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Last Updated: Tuesday, 1 November 2005, 17:41 GMT
Headscarf defeat riles French Muslims
Asma Boubker
Asma Boubker resents having to take off her scarf at the school gate
Rioting in a Paris suburb has highlighted discontent among French youths of foreign origin, many of whom define themselves through Islam.

As part of a series on French Muslims, the BBC News website's Henri Astier reports on the impact of the headscarf ban.

Every morning headteacher Genevieve Piniau stands guard at the gate of the Lycee Robert Doisneau in Corbeil-Essonnes near Paris.

She is there to ensure no rules are broken, including a ban on Muslim headscarves and other "conspicuous" religious symbols in French state schools. Dozens of girls duly take off their hijabs as they approach the gate.

But when one student tries to sneak past Ms Piniau with hers still on, the headteacher immediately spots her: "Off with it!"

Despite this rare incident, Ms Piniau says the ban is now widely accepted.

The collective baring of heads at the school gate testifies to that. However the acceptance is often grudging.

I said I had the deepest respect for their faith, but did not want to know what their religion was
Genevieve Piniau
Asma Boubker, 16, says she feels targeted as a Muslim: "Christians have crucifixes, why can't we have headscarves?"

But other Muslim girls support the ban. "Some teachers would not see beyond the scarf and judge us - it's best if we have to take it off," says Siham, 15.

Rama Kourouma, 18, agrees that religion should not be advertised in schools. "Faith is in the heart," she smiles.


The compliant students of Lycee Robert Doisneau are no exception.

"All conspicuous religious signs have gone," says Marie-Louise Testenoire, the top education official for the Essonne department - which includes Corbeil-Essonne and other areas with large Muslim communities.

Amira Zitouni
It is a war of religion. Islam is targeted through the headscarf
Amira Zitouni, student

This development is remarkable given the controversy that surrounded the introduction of the ban last year.

French Muslims marched against a move that many condemned as intolerant.

Many pointed out that the bill reversed court decisions that had allowed students to wear religious signs, as long as they did not amount to "proselytising".

The first blow to the anti-ban campaign came in August last year - ironically at the hand of militants who abducted two French reporters in Iraq, demanding the law should be withdrawn.

Protests died down, as French Muslims refused to be associated with the hostage-takers.

But the key to the ban's success has been its enduring popularity. All political parties endorsed it.

And a recent Pew think-tank survey indicated that secularist France was the country where restrictions on religion symbols had the strongest support - a full 75% backed the school ban.

Soft approach

At Robert Doisneau, Ms Piniau says that during the last academic year she secured co-operation through discussion, rather than discipline.

Evry mosque
Second largest religion
Five million Muslims (estimate)
35% Algerian origin (estimate)
25% Moroccan origin (estimate)
10% Tunisian origin (estimate)
Concentrated in poor suburbs of Paris, Lille, Lyon, Marseille and other cities
Even at the height of the controversy in early 2004, when 30 girls defiantly came to school with headscarves, she never expelled anyone.

"I took them into my office and explained to them what secularism meant," Ms Piniau recalls.

"I said I had the deepest respect for their faith, but I did not want to know what their religion was - any more than I wanted them to know what mine was."

The message was accepted by all but one of the girls - most of whom, according to Ms Piniau, had been pressured by relatives.

The clearest sign that the 2004 law is now accepted is that no Muslim group is fighting for its repeal - not even the Organisation of Islamic Organisations of France (UOIF), which is closest to grass-roots opinion in the country's poorer suburbs.

"The law is unfair to Muslims, but we've put it behind us," said Rachid Hamoudi, the UOIF director of a big mosque in Lille, northern France.

The building also houses one of France's Muslim schools, the Lycee Averroes, which Mr Hamoudi offers as "an alternative for those who want to wear a veil".

Lingering tensions

But the wide acceptance of the ban does not mean the scarf issue has been settled once and for all.

Veiled student at Creteil university
The Muslim hijab can be worn in French universities
It remains contentious, not so much for the French Muslim community as a whole - which includes many secularists - but for youngsters with North African roots who have found a sense of identity through religion.

To get an idea of the lingering tensions, it is worth looking at what happens to these young Muslims beyond secondary school.

At university level, the law on religious signs does not apply.

Nevertheless Teycir ben Naser, a second-year student at Creteil University near Paris, has opted for a discreet bandana.

The 19-year-old feels the headscarf she wears off campus could become a liability during oral exams.

Not that it would influence examiners, she says, but "they might say things or look at me in a certain way, and that would undermine my confidence".

Veiled ambition

The main challenge, however, will come after university.

"We are studying to be able to work later," Ms ben Naser says. "And we all we know that if you wear a veil all the doors will close."

She says her mother, who has a PhD in philosophy and wears a headscarf, does not have a job as a result.

Sonia Benyahia, a student who wears a headscarf on campus and wants to be a schoolteacher, fears her future could be equally blocked.

"I don't know if I'll be able to take off the scarf, so I think I'll remain a housewife," she says.

Ambitious Muslim women will no doubt enter the French workforce in the coming years.

But many will have to choose between their careers and wearing their religion proudly.

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