.
- "France Escalates Its Push Against Religious Clothing Amid Rising Islamophobia". mintpressnews.com.
- "Beneath the Veil: Muslim Girls and Islamic Headscarves in Secular France" by Nicky Jones, Macquarie Law Journal, 2009
- Map showing prevalence of Hijab wear across the world and indicating countries where there are restrictions on wearing it.
- Description of musical clips containing such stereotypes. Numerous analysts (example, another example, another example by the same author) and coupled with 41% of French in an (ipsos survey) consider the image of women in advertising to be degrading.
- This argument ("the veil gets them out of the house") is taken in "Le Foulard et la République", by Françoise Gaspard and Farhad Khosrokhavar, ed. La Découverte, 1995.
- Example of such a course: sisters Alma and Lila Lévy seen in the newspaper "L'Humanité". Sociologist Françoise Gaspard speaks of a "demanded veil".
- There are no objective givens on the level of racism felt by Muslims in France. As far as French people in general, a survey carried out in September 2003, by the BSA Institute gives an idea of the level of racism in France, real or felt. According to this survey, 87% of French people consider racism to be widespread in their country (see p.569 of the French version of the report). However, 14% of French people express racist ideas (p.576).
- A map of the schools of Islam.
- Schools of Islam, particularly Sunnis, the largest school of Islam, heavily criticizes Wahhabis for being radical and violent(see here).
- There is no internet site representing this group. On the following sites, there can be found passages by and interviews with members of this group, entirely or partially on the scarf: (tout particulièrement les quatre derniers paragraphes)
- The theme of the scarf as a symbol of submission of the woman to the man is found in many a discourse. Among them are:
"Les Chiennes de Garde": "It's the symbol of the oppression of women, of a demonization of the body and women's sexuality" (communiqué, 7 March 2005),
"Les Penelopes": "Veiled, they are property of masters who designate them, to others and to the girls themselves, as that which is forbidden." (article published on the website of this association)
la Ligue des Droits de l'Homme: "The LDH recalls its hostility to the veil, a symbol of oppression for many women" (communiqué, 6 January 1997).
These views are still held despite women being made free individuals from the advent of Islam, where they had previously been inherited property in pre-Islamic cultures. This is also expressed by individuals:
Mohamed Kacimi, novelist of Algerian origin: "The veil is an antiquated alienation",
Sylviane Agacinsky, philosopher: "The veil symbolizes submission to male authority"
- Among them are:
the burka used in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
arranged marriages that exist, to varying degrees, in many countries of the Muslim world.
female circumcision, practiced by Muslims in 28 countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, but also in Egypt, Oman, Yemen, and the UAE.
- This argument is put forward by many, including:
Jean-Louis Debré: "Rare indeed must be the [phenomenon of] young women who spontaneously wear [the veil] spontaneously, outside any pressure from their family or from where they live." (site of the National Assembly)
Alain Madelin: "Certainly, one can hope that the prohibition of the Islamic veil in school will be dissuasive and that many young women will find in the application of this law a way to escape the social pressure more or less against their will." ("Le Monde", 7 February 2004)
Fadéla Amara, president of the Neither Whores Nor Submissive association: "I would also like to talk about the girls who don't wear the veil and who are threatened by this pressure that is brought on only by these [other] girls who wear the veil. You really have to understand that in a city today, a girl who wears the veil is respectable, and if she doesn't, she isn't."
- George, Rose (July 17, 2006). "Ghetto warrior". The Guardian. London. Retrieved May 5, 2010.
- Examples of texts which use this argument:
an article from "l'Humanité"
an interview with Bernard Stasi in the paper "La Croix".
- According to a survey of teachers carried out from the 22nd to the 24th of January, 2004 by the CSA Institute; 79% of teachers consider the veil incompatible with public service and education
- On the same site are listed the results of four surveys carried out in October and December, 2003. In each of them, an absolute majority of persons questioned answer in favor of a law forbidding the veil in public schools.
- Pascale Égré: Loi sur le port du voile : le débat relancé Le Parisien, 25 March 2013 (French)
- "article written by the collective". Lmsi.net. Retrieved 2010-09-16.
- Among authors of this text are Houria Boutelja, founder of the "Les Blédardes" collective and Laurent Lévy, father of Alma and Lila Lévy (see 4). However, Laurent Lévy himself cannot be considered in favor of the veil in schools: "The choice of young women to hide their hair, ears, and neck is decidedly regrettable - because of what it symbolizes."
- Edmiston, William F. (2010). La France Contemporaine. 4th ed. Boston: Heinle Cengage. p. 221.
- "France". Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. Archived from the original on February 6, 2011. Retrieved 2011-12-14.
- "Education Code. L811-1 §2" (in French). Legifrance.gouv.fr. 1984-01-26. Retrieved 2010-09-16.
- Council of State decision Chain v. France (French)
- Council of State decision Bessam v. France (French)
- "ECHR Press release on decisions Dogru v. France and Kervanci v. France". Cmiskp.echr.coe.int. Retrieved 2010-09-16.
- HRC views in case Singh v. France Communication No. 1852/2008
- "Armed police force woman to remove Burkini on French beach". 2016-08-24. Retrieved 2016-08-31.
- "Armed police order Muslim woman to remove burkini on packed Nice beach". Retrieved 2016-08-31.
- "How the world is reacting to France's burqini bans". 2016-08-18. Retrieved 2016-08-31.
- "France's top court to rule on burkini ban". www.aljazeera.com. Retrieved 2016-08-31.
- On the beginning of the 2004 scholastic year, a very small minority of Muslim students chose to shave their heads in order not to show their hair while at the same time obeying the letter of the law.
- "1 November 2005, "Headscarf defeat riles French Muslims"". BBC News. 2005-11-01. Retrieved 2010-09-16.
- Reflections on laïcité
- Islam and laïcité
- Reflections of a French citizen on the application of the law of laïcité
- Press review on the veil in schools, on an atheist website
- Associations opposed to the veil
- Associations opposed to religious signs in French public schools
- Presentations of Laurent Fabius and Jean Glavany in the National Assembly
- Presentation of Marie Georges Buffet in the National Assembly
- "Integration" of Muslims in other countries
- Islam in the UK
- Advice from the Human Rights Commission in Québec on the Muslim veil in public schools
- Independent voices