On February 10, the French National Assembly voted to adopt a law banning “symbols and clothing that ostentatiously show students’ religious membership” in public elementary, middle and high schools. The law will apply beginning in September 2004 throughout France.
Within the National Assembly, the ruling conservative Union for a Popular Majority (UMP) as well as the Socialist Party (SP), sitting in opposition, voted in favour of this law. The small centre-right Union for French Democracy (UFD) and the French Communist Party (PCF) both split their votes. This led to the following result:
494 in favour, 36 against and 31 abstentions.
Outside the parliament, Revolutionary Communist League (LCR), one of the two main far left parties, opposed the ban while Lutte Ovaire (LO), the other main far left party, supported the ban. The extreme right party, Le Pen's FN, need not to mention, supported the ban.
Though its apparently is a law with neutral character yet it is widely seen as a law targeting Muslim women wearing headscarves.
The French ban is closely observed by other European regimes. Many other establishments are considering imposing such a ban. Following Chirac’s December 17, 2003, speech decreeing the preparation of the law banning 'religious symbols', Belgian Interior Minister Patrick Dewael had reportedly said: “ It should be equally clear that public school students cannot wear veils or other ostentatious religious symbols.” Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt expressed his opposition to public sector workers wearing Muslim headscarves.
Few German regions like Sarre, Hesse, and Berlin are also considering making Muslim headscarves illegal for all public sector workers while regions like Bade-Wurttemberg, Bavaria, and Lower Saxony are considering banning headscarf for schoolteachers. Echoes have been heard in Sweden of banning headscarf at schools.
The law is cynically portrayed as a defence of secularism as well as an attempt to liberate Muslim women and so on.
In the first place, this ban is a violation of basic human rights. This ban is tantamount to imposing dress code. An imposed dress code in France is as condemnable as the one imposed by Iranian religious dictatorship.
One cannot be 'secularised' by making him or her wear or not wear a specific dress.
Also, the ban tantamount to interfere in an individual's religious beliefs. Religion is purely an individual domain. It is rather a secular state's responsibility to protect the right to practice ones religion. The ban in fact is a negation of secular character of the state.
Describing what dress is secular or what dress is religious will, in itself, lead to a funny situation. Everything is relative. What is very standard and acceptable as dress in West may tantamount to vulgarity in not just Muslim but some other societies as well.
Forget the dresses. What about names? Muslims living in France will still have Muslim names. Hindus living in France will have Hindu names. How Messers Mitterand & Co. gonna 'secularise' the names. Should one expect that the next ban would be on naming kids with Muslim, Hindu and Sikh identities?
It is impossible to attribute a secular and liberating character to any law that stigmatises and targets a specific segment of the society on the bases of their religious observances. It is Hitler's stigmising Jews but in reverse. This is fascism Chirac style.
Nor is there any basis for suggesting, as is commonly done by those who support the ban, that opposition to the law implies support for Islamic fundamentalism or its relegation of women to an inferior position.
On the contrary, the inevitable result of this discriminatory law will be to encourage the development of religious separatism and communalist thinking among Muslims. They will feel being singled out for persecution. They will be justified.
Turkey and Tunis may prove good lessons to learn. Both these countries imposed 'secular' dress codes. Has that in anyway liberated the women there compared to some other Muslim countries with some secular traditions?
France better learn a lesson from India as during these times of Islamophobia, quoting an example from Muslim world may leave bad taste in Chirac's mouth.
India, having the largest Muslim population, second only to Indonesia, allows Muslim to practice their family laws. India, with almost 20 million Sikh populations allows Sikhs to wear their religious turban (Kais, as they call it) even if they are serving in military. The Sikh soldiers and officers in Indian armed forces are allowed to wear a religious symbols even if it is breach of military discipline. The four per cent Christian population of India is never hindered to wear cross at schools, hospitals and other government establishments. India declared it secular the day it became independent fifty six years ago. Its secularism has not suffered by allowing “symbols and clothing that ostentatiously show students’ religious membership”. It rather has served India well.
Fact of the matter is: ban on scarf has nothing to do with preserving the secular character of France. In the first place, the ban is consistent with an array of repressive measures enacted by the incumbent right wing French government under Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin. Raffarin government has introduced a number of fines for minor offences. Of late, police raids in poor neighbourhoods and strikebreaking operations by police have been common feature.
Secondly, the ban is being implemented under conditions of growing social discontent and popular opposition to the anti-working class policies of Raffarin and President Jacques Chirac. It is an effort to distract working people from the crisis in social conditions and the government’s agenda of pension cuts, attacks on social services, and police repression.
The Raffarin government is deeply unpopular these days. A recent poll found that 65 percent of voters intend to use their vote to express their dissatisfaction with Raffarin in regional polls in March.
As none of the major parties has anything to offer to the workers, the political elite as a whole has turned to a policy of encouraging anti-immigrant chauvinism and law-and-order hysteria. It is employing the time-tested tactic of divide and rule.
A flashback of the headscarf debate will also confirm to the fact that French establishment has been using this debate to distract the public opinion.
Let’s look at the recent history of the headscarf debate. It was brought forward first time in April 2003. The first round of the debate coincided with a massive wave of protests and strikes against Raffarin’s pension cuts. Teachers protesting against proposed pensions cuts and a government scheme to weaken and sectionalise the public education system spearheaded these actions.
The second round in the headscarf agitation began in October 2003. This round coincided with the Raffarin government’s collapse in the polls, following its inactivity during the August 2003 heat wave that claimed 15,000 lives.
Now the ban comes weeks before regional elections in March. The mainstream media have been running worried commentaries over the potential for sharp setbacks to the official parties and significant gains for the LO-LCR joint list. The LO-LCR list is first preference for 10 per cent voters while 22 per cent are thinking of voting for this joint list. The far right is also expected to do 'good'.
The ban, like other anti-working class plans of right wing French government, should be defeated. A good showing by LO-LCR during upcoming regional elections may prove a beginning.