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Last Updated: Thursday, 11 December, 2003, 19:11 GMT
Headscarf row hides deeper issues

By Caroline Wyatt
BBC correspondent in Paris

Eight-year-old Samira looks up shyly from beneath her headscarf as she answers a maths question posed by her teacher in Lille.

She is one of a class of 20 girls and boys at France's first and only Muslim school, which opened earlier this year.

Soon, though, this could be the only classroom in France where Muslim girls are allowed to wear the headscarf.

Muslim girls in Baghdad
Some Muslim girls say that they wear the headscarf freely
Last week a government-appointed Commission on Secularism recommended drafting a new law banning all conspicuous religious symbols from French state schools.

That would include the Islamic headscarf, the Jewish skull-cap and any large Christian cross or crucifix.

French President Jacques Chirac has now voiced his support for such a law, already having commented that there was something "aggressive" about the wearing of a headscarf.

It is a view shared by many French, even though few have had any problem with the skull-cap or a discreet cross worn in school; it is only the Islamic headscarf that seems to arouse such passionate controversy.

With Islam now the country's second biggest religion, and still growing fast, emotions have run high ever since two Muslim schoolgirls refused to remove their scarves in a French school more than a decade ago.

They were excluded from classes - and told they were violating the ban on religious symbols in state schools. A small but steady stream of similar cases sparked an emotional debate and left France determined to resolve the issue once and for all.

French customs

The 11 September attacks hardened attitudes here, with unspoken fears about Islamic fundamentalism underlying the public rhetoric about the scarf being an affront to women's rights.

The wearing of the headscarf or veil, as most French prefer to call it, has become the focal point for a much broader question.

After 40 years or so, France's mainly north African Muslim immigrants have still not assimilated or become purely French in the way previous generations of immigrants of other creeds did, and that worries many here.

You can have religion in your private life but when you are at school you should abide by law and the teacher should not know if you are Jewish, Catholic or Muslim
Jacques Myard, MP

France expects its immigrants to adapt to a French way of life, rather than adapting France to its immigrants' customs and culture - meaning that few in France believe multi-culturalism is the answer to the headscarf issue.

Rather, French politicians seem determined to insist that loyalty to the French state and its secular ideals comes before any religious observance. Most French MPs believe a law to enforce that may be the only answer.

Even mainstream MPs such as Jacques Myard of the governing centre-right UMP express themselves in language which in more multicultural societies might be seen as somewhat intolerant.

"A lot of Muslim girls say that they wear the headscarf freely," he says.

"But in fact when you look at it carefully you will see that they are in some cases, in fact in most cases, motivated by religious fundamentalists and if you give them just a bit of a finger they will eat up your arm up to the elbow.

"So we have to be strict and very adamant - and say this is the way things are in France."

Choice

Some of France's five million Muslims share that view.

Algerian-born French writer Samira Bellil, 30, has joined the campaign against allowing headscarves in schools, saying the last thing young Muslim women need is to be disempowered yet further.

"I am fighting for personal choice. Whatever your identity - whether Muslim, African, Algerian, French - all of us deserve to live under the equality of the law in a state like France, which values its secularity."

The French say that the headscarf is a symbol of the alienation of women. But that's because it's seen from the perspective of a non-Muslim
Noura Jaballah
Yet most Muslim worshippers at a Paris mosque reject this argument.

Tunisian-born Noura Jaballah says it is her choice to wear a veil, as does her friend Fatima Ayash.

Both believe the furious public debate on the issue has less to do with secularity and more with French discomfort over its growing Muslim population.

"People are not at ease or happy with it, so they look for problems," said Noura Jaballah.

"This is why the headscarf has become an issue, when in reality, the headscarf has never been the root of any problems - not at school or elsewhere.

"It's just some teachers who are not happy about seeing Muslim practices on show in public and who insist that the headscarf should be banished from school."

Private option

She argues that in fact, the headscarf is a vital part of her identity - and not something which gives her second class status as a woman, as some French insist.

"From the point of view of a Muslim, the reverse is true - for us the headscarf is a symbol of liberation, because with this scarf a woman can go out and live alongside men, without regard to her sex.

"It eases the relationship between men and women. I am equal to man because of what is in my head, not because of what is on my head."

If a law is passed banning the headscarf from state schools, then Muslim pupils who insist on wearing it may find their only option is to choose a private school, or move to Lille to be near the Muslim School.

Yet many in France say separate schools are not the answer, and fear they could further hamper integration. Some also worry that a new law banning headscarves in schools could simply drive Muslims into the arms of Islamic fundamentalists.

That would be a far cry from the French desire to create a moderate European form of Islam which chimes in with France's ideal of itself and its state.





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