Intolerant ban dressed up as secular ruling
By Yasmin Qureshi
Morning Star, 23 March 2005
It has now been just over one year since the introduction of a new law in France forbidding the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols in French state schools.
This law has been of considerable concern to London’s Asian communities in particular.
Sikh and Muslim groups in Britain asked the mayor of London to take the issue up and look into the impact on community relations across Europe of the so-called “headscarf ban.”
I visited Paris last week on the mayor’s behalf, meeting, among others, representatives of Muslim organisation le Collectif des Musulmans de France, as well as the French civil rights group the Ligue des droits de l’Homme and representatives of the Sikh community – including the two Sikh boys who have been excluded from their school as a direct result of the law .
There is a widely held view among those opposed to the ban that it came at a time when the French government needed to divert from the country’s economic problems.
As an attempt to divert attention from high unemployment and budget cuts it was very successful, tapping into long-held French secular political traditions.
The overwhelming focus of the debate about the new law – which is why it has become known as the “headscarf ban” – was the Muslim community.
There is little doubt that the law has had a very damaging effect. According to the French press, 47 Muslim girls have been excluded from their schools for wearing the hijab. It is believed that many more have resorted to correspondence learning, attending private schools or leaving the country altogether.
Some girls have decided not to wear their hijabs, but, where this is against their own personal religious beliefs, this has caused considerable turmoil for those affected.
The French government told the Indian authorities that Sikhs would not be disadvantaged by the ban, giving an impression that a compromise would be found. But no such compromise materialised.
I met Jasvir Singh and Bikramjit Singh, two of the three Sikh pupils who were expelled from their school. They told me that, in just two days, 500 of the 900 pupils in their school had signed a petition in their support, but the school authorities had ignored their views.
It was also reported that, when British Sikhs travelled to France to support demonstrations against the ban, their coaches were held back by the French police until after the demonstrations were over.
There is a feeling that the individual cases, such as Jasvir and Bikramjit, have not attracted sufficient international attention, although the Sikh groups which I met welcomed the action of five British MEPs who have raised the issue in the European Parliament and urged the French government to rethink the law.
The Sikhs have campaigned around a slogan “The Right to Difference” and the Muslims are calling for “Schools for All.” These slogans get to the heart of the matter. They demand a multicultural policy based on accepting the rights of groups to participate as full citizens without abandoning their identity.
France – particularly Paris – is a multiracial society and the French laws do not take this into account. For example, the strictly “colour-blind” French state does not collect figures on racist attacks by ethnic group nor does it permit monitoring of the numbers of black or Asian staff in public services.
French citizens have been told that they will be refused a driving licence or an ID card because they were wearing turbans in their photograph. A police officer in France could not wear a turban on duty .
The effect of this is to create a framework of indirect but very definite discrimination, which has been worsened by the new legislation.
As the Guardian writer Jonathan Freedland argues in his latest book Jacob’s Gift, “It is surely too thin a notion of Frenchness which says a Sikh man cannot wear a turban, a Jewish man a skullcap and a Muslim woman a hijab and still remain French.”
This debate is by no means limited to France. To take one example, Rod Liddle – in response to Shabina Begum’s successful legal battle for the right to wear the jilbab – argued in the Sunday Times that the real problem lay with the fact that her former school permitted any type of Muslim dress at all.
By allowing “a sort of Allah-lite version” of such clothing to be worn, he wrote, the school “kow-tows to the unBritish (for want of a better phrase) demands of its black and ethnic minority constituency.”
Thus, the alternative to the multicultural model is to force integration.
Far from being a uniquely French problem, it can be found right here in our own country. There is a very strong strand of opinion that dresses itself up in liberal secular clothes which at its root rejects a genuinely multicultural view of society.
We need to share our experiences across Europe, not only to build support against the new French law but also to argue that diversity, openness and tolerance are at the heart of a genuinely modern notion of society.