France Loses Its Head Over Headscarves

By Kathleen Peratis

Published January 23, 2004, issue of January 23, 2004.
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Ten thousand people, mostly Muslim women, marched in protest through Paris on Saturday. Similar demonstrations by Muslim women took place in other cities in Europe and the Middle East. Two thousand people turned out in Stockholm, 2,400 in London, 2,500 in Beirut, 300 in Nablus, about 100 in Washington, D.C. A typical chant: “My scarf, my choice.”

The demonstrators were protesting the French proposal to ban all “conspicuous” religious garb of students in its public schools, including the headscarves of Muslim women and girls, yarmulkes and crosses “of manifestly excessive dimension.” The purpose, French President Jacques Chirac says, is the protection of French secularism.

France’s secularism in its most aggressive manifestation is nearly incomprehensible to an American. Sikhs, for example, recently claimed they should be allowed to keep their turbans despite the proposed ban because turbans are not a religious requirement and the ban covers only “religious” garb. In America, the surest route to protection is to claim religious obligation.

Despite a year of conflict and protest over head coverings in public schools, French officials, with great popular support, are hanging tough. “Secularism is not negotiable,” Chirac said.

In effect, the same “take-it-or-leave-it” was attached to the French offer of emancipation to the Jewish community in 1791. Following the promulgation of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, Count de Clermont Tonnerre famously urged that all rights of citizenship be extended to “actors, executioners and non-Catholics,” including Jews. But there was a price. “They say to me, the Jews have their own judges and laws. I respond that is your fault and you should not allow it. We must refuse everything to the Jews as a nation and accord everything to Jews as individuals. We must withdraw recognition from their judges; they should only have our judges.… It is repugnant to have in the state… a nation within the nation.”

Dissolution into the majority has been demanded, more or less aggressively, of religious and cultural minorities ever since. To be “French” is to be unhyphenated; minorities are to leave their other national and religious identities behind, or at least behind closed doors.

The Muslims of France have not obliged. They represent about 8% of France’s 60 million people (the Jewish community is just 1%), most of whom have roots in poor and rural parts of Muslim Africa. Their traditional garb and customs render them a highly visible presence in many French cities and towns. To the voracious French appetite for swallowing minorities, they are increasingly viewed as indigestible. They constitute an offense to many French people, and this discomfort is exploited to great political effect by right-wing demagogues and, of late, even by mainstream politicians.

Headscarves have become a political issue in at least half a dozen countries in Western Europe where a growing Muslim community — roughly 15 million — is coming into religious, cultural and political conflict with the secular, white, Christian majority. A number of local governments have banned the wearing of headscarves by, variously, schoolchildren, teachers, civil servants, parliamentarians and health care providers. Two German states recently drew up legislation that would forbid teachers in public schools from wearing headscarves, a move that would have been defensible on the ground that representatives of the state must not promote a particular religion. But there is no evenhandedness here — the ban applies only to headscarves.

Xenophobia, of course, does not exist apart from fear. In France, as elsewhere, there is great fear of Muslim fundamentalism, and the headscarf is both a Muslim religious requirement and an Islamist political symbol. A few months ago, I spoke with a veiled Palestinian women’s rights activist in Ramallah. She told me that she wears the headscarf not as a religious statement — she is very secular and her equally secular mother is in fact appalled that her daughter wears a headscarf — but as a statement of her political identification with strident Islamic politics.

The fear of Islamic extremism is one reason why some groups that one might expect to speak out against the deprivation of civil and religious rights have not done so. Indeed, the chief rabbi of France, Joseph Sitruk, said he was “overall very satisfied” with Chirac’s speech in which he declared his support for a ban. Nor was he concerned with the proposed prohibition on yarmulkes (perhaps because months ago he urged that Jews not wear them in public to avoid antisemitic attacks). Moise Cohen, president of the Consistoire of Paris, which directs religious Jewish life, did express concern that the law could be viewed by Muslims as discriminatory, but neither he nor any other Jewish communal official or spokesperson has condemned it.

Feminists and women’s organizations, including even Muslim ones, have also largely refrained from criticizing the ban. In fact, some of them fervently back it. They see headscarves as symbols of the oppression of women. Rather than noticing that the same girls who are forced by some men to wear a scarf are forced by others to take it off, they too are making common cause with right-wing politicians who support the ban.

It is doubtful, however, that banning headscarves ultimately will promote women’s rights or advance the integration of France’s Muslims. In fact, it may have precisely the opposite result. The Shah of Iran labeled the chador a “symbol of injustice and shame” and decreed that it be “cast into the fires of oblivion.” That ban sowed the seeds of the revolution of the ayatollahs. In France, banning headscarves might drive more Muslim schoolchildren into Muslim religious schools, a result antithetical to French assimilationist goals. France may be well on its way to turning headscarves from a symbol of oppression into a sacrament and rallying point for extremists.

Kathleen Peratis, an employment discrimination lawyer, is counsel to Outten & Golden LLP and a member of the board of Human Rights Watch.

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