Alma and Lila Levy

PARIS (WOMENSENEWS)–When the French Parliament voted last month to ban headscarves and other religious symbols from public schools, the decision reverberated throughout the country as people wondered how it might play out in their own communities.

Many girls who had already come to schoolwearing a headscarf, however, already knew theanswer. Alma and Lila Levy, teen-age sisters who live in the low-income Paris suburb ofAubervilliers, had lived out its effects. Last fall, as the debate over the law hit a fever pitch in Parliament and the public sphere, the national news became saturated with stories about the “question du foulard”–or the headscarf issue. Teachers began refusing to let the sisters and a handful of other headscarf-wearing teens attend class at Henri-Wallon High School unless they removed their scarves. The sisters say they were sent to the principal’s office, lined up at the school entrance and reprimanded by teachers, “Just take off what you’ve got on your head!”

Alma and Lila (now 17 and 19) were defiant and, by just the third week of classes, a disciplinary committee had voted to exclude them from school. “We were prepared to have a difficult time, but not to that point, honestly!” says Alma in “Des filles comme les autres: Au Dela du Foulard” (Girls Like Any Others: Beyond the Headscarf), a book of interviews published in January.

Since then, they have been trying to study independently at home, but their father worries about their future. “They’re confined to the house and it scares me,” Laurent Levy, a human and civil rights lawyer, says in an interview with Women’s eNews. “When you come out of something humiliated, you become more radicalized by the fight.”

Since 1989, a government directive has barred only “ostentatious” religious symbols that “affect students’ learning” or “threaten public order,” leaving interpretations up to individual schools. But in the past year, the debate on the headscarf has taken on astronomical proportions. Even though few girls wear them–estimates range from 1,500 to 5,000 out of about 2.3 million girls in French junior high and high schools–the headscarf has been at the center of a debate on individual rights versus the secular ideal. On Feb. 10, French Parliament voted, 494 to 36, to exclude all religious symbols from schools, including headscarves, large crosses and yarmulkes.

Take off Scarf or Leave School

Once the law takes effect in September, hundreds of girls like Lila and Alma Levy will be forced to make a decision: to take off the scarf and continue their education or to insist on wearing it and face exclusion and even humiliation.

Fatima Ayach and Latifa Ait Taleb, founders of the Ligue Francaise de la Femme Musulmane (French League of Muslim Women), based in a Paris suburb, say most will choose the latter, not only because they think of it as integral to their faith, but because it is part of their identity.

Supporters of the law cannot be easily categorized as conservative, liberal, feminist or antifeminist. The public was largely sympathetic of the measure. In a late-January survey by the newspaper Liberation, 58 percent of respondents said that a law banning religious signs was “applicable” in France.

Here, the principle of “laicite,” loosely translated as secularism, is tantamount in the public sector. The principle is loaded with national identity, given that the French Republic was founded on the separation of the Catholic Church and the liberated state. Against this backdrop, any religious symbol can be seen as invasive, even threatening.

In the communities that will be most affected by the law, however, some 53 percent of people are opposed to it, according to a survey of French Muslims conducted by a research institute in late January. In public protests and in interviews with Women’s eNews, Muslim organizations say that the debate doesn’t have much to do with France’s staunch secularism or even with the scarves themselves.

Rather, they say it stems from reluctance to accept the country’s 5 to 7 million Muslims, most of them the children or grandchildren of immigrants from the former French colonies of Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria.

Even though these Muslims were born in France, many say they are treated as second-class citizens, that they are discriminated against when they apply for jobs or look for apartments, or even when they try to enter nightclubs.

“The headscarf is a veil for the real problems in France,” says Nouari Khiari, an activist with the Paris-based Movement for Justice and Dignity, which has protested the law. “The issue hides the apartheid that still exists here.”

Another reason politicians and scholars cite for supporting the ban is that the scarf—in their view–is a universal symbol of women being oppressed by men. The French edition of Elle magazine even published a petition in December against the “intolerable symbol of discrimination against women,” which was signed by 60 people, from celebrities to feminists, as well as writers, sociologists, and philosophers. It generated support, but also derision from some Muslim groups who accused Elle of “profiting from the headscarf.”

A Difficult Choice

Many people who live or work in these communities say that the girls cover their heads of their own volition. Saida Kada, the head of Femmes Francaises Musulmanes et Engagees (Activist French Muslim Women), an organization based in Lyon that fights discrimination against Muslim girls, insists that wearing a headscarf is a religious statement, not a political one. The decision is usually “a progressive path in her faith, after she discovers important things linked to her spirituality,” writes Kada, who herself wears a headscarf, in the book “L’une Voilee, l’autre pas” (One Veiled, the Other Not).

As for how other teens feel about fellow students who wear headscarves, there has been no nationwide survey on the subject. But interviews and news reports suggest that they are often indifferent. At a high school in Drancy, not far from Aubervilliers, one teacher conducted a survey among his students, half of whom are Muslim and 78 percent of whom are girls. When asked to rank the importance of 13 issues affecting them, “the presence of students with headscarves” came in last. Maram, 19, a student at the school, told Le Monde newspaper that the headscarf issue is “a false debate.” Even those who were “for the law” said they were worried about the risk of exclusion.

An Uncertain Future

What, then, will become of those girls who refuse to take off their scarves? In Alma and Lila Levy’s case, they have been studying through correspondence courses and with a tutor once a week since they were excluded from school in October, with their father hoping that they would eventually be allowed back in the spring.

But with the new law, the chances of that happening are slim. There are no official statistics, but opponents of the law say that many girls who leave school because of the headscarf never go back. Kada estimates that 70 percent of those who start correspondence courses stop within two years.

As for private schools, there is only one Muslim high school in the country, near Lille. Ironically, one of the few places the two sisters would still be accepted, headscarves and all, is at a private Catholic school, of which there are about 3,000 at the junior high and high school level in the country. But, at thousands of dollars a year, the price often makes this schooling out of reach for many families.

In fact, some see the risk of isolation as the biggest danger of the ban. An investigation by Le Monde newspaper in February showed that it was rare for the girls who left public school because of the headscarf to continue any sort of schooling beyond age 16, when it is no longer required.

Ait Hayat of the Muslim league of women calls this a “tragedy.” If the state “really wants to emancipate the Muslim woman,” she says, “then instruct her, educate her and give her the means to choose.”

Alma takes a similar position: “In my point of view, if you want to defend an oppressed woman, then don’t oppress another one.”

Kimberly Conniff Taber is an editor at the International Herald Tribune and a freelance writer based in Paris.

Women’s eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at [email protected].

For more information:

Ligue Francaise de la Femme Musulmane
(in French):

Islam et Laicite
(in French):