French secularism and headscarves


Peace, Love and Unity
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Interesting news item of an issues that's been doggnig France for some time now - the rights, or not, of Muslim girls to wear headscarves to school.

Jacque Chirac stepped into the row this week by publically calling for the headscarves to be disallowed from public instituations:

French President Jacques Chirac has voiced support for a law that would ban the wearing of headscarves in schools.

He was giving his reaction to last week's report by a government commission, which proposed a ban on conspicuous religious signs in schools.

Jewish skull-caps and large Christian crosses would be affected, as well as headscarves worn by Muslim girls.

Some religious leaders have objected to the idea, but polls suggest a majority of voters would back it.

"Discreet" medallions and pendants which merely confirm a person's religious faith would be allowed.
For more information on French Secularism, there's an interesting article covering issues of Church and State in France here:

France is not the only Western country to insist on the separation of church and state - but it does so more militantly than any other.

Secularism is the closest thing the French have to a state religion. It underpinned the French Revolution and has been a basic tenet of the country's progressive thought since the 18th Century.

To this day, anything that smacks of official recognition of a religion - such as allowing Islamic headscarves in schools - is anathema to many French people.

Even those who oppose a headscarf ban do so in the name of a more modern, flexible form of secularism.

This tradition can be seen as a by-product of French Catholicism, as progressives have always seen the pulpit as an enemy, rather than a platform, unlike in some Protestant countries.

French Enlightenment thinkers such Voltaire, Diderot and Montesquieu regarded religion as divisive, benighted and intolerant.
I was waiting for someone to bring this issue up. My gut feeling is if this law was being proposed/passed in the US instead of in France, it would be struck down on first amendment grounds, as it clearly prohibits one from practicing one of their religious beliefs or traditions. I'm afraid to me this law seems horribly intolerant. People have already been expelled from public schools for wearing an item of clothing (required by their religion? or just encouraged? I don't know enough here).

Allowing someone to wear a symbol of their religion in public places isn't an "offical recognition of religion" but an official recognition that the governement has no place telling people what religious traditions they can and can't practice.
BlueCanary said:
Allowing someone to wear a symbol of their religion in public places isn't an "offical recognition of religion" but an official recognition that the governement has no place telling people what religious traditions they can and can't practice.

So true BlueCanary. But also consider, the women's headscarf in Islam is not just a religious symbol like a yarmulke or cross necklace. It is a piece of clothing like shirt or dress. To tell girls they may not wear it is like saying they must show up to school without their top. For those who are long accustomed, it is a form of indecent exposure...extremely embarassing. And just because everyone else is doing it, doesn't make it any better.

This law will just confirm the idea that the west is at war with Islam and create more bitterness. I hope the US gov't will put pressure on the French to let people be.
Make headscarve a common fad.

Giving the benefit of the doubt to Chirac, that he is after the good of French society and its national homogeneity for its further advancement in a common culture, and liberation from religious obscurantism; nonetheless his advocacy of a ban on headscarves for Muslim women is not the way to arrive at this politically correct – to himself – policy.

Now, if he would consult Dr. Susma, he would have received this advice from the pragmatic Susma:

First, in everything do not engage in any head-on collision with any particular minority group on their religious, cultural, or moral beliefs and observances. This course of action always spells disaster for a politician, not to speak of the hatred and even tearing of flesh and shedding of blood it will engender from both sides of the conflict.

Now, find out why a belief or practice is important to a minority group. In the case of headscarves for Muslim women, it is a distinction for them, to tell the whole non Muslim world that they are different.

So, water down that distinction and its importance for them. Make everyone wear headscarves. How do you do that?

Monsieur Chirac, call in your doyens of headgear fashion, instruct them to design various styles of headscarves all with some kind of imitation or allusion to those worn by Muslim women, and popularize headscarves among the general female species of the land, with the result that it will become a common piece of everyday wear for women, not only in France, but by the fad it will generate, even worldwide among Christians and Buddhists and even Jewish women and of course even the most secularist atheist women of society.

Now Mulsim women will have nothing on their head for them to call attention as to a distinction peculiar with themselves only. In time they will forget this religious moral observance of Islam prescribed for women.

Muslim religious moral imams will think of some other gimmick. Then Monsieur Chirac, you are welcome to consult me again.

Susma Rio Sep
Interesting opinions !

Without in any way meaning to say that I agree with the position of Chirac, I think BlueCanary is not entirely correct on the situation in the US. I Would need to check some references, but I think on the contrary that workers in public places are not allowed to display visible signs of their religion while at work, on the ground of separation of church and state and respect for the people to whom they provide services. I don't know if the same is true for students in public schools, though.


While I can't speak for public workers, I can speak for public schools: that displays of religion by individual students (especially those displays required by a religion) are allowed. As I said it was only my "gut" feeling that this would be ruled unconstitutional in the US. My reasoning was (is) that the government can neither endorse one religion nor prohibit the free practice of religion. Telling a Jew that he can not wear their skull-cap or telling a muslim that she cannot wear her headscarf is prohibitng the free practice of their religion. Furthermore in France several people have been expelled for refusing to take off their headscarf (the rule which Chirac is proposing to be a national law is already a policy of several school districts in France). Were this to happen in America, it would be seen as providing members of different religions unequal education opportunites: it would be akin to saying that strictly observant muslim women don't deserve or aren't entitled to the same education as members of other religions. That is why I thought it would be ruled unconstitutional here.
Yep. It makes sense that the rule for students is different than for public workers. As far as France is concerned, the country has been very much secular, even sometimes anti-religious, since about 1792.