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France debates ban on Muslim veils in universities

Philippe Desmazes, AFP I Pupils study the Koran on February 11, 2015 at the European Institute of Social Sciences (Institut Europeen des Sciences Humaines, IESH) in Saint-Leger-de-Fougeret, central France

The debate over wearing veils at public universities has resurfaced after reports of professors singling out women for wearing hijabs. Both politicians and the public are struggling to find a balance between French secularism and religious tolerance.

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The issue of whether to let women wear scarves at university came into the spotlight earlier this month when a professor at the Paris XIII university said that he did not support “religious symbols in public places”, referring to a young woman wearing a hijab in his class. The professor was demoted for his comments.

In September, a professor at the Sorbonne asked a student if she would continue wearing “that thing” in class, indicating the young woman’s headscarf. The president of the Sorbonne later apologised for the professor’s comments.

The issues of religion and immigration has become even more pertinent in France after a series of attacks last month carried out by Muslim immigrants to France. In the aftermath of the attacks, which left 20 dead including the attackers, the question of what it means to be a French Muslim or both French and Jewish is on many people’s minds. In a recent speech at the Sorbonne, French President François Hollande called for a “secular teaching of religion” and said that France’s official secularism – or laïcité – “does not mean forgetting religion, or indeed being in conflict with religion”.

Last week, former French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s political party, the UMP (Union for a Popular Movement), came out in support of even more restrictive measures on religious symbols in French public spaces, including an outright ban on veils in universities. This would be in addition to the ban already in place at public primary and secondary schools.

Some experts say that this is just a way for Sarkozy to appear more appealing to an electorate that may be increasingly wary of minority communities.

“This is political pandering to the electorate that might vote for the (far-right) National Front,” said John Bowen, a professor of anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, who specializes in the study of Islam.

New questions over integration

With the French presidential elections approaching and France still reeling after a series of attacks last month, new questions have arisen over how France integrates and assimilates its immigrant communities.

Party leader Marine le Pen’s National Front, which uses the slogan “The French Come First”, is becoming increasingly popular, and Sarkozy and the UMP are looking for ways to lure away some of her supporters.

Lydia Guirous, who is responsible for secular affairs at the UMP and author of the book “God is great and so is the Republic” (“Allah est Grand et la République aussi”), said in a press release that, “Secularism doesn’t have to stop at the university doors.”

“Like public schools, public universities need to be sanctified and need to be neutral,” said Guirous.

Home to about five million Muslims, the largest community in continental Europe, France has a contentious history with the hijab, the head covering worn by some Muslim women. In 2004, the country passed a law banning the hijab in state schools and in 2005 it passed a law banning the full Muslim veil.

Many saw it as an attack against freedom of expression and religious tolerance, while others saw it as a move aimed at promoting gender equality.

Sarkozy has made clear in the past his support for more restrictive measures concerning hijabs. In 2009, he stated that the full Muslim face covering, or niqab, is “not welcome” in the country. More recently, he declared that the UMP would have a meeting to discuss Islam.

'Imbecilic proposal'

Bowen says that the republic’s ideal of maintaining secularism is often misinterpreted and that the idea of a ban on veils at the university level is “insulting”.

“This is another in a series of moves drawing symbolic boundaries, saying, ‘You may be perfect citizens, but we’ll never stop reminding you that you’re not totally integrated’,” said Bowen.

But Bowen says measures like this will only reinforce the idea that minorities should remain among their own kind, rather than assimilating into the larger French community.

“There is no Muslim community, really. They all have different lives. But they are made into a community when the government creates these laws,” he said.

“The effect of these laws is to say to Muslims who are doing what they are supposed to be doing that, ‘You’re not real citizens’.”

Michel Tubiana, a lawyer and former president of the French Human Rights League, says he is against the idea.

“It’s an imbecilic proposal,” he said, particularly because it deals with “adult students”.

“Secularism doesn’t apply to university students, rather to the [policies of] professors and the university itself,” he said.
 

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