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France Debates Ban on Muslim Girls Wearing Veils in School - 2003-06-07

The Islamic veil or headscarf has become a flash point in a number of countries in recent years, as a potential symbol of religious extremism. That includes France, where the government is debating whether to ban girls from wearing veils in public schools. Even the country's five-million-strong Muslim community is divided on the matter.

Every morning for two years, Samira Makhlouf removed her headscarf before entering high school in the southeastern city of Lyon. But even bare-headed, the ethnic Algerian student said, she faced discrimination.

She was rejected from a special science program, despite her good grades. When she opted to cover her hair with a small, black bandana, the principal sent her home. At 16, Ms. Makhlouf finally dropped out of the French public school system, finishing her high school studies by correspondence.

Ms. Makhlouf said taking off her veil to go to class was emotionally distressing. Now 22-years-old, Ms. Makhlouf is studying theology at the University of Lyon, where she says no one raises any objections about her wearing a veil. She also heads a small association in Lyon, to help girls fight against being expelled from school, because of their veils.

It's a battle that's kept Ms. Makhlouf very busy in recent months. Calls are now growing in France to ban veils, or headscarves, the terms are used interchangeably by Muslims in France, in public schools. The matter has split politicians and feminists, not to mention Muslims living in France, home to Europe's largest Islamic community.

France's National Assembly is considering at least four bills to ban public school students from wearing any religious accessory, including Christian crosses, Jewish skullcaps, as well as Muslim veils. Similar bans already exist in France for public sector employees, like teachers and post office workers.

A number of government ministers have also declared their private opposition to allowing veils in schools. In an effort to settle the matter, French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin recently called for a national debate on the issue.

Supporters of a veil ban argue that demands by Muslim students for special treatment in school extend far beyond veiling. They include sociologist Juliette Minces, who has written a number of books on Islam and women. She says some Muslims also object, on religious grounds, to taking certain course. "I think it's a good idea that the government interferes. Because the teachers are in very great difficulties in front of these very young girls, who come to school with the veil, and say I won't attend a course of gymnastics, or biology. Or I don't want to study Voltaire [the French author], because Voltaire was a non-believer," she says.

Across Europe, North America and even the Middle East, veiling rarely triggers a neutral response. In Turkey and Tunisia, which have cracked down against Muslim fundamentalists, female government employees are banned from wearing the veil at work. Even in Egypt, women wearing face-covering veils, known as niqabs, are harassed, as suspected members of banned Islamic groups.

In France, controversy over girls wearing veils to school first surfaced more than a decade ago. The official response was to make rules permitting headscarves in schools, so long as they weren't ostentatious and students did not proselytize.

Hanifa Cherifi handles veil issues at the ministry of education. Since the rules were enacted, Ms. Cherifi estimates school headscarf disputes have dwindled from thousands annually in the mid 1990s, to about 150 today. But those numbers are deceiving, Ms. Cherifi says. The reason there are fewer disputes, she says, is that teachers work out compromises or, in some cases, Muslim girls drop out of school. Overall, Ms. Cherifi believes more Muslim girls and women are donning the veil in France.

But the veil issue has also divided France's Muslims. In April, partly as a counterweight to growing Islamic fundamentalism in French ghettos, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy persuaded Muslim religious leaders to form the country's first Muslim council.

But the new council is already split on the veil issue. Its moderate leader, Dalil Boubakeur, sides with the government against veiling in school. But Mr. Boubakeur, who is also rector of the Paris Mosque, says ideally there should be no formal ban against veiling. He believes schools should work out problems on a case-by-case basis.

For his part, Lhaj Thami Breze, head of the more conservative Union of Islamic Organizations of France, argues banning veils in schools infringes on personal freedoms. Mr. Breze agrees more women are adopting the veil in France, but he says the growing religiosity is a positive development. Nonetheless, if the French government passes a law banning headscarves in school, Mr. Breze says, his group will reluctantly respect it.

But such a law may be blocked from other quarters. Human rights advocates argue banning the veil in schools goes against French constitutional guarantees of personal freedom, and against the European human rights charter.

Others believe the French government should instead tackle conditions they claim breed Islamic fundamentalism. Many second and third-generation Muslim immigrants are not well integrated in France, these critics argue, and they turn to religion for solace.