Showdown looming over French headscarf ban

27th July 2004, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, July 26 (AFP) - With just weeks to go before the start of the school year, one of France's largest Muslim bodies faces a showdown with the government after advising girls they can wear head-coverings to class despite a new law banning conspicuous religious insignia.

PARIS, July 26 (AFP) - With just weeks to go before the start of the school year, one of France's largest Muslim bodies faces a showdown with the government after advising girls they can wear head-coverings to class despite a new law banning conspicuous religious insignia.

The Union of Islamic Organisations in France (UOIF), which enjoys a wide following among the country's five million Muslims, issued a statement on its Internet site saying girls should wear "discreet" headgear because this would not be in breach of the law.

"The ban on head-coverings in school is not universal," the organisation said, arguing that the controversial law, passed in March, "does not call into question the right of pupils to wear discreet religious signs."

In an interview with AFP, the UOIF's president Lhaj Thami Breze said "discreet" head-coverings include bandanas or pieces of cloth tied at the back, and he warned school authorities not to "twist the law" by trying to prohibit them in September.

"We have been asked not to break the law, but to try to find a way to conform to it. It is not up to schools to tell us how," he said by telephone from Morocco.

However the UOIF's stance could put it on collision course with the centre-right government of President Jacques Chirac, which in guidelines to school leaders stipulates that the ban covers "signs and behaviour ... whose wearing immediately makes known a person's religious faith."

The guidelines say the Islamic veil is banned "no matter what name is given to it." Earlier this month Education Minister Francois Fillon said the law would be applied "with absolute firmness ... I will pay personal attention. There will be no exception."

And the National Union of State School Directors (SNPDERN) described the UOIF's advice as "a provocation ... The UOIF should be trying to calm things down rather than stirring the conflict."

The "secularity law" was drafted in response to an official report last year which warned against the breakdown of society into racial and faith-based groups, and recommended the removal of religious symbols from the classroom as well as steps to hasten integration of the large Arab minority.

The ban on "conspicuous" insignia also covers the Jewish skull-cap and large Christian crosses. But the Muslim community believes it is primarily the target, and the start of the new term - when the law will be applied for the first time - is awaited with growing unease.

Breze said the UOIF's advice to girls was to stay within the law, but he predicted a wave of incidents as school authorities impose a rigid interpretation of the ban.

"There are going to be problems - and why? Because sadly some in the educational establishment are determined to force exclusion. They will make use of a law that is subject to interpretation to make their own law," he said.

The UOIF, which enjoins a return to the fundamentals of Islam as laid out in the Koran and sayings of the prophet Mohamed, scored strongly in elections last year to France's first officially-recognised Muslim body, the Council for the Muslim Religion (CFCM).

A leading member of the CFCM, Thomas Milcent - who goes by the pen-name Dr Abdallah - also said girls should wear a "bandana-style headscarf" to school on the basis that is "discreet" within the definition of the law. And he called for student strikes if they are excluded from class.

"If a girl is in this situation, I suggest that all citizens, believers and non-believers, withdraw their children from schools in the region for a week to show their disapproval of this arbitrary and unjust measure," he said on the popular Islamic Internet site Oumma.com.

According to Milcent, a Strasbourg-based doctor who has opened a telephone hot-line for families seeking advice on the headscarf ban, some girls are planning to wear the "Phrygian cap" - the revolutionary symbol of French democracy - as a way of thumbing their noses at the law.

"I wonder how juridically schools will be able to exclude pupils who wear not a sign 'conspicuously showing their religious faith,' but the very symbol of their attachment to the values of the republic. For a bad law, bad solutions!," he said.

© AFP

Subject: French news

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