How Hijab Row Played Out In French Public Schools In 1989

How Hijab Row Played Out In French Public Schools In 1989

by Swati Goel Sharma - Wednesday, October 19, 2022 02:17 PM IST
How Hijab Row Played Out In French Public Schools In 1989Representative image: A girl wearing the Islamic headscarf.
  • Beginning in 1989, conflicts over the Islamic veil in France have throughout been accompanied by a steep rise in radical Islamism, spurred by Muslim immigrants.

A decade after the Islamic Revolution in Iran, which saw a pro-Western secular monarchy replaced by an anti-Western Islamic theocracy resulting in compulsory imposition of Islamic veil on women, a major controversy, of an entirely different nature, erupted in secular France.

In September 1989, three Muslim girl students, studying at a junior high school, began coming to the campus wearing headscarves, saying it was required by their faith. 

About half of the 873 students in the school, named Gabriel Harvez College, were children of Arab immigrants. The principal threatened to expel the girls, declaring that their attire emphasised religious differences and could be seen as an attempt at proselytising. 

French daily Le Figaro reported that when the girls were called for questioning in the principal’s office, they remarked, “We are crazy about Allah. We will never take off our headscarf. We will keep it until our death.” 

When the stalemate continued, the school suspended the girls. The suspension triggered debates in the French media over right to education and religion. 

In the following weeks, the girls rejoined school after a compromise was brought about by intervention of social organisations.

The school relaxed its approach on the headscarf, allowing the girls to wear it everywhere on the campus, including sports group and corridors, except inside the classrooms.

The school principal accepted the compromise but warned that the scale of the problem would rise manifold. 

Indeed, similar episodes began to be reported from other parts of the country. Perhaps emboldened, the three girls broke the conditions of the compromise and began wearing headscarves inside classrooms. The principal suspended them again.

It was at this point that the issue of headscarf in French schools became a full-blown national debate. 

Muslim organisations stepped in, street protests were held and intervention of the education minister was sought.

Lionel Jospin, then minister for national education, sought the opinion of France’s highest administrative court, Conseil d’Etat. The court gave its opinion on 27 November 1989. It said that the Islamic headscarf was not compatible with the principle of secularism.

The court opined that such matters could be decided in schools on case-by-case basis. 

Interestingly, the King of Morocco intervened and  advised the girls and their parents to stop their insistence on headscarf (on television), prompting them to return to the school with their hair uncovered

(Why the French Don’t Like Headscarves: Islam, the State, and Public Space, John R. Bowen, page 86).

This episode is today known as l'affaire du foulard (the scarf affair).

Over the next years, France saw similar confrontations in several schools. Scores of students were expelled, and some were reinstated after court battles. In some cases, girls turned up to schools in full-body veils. 

In 1994, the government issued a memorandum to ban “ostentatious” religious symbols, and symbols that constituted “an act of provocation, proselytism, or propaganda”, inside the classrooms. 

Street protests and court battles continued.

Eventually in 2004, the French Parliament enacted legislation to prohibit the wearing of any outward religious symbols in public schools.

Along with the Islamic headscarf, the Jewish skullcap and oversized Christian Cross was also prohibited by law even though the legislation makes no mention of any symbol.

“Discreet” signs of religion, such as small Crosses, Stars of David and amulets representing Hand of Fatima were allowed.

The controversy, however, never quite ended in France after ‘the scarf affair’. Appeals against the 2004 law were filed in the European Court of Human Rights. 

Demands to be allowed to wear the veil on streets, in courts or in offices have been made from time to time, often resulting in more court battles. 

In 2011, France banned face-covering in public.

Conflicts over the Islamic veil in France have throughout been accompanied by a steep rise in radical Islamism, spurred by Muslim immigrants.

In 2010, Al Qaeda founder Osama Bin Laden gave a call of violence against France and French citizens for introducing the burqa ban.

In 2015, militants barged into the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo magazine killing 11 staff members over blasphemy of Prophet Mohammed. In the same year, coordinated terrorist attacks took place in Paris, killing at least 130.

Today, France is the top target of Jihadists in Europe.

Swati Goel Sharma is a senior editor at Swarajya. She tweets at @swati_gs.

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