Why the French see red when they see a blue headscarf

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Mohamoud Sheikh Ahmed

Shawwal 14, 1419 1999-02-01


by Mohamoud Sheikh Ahmed (World, Crescent International Vol. 27, No. 23, Shawwal, 1419)

The French apparently see nothing wrong in naming their children after Muslim football stars (presumably as long as they are not called Muhammad--a name redolent with Islamic connotations) who secure victory for their country in world cup finals, but they are enraged by the sight of a Muslim girl wearing a headscarf to school to the extent of going on strike as a public protest. The explanation for the inconsistency must be that while a Muslim sportsman earning honour for Mother France is seen as assimilated and, therefore, harmless, a school girl ‘flaunting’ her hijab is perceived as provocatively defiant and, consequently, dangerous.

According to Philippe Besnard, research director at the National Centre for Scientific Research in Paris, the name Zidane--after France’s highly acclaimed midfield goal scorer, Zinedine Zidane--has become a popular choice, especially among the Algerian community, during the seven months since France beat Brazil in the World Cup final. Would Gallic parents have named their loved ones after the clean shaven Muslim lad had he been a Bin Ladin look-alike? Indeed, would he have been allowed to join the French team let alone acclaimed, in the first place?

The answer must be a resounding ‘No’!--if the French teachers’ recent reaction to the headscarf worn by their Muslim students is any guide. The headscarf, like the beard and the turban, is an Islamic symbol in the eyes of the French.

All but two of the 70 teachers at a secondary school in Normandy chose a Friday during Ramadhan to stage a one-day strike in protest at the schoolboard’s decision to allow two Turkish school girls to wear Islamic headscarves in class. At the same time, two sisters at a school in the Gard were confined to a recreation. And a girl at a primary school in Nimes is being held back a year for refusing to remove her scarf.

This is not, of course, the first time that fundamentalist French teachers opposed to Islamic symbols take the law into their own hands to bully teen-age Muslim girls into abandoning their hijabs. In 1989 a nationwide similar action by teachers led to a dangerous confrontation between French Muslims and the educational establishment. And in 1994, the French government emphatically sided with the teachers by banning the wearing of scarves in schools.

The present government cannot be said to have over-reacted itself in failing to prevent the current strike, although it has been anxious to avoid--a repeat of the 1989 confrontation and the 1994 ban has been somewhat modified by the council of state, which has declared several times that Muslim symbols of faith such as traditional Muslim headscarves are not incompatible with a secular education system. The ministry of education contended itself with despatching a mediator to the schools in Normandy but was, not surprisingly, powerless to stop the strike.

Part of the problem is that the council of state has been hypocritical in its ruling that the wearing of headscarves is not incompatible with secular norms since it has left the matter largely to the headteachers’ discretion.The result is that while the 1994 government ban has been removed, individual head-teachers can ban the wearing of hijab by Muslim school girls, who can then be excluded for refusing to comply.

Convinced that the system is firmly on their side, the teachers know that they are not out out on a limb when they go on strike in violation of their teaching profession and of the very secular traditions their state they profess to defend. Many teachers argue that the headscarf is a symbol of ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ and repression of women-- adding insult to injury.

One of the striking teachers at the Jean Monnet school in Normandy is quoted as saying: ‘As far as we are concerned, there is no question of these girls wearing scarves to school. For 25 years we’ve been fighting for a genuinely secular education system and this is pure provocation.’

Stripped of its secular rhetoric and posturing, his statement amounts to little more than a boast that he has been fighting Islam for a quarter of a century, and remains determined to deprive his own students of their legal right to discharge their Islamic obligation. As the father of one of the girls said in a statement, the ‘law allows my daughter to wear a scarf and since wearing it is a religious obligation, she is not trying to provoke anyone.’

Had the same teacher made similar remarks about fighting Judaism, he would have been punished for being anti-Semitic, and the government would have given a public pledge to purge the education system of such racists. But Muslims are expendable and no action is being taken to stop the strike or reverse the punishments imposed on the Muslim school girls insisting on wearing the scarf.

Exactly how expendable Muslims are in France was demonstrated on September 1, 1998 when 138 Muslim men and women were put on trial for acts of terrorism in Algeria before their arrest in 1994 and 1995, and the prosecution failed to present any evidence of guilt. The accused had been locked up since their arrest. (For details of this outrage, see Crescent International September 16-30, 1998, p.6).

The French can only involve the dubious defence that they are not alone in being anti-Islamic or racist and that the rest of Europe is either the same or worse. They can point to their immediate neighbour, Germany, which is only now making half-hearted attempts to reform its 1913 citizenship law which makes it difficult for foreigners born there to become Germans.

Under the law only those who claim to be of German blood can become citizens. Muslims born and bred there, like the large Turkish community, cannot do so even though those East European and Soviet nationals of German descent returning to Germany after the end of the cold war can do so.

How unjust and absurd the law is was fully demonstrated recently when a 14 -year-old Turkish boy born in Germany was deported to Istanbul, Turkey even though his parents remained in Bavaria. He was said to be a habitual criminal despite his tender years.

The German opposition have declared their resistance to the government plan to reform the law and threaten to organize street opposition to it. It is too early to comment, but do not expect a miracle to happen.

Muslimedia: Feb.1-15, 1999

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