Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

The Republic Unveiled. France and the Hijab.

What’s the context of the recent legislation in France

banning the wearing of the hijab? What’s the


Debates over laociti (state secularism) in French

schools have taken place repeatedly since the 1789

revolution and the establishment of the French

Republic. During the Third Republic, at the end of

the nineteenth century, a mandatory, free public

education system was established, and, with the 1905

law separating French church and state, it was

declared to be religiously neutral. Such neutrality

was reinforced with a 1937 circular from the Education

Ministry that outlawed any (fascist) “propaganda” in

the classroom.

While the legal context remaned stable, the social

context of France changed after the Algerian War

(1957-62) and the growth of large stable Muslim

(mostly North African immigrant) communities in

France. By the 1980s, Islam had become the second

largest religion in France behind Catholicism,

numbering as many as 5 million (or approximately 8% of

the population) – though these statistics are much

debated, as is the very definition of a “Muslim”

(someone born to Muslim parents vs. a regular

practicer of the faith vs. “Muslim” as a category of

avowed identity). In 1989, the question of the place

of the public expression of Islam in France arose in

the context of the expulsion of three young Moroccan

girls from a grammar school in Creil (Parisian suburb)

for refusing to remove their headscarves in class.

The ensuing debate polarized France, including the

immigrant community, and resulted in a pragmatic

approach that sought to deal with the issue on a case

by case basis rather than legislating. Effectively,

the French high court (conseil d’itat) decided to ban

only such dress that was “ostentatious” or

“provocative” in a way that either prostyletized or

disturbed the established order of the education

program (i.e. that interfered directly with science or

physical education classes). As a result, every year

a number of heavily mediatized cases of headscarved

schoolgirls came to the public attention, with the

court sometimes upholding the resulting expulsions and

sometimes overturning them.

Since the mid-1990s, the question of the hijab (or the

“veil,” as it is denounced in France) has been

increasingly politicized given the rise of Islamist

political movements that have been particularly active

in the public housing projects where many Muslims

live. The post-September 11th “war on terror” (with

the arrest of Zacarias Moussaoui and the detention of

several French-Maghrebis in Guantanamo Bay) has

increased public anxiety about a rising Islamic

fundamentalism, if not djihad, in the heart of France.

Moreover, such an image was reinforced by others

concerning the supposed rise of anti-Semitism and

violence against women (particularly young girls) by

young Muslim men in the same area. World Jewish

organizations accused President Chirac of handling the

former issue poorly and of maintaining a pro-Muslim,

anti-Israel state policy. All of these factors

contributed to Chirac’s initiating two commissions of

inquiry (one led by president of the parliament

Jean-Louis Debri, the other by former minister Bernard

Stasi) into annoncement of the proposed law against

any religious signs on 17 December 2003.

What is the actual legislation – is it specifically

against the hijab? Does it for example preclude the

wearing of the crucifix in state schools?

The legislation that was eventually passed by the

French Parliament bans any sign or dress that

“ostensibly manifests” the religious belonging of

students in public grammar, middle, and high schools.

The Education Ministry specified in its explanation of

the law that such a ban would include not only the

hijab but also kippas and crucifixes of “massively

excessive” dimensions. Later, the Education Minister

Luc Ferry underlined the flexibility of the law,

claiming that even bandanas and beards could be

subject to a ban if they could be clearly interpreted

as religious in nature. Theoretically, the ban would

also include Sikh turbans (a community several

thousand strong that the commissions were unaware even

existed), though whether such a ban would be applied

is still in discussion. In the end, the legislation

is clearly implicitly against the hijab. The French

press referred to it as the “law against the veil” and

the other explicitly targeted dress (kippas and large

crucifixes) are almost non-existent in public schools.

Orthodox Jews in France have an extensive network of

recognized private schools; there are only several

such sanctioned Islamic schools in all of France.

  • Pages: 1
  • 2
  • 3

Leave a Reply