NEWS

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April 27, 2004

Secularism a la Francaise

France grapples with a ban on head coverings in public schools. Muslim women at the University of Chicago look on from America.

Maryah Qureshi has bright eyes. A maroon headscarf covers her hair, and she glows from within it. With her legs dangling off a counter in the small office of the Muslim Students Association, she speaks fast and with a stream of consciousness.

"I think a lot of Muslims, myself included, ummm, like to think of Islam as a way of life," says the 21-year-old Chicago native and public policy and economics concentrator at the University. "The reason that Muslim women are asked to cover their hair is because the hair is seen as a major beauty of a woman." She likens doing so to a jeweler keeping cash and jewelry in a safe because he or she doesn't know who will pass by and see it.

"The things that you find most beautiful," she offers, "you want to keep to yourself or share with people that you know will appreciate it—but not with people who might hurt it."

Another student sits next to her. Born and raised in Saudi Arabia, she came to the United States for college. The 20-year-old economics concentrator has a black scarf wrapped over her hair. She has covered her hair in public all her life; Qureshi started doing so a little over four years ago. She arrived in the U.S. at the beginning of September, 2001. After September 11, her father and uncles repeatedly asked her whether she wanted to wear her hijab, or headscarf, in public. She insisted on it.

"Islam is a very moderate religion. [It is] from my point of view," she says, her speech slower and more measured than Qureshi's. "The scarf is a constant reminder for you to have moderation in your character and the way you behave." Wearing it in the United States, where she has not been pressured to do so, has served as a source of comfort by allowing her to identify outwardly with her faith. She says it also gives her a sense of security.

Neither Qureshi nor the other student can imagine taking off her scarf when entering a building because a law requires it. When asked, both said they would sooner not enter the building. But such a difficult choice looms on the horizon for many Muslim girls in France. Now that a measure banning conspicuous religious symbols from the country's public schools up through the high school level has become law, the beginning of the next school year will require them to make it.

Americans may look on with wonder at the controversy brewing in France. We honor the First Amendment to our Constitution by embracing religious pluralism, in public or otherwise. The idea of preventing someone from wearing an article of clothing that has religious meaning for him or her seems unthinkable. For the French, however, the tenet of liberty, equality, and brotherhood comes with the stipulation that every citizen be seen as French before anything else. In public, he or she is secular before religious.

The notion of secularism, which the French Republic holds dear, has been grounded in the history of France since the French Revolution. In 1881, education minister Jules Ferry enacted a law that declared public education free and secular. In 1905, church and state were legally separated. The first article of France's present constitution begins, "France shall be an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic. It shall ensure the equality of all citizens before the law, without distinction of origin, race or religion."

Those words resemble those of our First Amendment. But France differs from us in that it expects its citizens to practice their religion behind closed doors. "In contrast to pluralist societies that try to accept, or even celebrate, cultural differences among their citizens," writes the New York Times Paris bureau chief, Elaine Sciolino, "the French ideal envisions a uniform, secularized French identity as the best guarantor of national unity and the separation of church and state."

In striving for this ideal, French President Jacques Chirac has found himself caught between a rock and a hard place. He seeks to combat what he sees as increasing religious fanaticism in the country, but he must do so without alienating an already marginalized minority community that he seeks to integrate into French society.

The ethnic tensions currently coming to a head are rooted in the history of immigration by Muslims to the predominantly Roman Catholic country. Following France's decolonization of Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia in the 1950s and 1960s, a tide of Muslim immigrants came to the country to help offset a labor shortage brought about by low population growth. In the past 20 years, a contentious relationship has developed between the country's white, Christian majority and those immigrants and their descendants—the latter known in French slang as beur.

Many of today's estimated 5 to 7 million Arab Muslims among mainland France's 59 million people live in dismal housing projects on the outskirts of major cities. They are disproportionately imprisoned or unemployed. Few are prominent in the media, in business, or in the entertainment industries. Not one has been voted into the National Assembly or elected mayor anywhere in the country.

When Chirac announced in a nationally televised speech last September that he would ask Parliament to ban Islamic head coverings, Jewish skullcaps, and crosses "of a clearly excessive size" in public schools, he was attempting to diffuse tensions in a place where the issue of religion is caught between public and private. He sent the message that he saw the wearing of such head coverings in public school as an affront to the state's ideal of secularism. The head coverings "have no place in state schools," he declared. "State schools will remain secular." Before it had been adopted, however, the law was rumored to be a thinly veiled attempt to target the head coverings of Muslims, in particular, with the other two religions added for diplomacy's sake.

Not surprisingly, many Muslims have taken it as an attack. "Where is France? Where is tolerance?" chanted some of the estimated 10,000 protestors at a four-hour march in Paris in January. Banners read "Faith is not conspicuous" or "Neither Fundamentalist nor Terrorist but Peaceful Citizen." Protests have also taken place at a dozen other cities throughout France—and in Washington, D.C., London, Baghdad, Nablus, Toronto, and Stockholm.

Some Muslims have actually welcomed, or at least grudgingly accepted, the idea of a ban. But their reasons are tangential to the idea of equality through secularism. Some eye the measure hopefully as a way to relieve girls of an obligation that, they say, is forced upon the girls by fathers, husbands, or brothers. Others shrug it off, reasoning that religion should be confined to the home. Dalil Boubakeur, the head of the main mosque of Paris and president of an umbrella organization of Muslim groups in France, considers it a means to combat the influence of Muslim fundamentalists in secular institutions—but he clearly feels trepidation, too. "We absolutely do not want confrontation," he has said.

Of the roughly 50 to 75 Muslim women estimated to attend the University, 13 to 20 are believed to wear a headscarf in public. No one interviewed for this article has seen a student with her face covered at the school. They wear it when they walk around campus, attend classes, eat at the dining hall, and do everything else a student would do. Their right to do so is protected by the First Amendment and by the University's policies on behavior and nondiscrimination.

Stephen Klass, who has held the position of vice president and dean of students in the University for the past two years, does not know of a single incident of a student being harassed over his or her dress. Qureshi and her fellow student, for their parts, have found tolerance on campus towards their hijabs.

Nuzhath Hussain is a 20-year-old biology concentrator at the University. She grew up in Saudi Arabia and moved to the northwest suburbs of Chicago when she was 14. She too wears her hijab as a show of modesty and for security's sake. She also decided to continue wearing it after the September 11 attacks, in spite of protests by her family. Though Hussain has seen friends of Arab, Indian, or Pakistani descent come to the United States and decide no longer to wear theirs, she has stood resolute.

"Being in America in this day and age, it's become more important to me to represent myself as being Muslim over anything else," she said. "So, when I walk and talk, I want people to know that, ‘Yeah. I'm a Muslim woman, and I'm doing this.'"

The right to outwardly express one's faith at the University is never called into question if that expression does not threaten someone else. Klass, for his part, takes pride in the University's maintenance of an environment open to free expression of religious or other beliefs. Qureshi attested to this: "When [the University feels] that there's a group [at risk]," she declares, "[the University tries] to make sure that all precautions are taken."

Klass recognizes that there is a distinction between public and private universities that affords his school greater leeway in the policies it makes, but he feels that it is not the University's place to legislate what students can or can not wear.

"If we can't protect the free exchange of ideas at this institution, then God help us," he said, laughing heartily. "It ain't gonna happen."

The women interviewed, like many Muslims in France, felt that a law prohibiting wearing hijabs would be personally offensive. "It's a lack of respect for me, because you think I can't make my own decisions," argued a student. "How can you tell me what I shouldn't wear?" Hussain said, "I don't need no government to tell me what my freedoms are."

When asked, the students volunteered ways in which they would handle being subject to such a law. Yusra Gomaa, an undergraduate born and raised in the Chicago suburbs, says she would seek out a religious or private school rather than stop wearing her hijab. Qureshi suggests homeschooling. "As long as I have other options," she insisted, "I'm not going to stop."

Like the U.S., France has private schools. According to the U.S. government, 11.1 percent of school-aged children attend private schools in this country, while in France, the number is reported to be about 17 percent of children under 16 (the maximum age for mandatory school attendance in France). But these figures can be misleading. While private schools have existed in France for years, most are controlled by the Roman Catholic Church (though girls are permitted to wear a hijab in the roughly 3,000 Catholic junior high and high schools). It was not until last September that the first and still only Muslim high school began operating.

As for homeschooling, only approximately 500 families in France practice it, according to the Home School Legal Defense Association, an advocacy organization.

Revealing a thought that surely has crossed the minds of many Muslims in France, Hussain envisions challenging the law and wearing her hijab to school anyway, were she to attend a French public school. But sanctions for students who don't take off their hijabs in state schools will include a warning, suspension, and even expulsion. It remains to be seen how strictly the law—which supersedes the current patchwork of regulations giving individual schools leeway in deciding whether their students can cover their heads—will be enforced. In 1997, 20 girls found themselves expelled from school for refusing to remove their hijabs; two more were expelled last September.

Further, there are women like Qureshi for whom covering their hair is of such importance that they would choose not to enter the buliding.

Klass, emphasizing that he speaks personally, sees the proposed ban in France as an excessive measure and thinks it's unenforceable. He said it will invite "tension of the worst possible kind."

"This institution, like this country," he said, "is willing to go through all the pain that it takes to manage open sharing of ideas."

The first article of France's constitution would seem to embrace acceptance of a multitude of ideas, too. "France shall be an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic," it begins. "It shall ensure the equality of all citizens before the law, without distinction of origin, race or religion." It continues, "It shall respect all beliefs."

The French Parliament approved the proposed ban in February by a vote of 494 to 36. The senate has since passed it, 276 to 20. Come September, Muslims who cover their hair at the University of Chicago will have the law and the University protecting that right, while those in French public schools will have a difficult choice to make.

Editor's Note: This article was updated on 6/30/15 to remove one of the interviewees names.