Muslim schoolgirls risk expulsion for symbolic headscarves

In France, the law bans Muslim coverings for women and creates an identity crisis.

Published September 2, 2004 3:26PM (EDT)

When Samia and her twin sister, Samira, choose what to wear for the first day of term this morning, they will be making more than a fashion statement. Their choice of outfit is likely to bring them into conflict with the law and could seriously damage their academic future. The twins plan to wear Islamic headscarves to school, as they have done every day for the past seven years. Today, however, they will be in direct breach of new legislation banning all pupils in state schools from making any conspicuous show of religious affiliation. The veil, like skull-caps, turbans and large cruxifixes, will no longer be permitted.

The director of their secondary school in the suburbs of Strasbourg is under instructions to summon immediately any pupil found flouting the law.

Schoolgirls who arrive wearing the headscarf will be sent home, and repeated breaches will result in expulsion.

Politicians insist that they will enforce the law, despite the demands of the Islamic Army of Iraq, which has transformed this already controversial subject into a question of life and death, threatening to kill two French journalists unless the legislation is revoked.

Given the sensitivity of the issue, many Muslim organisations which have previously campaigned against the law have called for calm. They are keen to avoid intensifying French antipathy to the country's five million Muslims by appearing to sympathise with the demands of extremists.

Dozens of pupils are nevertheless thought to be planning to arrive at school this morning wearing the veil.

"Imagine how you would feel if the government passed a law telling you not to wear trousers to school," Samia, 17, who declined to give her surname, said. "For me, this is both an issue of religious conviction and of modesty."

She is frustrated by the way the legislation seems aimed at Muslims. "A small cross, which is what most Catholics wear, counts as a discreet sign of faith. A headscarf doesn't. I don't feel as if we're being treated equally," she said. "It's a shame that I have to spoil my good academic record because of my religion."

Even before the hostage crisis, the debate split France in surprising ways. Some prominent Muslims supported the law as a way of boosting integration; anti-racism organisa- tions stressed the importance of secularism in school, and feminist groups approved the ban on a symbol of repression. Others saw it as an example of religious intolerance, an abuse of human rights and an attack on the Muslim population.

Critics say that the legislation threatens to increase tension. Until now, individual schools have had discretion in enforcing France's secular principle.

But just as the Qur'an is open to interpretation on whether the veil is an essential element of religious practice, France's new law appears susceptible to a variety of interpretations.

A telephone hotline has been set up by Muslim groups in Strasbourg , offering advice on how to exploit loopholes in the legislation.

Volunteers explain that pupils should be able to get away with wearing relatively small handkerchieves over their hair.

"We've had calls from about 40 girls who are undecided. They are anxious about having to make a choice between their education and their religion," said Nora Tarifoult, one of the women running the call centre.

The growing trend for the veil was not, she insisted, a reflection of rising radicalism, but simply a sign that second generation immigrants were more confident about displaying their religion.

Expulsion remains an unlikely outcome for Samia and her sister because both are prepared to compromise. "If the director of the school tells me to wear a beret, I'll wear a beret instead," Samia said.

By Amelia Gentleman

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