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Last Updated: Tuesday, 31 August, 2004, 17:00 GMT 18:00 UK
Q&A: Muslim headscarves
The French government has passed a law banning the wearing of Islamic headscarves in schools, which comes into effect at the start of the new school year on 2 September. BBC News Online examines the controversy surrounding the ban, which will affect millions of Muslims.

Find out about different styles of Muslim headscarf

Q: Why was a law banning the wearing of headscarves passed?

The French had been debating this issue for two decades, but it intensified in the past couple of years, with dozens of girls expelled from secular schools for refusing to remove their head covering.

Few things declare religious identity so emphatically. The visible Muslim presence has therefore added a pronounced religious dimension to rising French concerns about immigration and integration.

In addition, many French people regard the headscarf as a symbol of oppression of women, as well as the embodiment of a political worldview that rejects secularism and even, for some, embraces Islamic extremism.

And then there was a centre-right government under pressure from the far right National Front. The law was passed in March, ahead of regional elections. Polls at the time suggested that between 60-70% of the population supported the ban.

Q: Why is there such sensitivity to overt religious symbols in a Catholic country?

Secularism in France has a unique definition, more accurately expressed in the French term "laicite". It underpinned the French Revolution, which among other things sought to end the domination of the Roman Catholic Church over the state. There ensued much conflict between the church and secular authorities, and an atmosphere of anti-clericalism emerged.

The matter of public religious symbols has been ambiguous, however. In 1989, a court ruled that the wearing of religious insignia in state schools was permissible as long as it was not done with the aim of "pressure, provocation, proselytism or propaganda". Much of the debate focused on whether certain symbols fell into these categories.

Q: Did outrage at the ban really lead to two French journalists being taken hostage?

The group allegedly behind the abduction of Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot, the Islamic Army of Iraq, demanded that the law be overturned.

The BBC's Middle East analyst Roger Hardy says that while the headscarf issue has certainly provoked a negative reaction in the Muslim world, Iraq's kidnappers have not previously linked their action to events thousands of miles away. There has been speculation the hostage-takers may have come up with this unusual rationale only after the kidnapping, when they realised the nationality of the hostages.

The kidnapping of the men has baffled French public opinion, which is generally pro-Palestinian and strongly opposed the war in Iraq.

Q: Will French Muslims be able to challenge the law in court?

They will. There are clearly different interpretations of a French constitution that protects freedom of conscience, education and expression of religious belief. France is officially a pluralistic society and many Muslims argue that their rights to express their religious identity would be infringed by this law. Muslim women who wear the headscarf insist it is nothing to do with politics, but about dignity and obedience to God. Banning the wearing of it, they maintain, requires them to disobey their religion, or compromise their education.

If a challenge in the French courts failed, they could also take the case to the European Court of Human Rights. Article nine of the European Convention on Human Rights enshrines the freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs, subject "only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others".

However, the European Court of Human Rights recently upheld a ban imposed by Istanbul university in Turkey on a student who refused to take off her Islamic headscarf.

Q: Apart from the French Muslim community, are other religious groups also angry about this law?

Yes, Christian and Jewish groups reacted angrily to the ban on "overt" religious symbols in schools. As well as having the biggest Muslim community in Europe, France also has the biggest Jewish one. While one Jewish group had no problem with the ban, the Grand Rabbi of France, Joseph Sitruk, opposed it.

Others of no particular affiliation have argued that unity comes not through uniformity, but through diversity. Far from encouraging integration, they say, it will do the opposite, victimising Muslims in particular (most of whom are North African immigrants) and potentially pushing some towards political extremism.

It will also probably lead to more private, confessional schools. There are hundreds of private Catholic schools, but the first Muslim school, a junior high school in Aubervilliers, outside Paris, opened only two years ago.

Some Muslim groups have told girls to wear whatever they want and have pledged legal aid and private tutoring if they are expelled from school.

Q: Can Muslim girls wear headscarves to schools in other parts of Europe?

Yes, although the situation is very chequered. In Britain, Muslim girls are free to wear the headscarf. In Germany, there is a heated debate over the issue and some states are considering banning headscarves in schools.

The most striking parallel with the current situation in France is Turkey. There, the secular republic banned headscarves in public institutions. That has led to many girls being excluded from the public system.

In France headscarves are already forbidden for people working in the public sector, but that rule - which is not a law - is occasionally broken. A Muslim employee of the city of Paris was recently suspended for refusing to take off her scarf or shake men's hands.


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