Education vs. faith

Muslim girls in France, concerned about learning and shocked by the hostage crisis in Russia, start school with little defiance of the new ban on head scarves.

Published September 3, 2004 1:32PM (EDT)

A date France had feared for months passed without serious incident as more than 12 million pupils returned to school -- and only a handful defied the ban on Islamic head scarves that became law yesterday. An Education Ministry spokesman said the return had been "extremely calm" and that "hardly any" head teachers had reported problems.

The law outlaws the wearing in state schools of all conspicuous signs of faith, but is considered to be aimed at Muslim girls' headgear. Commentators said that, paradoxically, the declared intention of many pupils to flout the ban melted in the shock at the kidnapping of two French journalists by Iraqi militants who demanded the ban be revoked.

Muslims who campaigned fiercely earlier this year made no attempt to organize resistance. Schools in suburbs of Paris, Marseille, Lyon and Lille that had reported dozens of head scarves last year saw few or none yesterday. "We're telling girls not to defy the state," said Fouad Alaoui of the Union of French Islamic Organizations, before leaving for Baghdad to try to free the hostages. "They should make their schooling the priority."

Some girls arrived at school in head scarves but then took them off. "I'll take it off when I get inside," Mounana Ouliat told reporters as she walked toward her Marseille lycée. "I have to get an education." At a school outside Lille, one girl, Asma, said the law was unfair but she would remove her scarf. "It will feel bizarre, wrong even, but I have no choice," she said. "If I want to become someone in this society I have to pass exams." One school north of Paris that last year had 52 pupils with head scarves had none yesterday.

Education Minister Francois Fillon had ruled that all girls would be admitted on the first day of the term, but those who defied the ban would be invited for a "dialogue" that could last more than a week; only then would refuseniks face expulsion.

The only city to report a protest was Strasbourg. At the Marc Bloch lycée, four girls were placed in a classroom alone and told discussions on their future would begin next week, a pupil said.

The law enjoys broad support in France, where it is seen as the best guarantee of equality and freedom for all. Turkey, which models itself on French republican ideals, had a similar scarf ban in higher education upheld at the European Court of Human Rights in June.

By Amelia Gentleman

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