[Marxism] Re: The hijab controversy

Len Walsingham lha.walsingham at btopenworld.com
Sun Feb 15 12:23:58 MST 2004

This article (only the opening paragraphs here) gives a comprehensive
background and is still available at www.merip.org the Middle East
Research and Information project who also publish the free Middle East
Report online.

Headscarves and the French Tricolor

Paul Silverstein

January 30, 2004

(Paul Silverstein, an editor of Middle East Report, teaches anthropology
at Reed College.)

France is in the process of passing a law that would ban "signs and
dress that ostensibly denote the religious belonging of students" in
public elementary and high schools beginning in the 2004-2005 school
year. Lawmakers are scheduled to vote on the bill on February 3.
According to the Ministry of Education, the law would cover all "signs
and dress whose wearing leads to the immediate recognition of the
[wearer's] religious belonging, which is to say the Islamic veil,
whatever name one calls it, the [Jewish] kippa, or a cross of massively
excessive dimensions." Despite such rhetoric of universality, the target
of the interdiction clearly seems to be the hijab -- the head covering
worn by Muslim women and girls -- whose place in French public schools
has been a source of controversy since 1989. The law appears to call
into question the legitimacy of Islam in the French public sphere and
has been interpreted by many in the Islamic world as a direct attack on
Islam. Not surprisingly, the law has elicited huge debate and contention
in the halls of government, the pages of newspapers and in city streets
from Paris and Washington to Gaza, Baghdad and Jakarta.


The law was officially proposed by President Jacques Chirac in a
December 17, 2003 speech and submitted for constitutional review by the
Ministry of Education on January 5, 2004. It follows in part the
recommendations of two commissions, one headed by president of the
National Assembly Jean-Louis Debré, the other by immigration expert and
former minister Bernard Stasi, each charged with evaluating the state of
laïcité (state secularism) in France. The latter committee was an
erudite group of 23 scholars, government officials and professionals
working in the milieus of religion and migration, including
ex-revolutionary philosopher Régis Debray, sociologist Alain Touraine,
Islamologists Mohamed Arkoun and Gilles Kepel, and experts on
immigration Jacqueline Costa-Lascoux and Patrick Weil. Over the course
of four months, it held nearly 100 public and 40 private hearings with
representatives from various religious communities, state agencies,
NGOs, schools and universities, as well as a public discussion with over
200 students from schools in metropolitan France and French territories

The Stasi committee's 77-page published report subtly traced the history
of and present challenges to laïcité, and recommended a series of 26
measures to better enhance its mission of providing freedom of belief,
the legal equality of religious groups and the neutrality of the state
vis-à-vis religion. These measures included not only proposed
legislation to clarify the state's position on religious garb in
schools, but also the incorporation of Yom Kippur and Eid al-Adha as
public holidays, expanded classroom instruction on "religious facts" in
addition to the history of slavery, colonization, decolonization and
immigration, the teaching of non-state languages such as Berber and
Kurdish as opposed to simply state languages like Arabic and Turkish,
the rehabilitation of "urban ghettos" seen as the breeding grounds for
anti-secularist fundamentalisms, and the adoption of a Charter of
Laïcité to be invoked during various public rites including the
naturalization of immigrants. Although several of these suggestions
(including the teaching of Berber in schools) are being considered, only
the proposal for legislation against "ostensible" religious signs and
dress in public schools made its way into Chirac's pronouncement and the
National Assembly's deliberations.

The Stasi report and the current debates revolve around the future of
laïcité in a context marked by the rise of Islam as the second religion
of France and fears over the growth of "communitarianism," particularly
in the "urban ghettos" where many immigrants and their children reside.
Laïcité is considered by supporters of the law proposal to be a
fundamental, immutable pillar of the French republic. Enthroned in the
present constitution, it is variously cited in the Stasi report as the
"cornerstone (pierre angulaire) of national unity," the "guarantee of
individual freedom," the "founding value of the republican pact," and,
most colorfully, the "leavening (levain) of integration." For the
authors of the report, hijabs worn in school -- as clear markers of
"communitarianism" -- threaten laïcité, and hence the "social pact" of
"living together" (vivre-ensemble) that maintains the republic as an
integral unit.


Laïcité, as inscribed in the 1905 law separating church and state in
education, served to protect individual students from the proselytizing
of presumably Catholic public school teachers and administrators.
Gradually, however, the burden of responsibility for maintaining
religious neutrality shifted from the schools to the students
themselves. A May 15, 1937 circular from Popular Front Education
Minister Jean Zay, fearing the utilization of schools for recruitment by
fascist groups, underlined "the necessity of maintaining public
education...free from political and religious propaganda.... No form of
proselytism will be tolerated." After 1989, when three schoolgirls were
expelled from a grammar school outside of Paris for refusing to remove
their headscarves in class, public anxiety newly coalesced around the
possibility of Islamic fundamentalist groups deploying the dress and
comportment of schoolchildren to spread their sectarian doctrines.

Such anxiety, however, did not translate immediately into legal
interdiction. Lionel Jospin, then minister of education, asked that
children "do not come to school with any sign affirming a religious
distinction or difference," but stated that this in itself could not be
grounds for expulsion. Indeed, when asked to examine the headscarf
question constitutionally in 1989, the French high court concluded that
wearing a Muslim headscarf was not in principle incompatible with
laïcité, and that the exclusion of such a student would only be
justified by "the risk of a threat to the establishment's order or to
the normal functioning of teaching" -- a threat posed because the
headscarf was "ostentatious" or "political" in intent.

The court decision effectively left it to individual schoolteachers and
administrators to determine the "ostentatious" or "political" nature of
any hijab encountered. Each subsequent school year witnessed a handful
of cases of young girls arriving at school wearing headscarves and
consequently being disciplined or dismissed. The most recent affair, in
September 2003, ironically involved the dismissal of the Lévy sisters,
whose father was later reported to be an atheist Jew. (The girls' mother
is Muslim, though the daughters apparently were introduced to more
rigorous Islam by more distant relatives.) The high court has generally
upheld such expulsions when the wearing of the headscarf disrupted the
school curriculum, when it interfered with participation in physical
education or biology classes, or when the students simply refused to
attend these classes. However, in the absence of such disruptions, the
high court has consistently reinstated the students. Moreover, it has
insisted that the cases be resolved through negotiated compromise with
state-appointed mediators like Stasi commission member Hanifa Cherifi, a
self-defined "secular Muslim" who, while not inherently hostile to the
hijab, generally sought to convince the girls in question to abandon it
for practical reasons.

Though generally resolved out of court, cases of headscarved young women
have tended to receive disproportionate media attention. On the one
hand, the media has often presented the schoolgirls as the avant-garde
of an Islamist insurgency that threatens to undermine the French
Republic. On the other hand, the schoolgirls are portrayed as victims of
violence and subjugation, their headscarves imposed upon them by their
fathers and "big brothers." In either case, the notion is that behind
the headscarved girls lurks the Islamist "bearded man," an image
pervading a series of political cartoons under the rubric "Histories of
the Veil" that ran in Le Monde during the first week of 2004.

Paralleling these media portrayals, scores of academic studies and
memoirs by French Muslim women published since 1989 have sought to
unravel the extent and ramifications of "veiling" in France. While they
attest to the diversity of the phenomenon, these works generally
conclude that Islamic "integralism" (intégrisme) is on the rise in urban
France, and explain Islamism as the direct result of worsening "social
exclusion" -- in the form of unemployment, racism and failing schools --
faced by Muslim immigrant groups. Depictions of "ghetto" Islamism were
bolstered by the linking of French-born Muslims to the 1995 bombings in
Paris and Lyon attributed to the Algerian Armed Islamic Group, the
arrest of French-Moroccan Zacarias Moussaoui as the "twentieth hijacker"
in the September 11, 2001 plot, and the detention of several French
citizens of North African descent in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Many
journalists and politicians began to worry that the French housing
projects (cités) had become nodes in a global jihadi network stretching
from Algeria to Chechnya to Afghanistan.
<remainder snipped>

For more on Islam and Muslims in France, see Hisham Aidi, "Let Us Be
Moors: Islam, Race and 'Connected Histories'," in Middle East Report 229
(Winter 2003).

Order back issues of Middle East Report, or subscribe, via a secure
server at MERIP's website: http://www.merip.org

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