What the French Ban on Head Scarves Says About France

News Abroad

Ms. Curtis is an Assistant Professor of History at San Francisco State University. She is the author of, Educating the Faithful: Religion, Schooling, and Society in Nineteenth-Century France (Northern Illinois University Press, 2000).

In France this month, public schools reopened with surprisingly few confrontations regarding the ban on Muslim head scarves – as well as other “ostentatious” religious symbols – passed by the French National Assembly last spring and put in effect with the beginning of the school year. Girls who arrived at school wearing scarves pushed them off on entering the school grounds; others opted for smaller “bandannas” that passed as fashion rather than religious statements. Days before, the kidnapping of two French journalists in Iraq had rallied the nation in solidarity, and their captors’ demand for the repeal of the head scarf ban had the opposite of its intended effect, as the vast majority of French Muslims, even those who opposed the law, denounced the attempt at intimidation.

Many Americans on both left and right are puzzled by the French action to ban head scarves from schools, seeing them as manifestations of religious freedom that the state ought to protect rather than prohibit. The Bush administration has condemned the law, and small protests took place in the United States as elsewhere when the law was passed last spring. Conflict over the head scarf is certainly not confined to France. All over the Muslim and non-Muslim world, the head scarf has emerged as a contentious symbol of religious identity standing in for a number of deeper issues regarding religious freedom, secularization, and the rights of women.

In France, although the head scarf question has simmered for well over a decade, the passage of a law banning scarves from public schools reflects heightened anxiety since September 11, 2001 about the integration of five million Muslims into French society. France has the largest Muslim population in Europe, as well as one of the lowest rates of religious practice among its nominally Catholic population. The rise of Muslim fundamentalism worldwide and in France itself therefore appears as a challenge to modern, secular French values, reinforced by fear of terrorism.

Like the United States, France has long welcomed immigrants but makes few concessions to identity politics or multiculturalism. Assimilation in France has always required shedding one’s immigrant identity for Frenchness, and it is this very process that proponents of the head scarf ban think it will promote.

It is not accidental, however, that in France this debate about the nature and extent of Muslim integration is taking place on the site of the school. Some of the reasons are obvious. French educational policy is determined by the central government; spending on education comprises a large part of the French national budget; and teachers’ unions are powerful. Furthermore, the French still believe deeply in the school as an institution that can mold individual beliefs and shape societal values.

But most importantly, the head scarf debate taps into one of the most powerful founding myths of the French Republic: the school as the cradle of democratic unity. Although many commentators point to the French Revolution as the period that gave birth to civic and secular identity in France, the sustained – and victorious – battle over religious influence actually took place a century later. In the 1880s, when a stable French democracy took root, the government sought to supplant the Catholic church in providing education to French children. Religion was removed from the the public-school curriculum and religious teachers from public-school classrooms. This “school war” was thought necessary in order to lessen the political and social influence of the church, which republicans saw as a threat to democracy itself. They worried particularly about the power that “monarchical” priests seemed to have over women – a claim that was used to justify denying French women the vote until 1944.

It is striking how the language and arguments in favor of the head scarf ban echo those of this pivotal period in French history. All invoke the idea of laïcité or secularism in the school as of fundamental importance to the very survival of French democracy. They present the growth of Muslim influence in France today as a revival of the perceived Catholic threat to the nation a century ago. The girls who wear head scarves, like Catholic women at the turn of the century, are seen as mere pawns in the hands of a fanatical clergy.

The invocatory power of these apparent historical parallels explains why the debate about Muslim assimilation in France is being held over what might appear to outsiders as a minor issue: what adolescent girls wear to school. In an ironic historical twist, some devout Muslim families have chosen to send their daughters to private Catholic schools, which do not enforce the ban. And Muslim opponents to the ban, like many Catholics one hundred years ago, evoke the French tradition of liberty itself to support the right to wear head scarves to school.

Although the secular idea of the school has its origins on the left, over a century later, the majority of the French non-Muslim public, as well as the center-right government of Jacques Chirac, have adopted rhetoric and assumptions that were hotly contested in the past and support the ban as the necessary precondition to Muslim assimilation and national unity. As in the past, the school is perceived as the front line in a “culture war” that threatens to divide the nation.

All countries have founding myths that can preclude serious consideration of important issues. (The right to bear arms in the United States jumps to mind.) But the French might be well served by questioning both the historical basis of this particular myth and its applicability to the present situation. Historians no longer believe that the Catholic schools of the late nineteenth century were the threat to the Republic that politicians of the era – and generations of French citizens ever since – thought they were. The “school war” never targeted the clothing of schoolchildren. It was instead directed against Catholic curriculum and teachers, arguably more influential ways of delivering religious propaganda. And at the time the Catholic church did indeed administer and staff large numbers of schools, which has no parallel in the current situation. In fact, the head scarf ban may create a system of Muslim schools that does not yet exist, further isolating Muslim girls from contemporary French society. Finally, focusing attention on what children wear to school distracts from the discussion of serious inequities in jobs, housing, and educational opportunities that Muslim immigrants face in France, and on the gender inequities within the Muslim community itself. By displacing the problem of integration onto the school the French are privileging a century-old argument over present reality.

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Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

I said that voting rights of Muslim women was an important historical issue. Thank you for addressing that issue, Ms. Nichol, at least in a contemporary context. There are, as your post suggests, other measures of women's (and men's) rights probably even more important than voting rights. I agree completely that these are matters about which the American public needs to be better informed. While continuing to strive for functional literacy in English, in this country's schools, we should be teaching our students other languages as well. Democracy does not come out of the barrel of a gun, and wisdom is not a function of fashion or apparel.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

Or, one might also ask, how many functional illiterates graduate from American high schools (where the pupils can dress as they please) ?

These are important historical issues, not so the question of who put the comma before under God in the US pledge of allegiance, for example.

Wearing a head scarf or any other purely external symbol of a religion is an odd way to protest against a "century-old" "founding myth". When French Muslim boys start wearing head scarfs and French Muslim girls start riding mopeds about town, then there might be issues of individual freedom to discuss. In any case, however, the dress code of a school is approximately the 20th most important thing to worry about when looking at the challenges facing contemporary education.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

"I think I am correct in saying that the Qur'an does not call for women to wear scarves -- it calls for women to dress *modestly*. There should be some room for manoever on this issue, but both sides on this issue seem to have hardened their positions."

I think you ARE correct, SM. French historians may want to try to understand why Americans endlessly debate issues like constitutional amendments requiring prayer in public schools, adjudications over the the pledge of allegiance to the flag (our unique peculiarity), etc.. Or they might have better things to do.

Whole dissertations on the margin notes of what one monk wrote on another monks parchment. Wars have been fought over whether the Holy Spirit is part of God or not, or because a few maniacs from third countries armed with box cutters are clever (and very lucky in a morbid way). Sometimes its not “the economy, stupid” but merely another variant of stupidity.

Meanwhile babies are starving in Bangladesh, women are being raped in Darfour, Saudi Arabia is breeding itself into disaster, global warming is throwing monster hurricanes at Florida, and Pretzel W. Bush is recruiting fighters for Al Qaeda by the thousands.

I wouldn't be surprise to learn that lemmings are extremely agitated by minor perturbations in the appearance of other lemmings heads.

So What !

E. Simon - 9/24/2004

There are definitely good signs here and there. Many are less definitive than representative of general trends, and we will likely not witness watershed "tipping" moments of the sort that occurred over previous decades, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. As long as the progress is steady and not easily irreversible, then slowly building the things that make civil society possible in the first place will make the political developments that take place around them even more stable.

Shawn McHale - 9/24/2004

I guess I'll violate my own prescriptions. . .

On democracies and sham democracies: to be completely honest, I'd have to agree with you that "most" individuals -- well, most Americans, and most West Europeans --think that voting and democracy are linked. In the rest of the world, and in the core states of the Middle East, that often is not true.

One can quibble over a list of democracies. I'd probably have a higher opinion of Morocco, Tunisia, and Malaysia than you. I'd also note that Algerians *did* vote democratically for change over a decade ago -- but with US support, the current power holders simply denied the Islamists their (democratic) win.

But I guess I'd have to say that I am less interested in a list of democracies than in a list of countries with progress towards developing a vibrant civil society. On that score, think of tiny Qatar -- a gulf state right next to Saudi Arabia. It could well be the future of the Gulf. . . and it has made an undeniable opening of its political system. Is that the norm? No. But for the optimists like me who see the glass as half-full, not half-empty, that is an intriguing sign.

E. Simon - 9/23/2004

Mr. McHale,

I'm not sure how you're defining reasonable. The idea was technically true, but not intellectually honest. When most people refer to voting as a right, they're talking indeed about democracy, not sham-democracy.

In any event, I agree that the French government is over-reacting to the issue, but this might stem from how they've dealt with it from the beginning. The article does address how French laicite differs from the American version of separating Church and State in that there has been in the former a more active role for the government in promoting a secularized public sphere. In the states, we prefer to leave these matters alone and allow them to be worked out on their own terms. However, the French model lends itself to actively encouraging a secularized, French-cultural model; kind of like what Pat Buchanan would advocate in America but without the appeal to religious conservatives - in fact the opposite. Without going beyond the scope of historical detail offered in the article, I'll say this much: The policy, in this case, backfired. It only increased the perceived need to reassert one's original cultural identity, as if it had been, rightly or wrongly, under threat. And ironically, it is America, where such efforts are foregone, where tensions of this sort don't arise, that is accused by some of fighting a war against a specific religion.

But I digress.

Anyways, I am glad that Indonesia has come along as it has. If you want to use that country (one of the four I mentioned, incidentally) to point out a successful model of democracy emerging in a Muslim society, I think it is a good example. But not universally applicable. There are probably a whole host of reasons for which the process will not be replicated in the same manner, more properly, in various countries throughout the Middle East. And those reasons could be debated forever. But that at least requires a proper frame of reference with regards to the political and cultural issues that are involved.

Richard Rongstad - 9/23/2004

Brigitte Bardot has recently endured a series of court appearances resulting in fines, perhaps jail time and probation for her non-politically correct comments about Muslims in France.

What has Brigitte said about the head scarf controversy?

Shawn McHale - 9/23/2004

The original article was thoughtful, reasoned, and interesting. The discussion veers off into territories not even mentioned in the article. Why not try, at least, to address the issues raised in the original article?

The French debate over the head scarf has roiled the public for over a decade. It is not really an educational issue per se: it is an issue of Republican (in the French sense) identity. Many French believe that the stateshould be the guardian of a republican and secular mission. The head scarf issue challenges that.

FRom an American point of view, this tempest over scarves may seem like an odd debate. But we are historians, or at least interested in history, and should at a minumum try to understand why the French do not see it in such terms. For my two cents worth: I think the French are over-reacting to this issue, as I do not think that scarves really challenge the republican mission of schools. Second, I think I am correct in saying that the Qur'an does not call for women to wear scarves -- it calls for women to dress *modestly*. There should be some room for manoever on this issue, but both sides on this issue seem to have hardened their positions.

Last note -- on Ephraim Simon's post in votinhg and democracy--Laura Nichol made a reasonable post. She did not say that voting equals democracy, she just pointed out that women do indeed vote in many countries. Too many people equate "Muslim" with "Arab" or "Middle Eastern." Indonesia is about TEN times bigger than Saudi Arabia in terms of population . . . but American images of Muslim women are more defined by Saudi practices than by Indonesian ones.
Too bad -- after all, Indonesia is kicking out its female president Megawati, no doubt due to some female votes for her opponent!

E. Simon - 9/22/2004

Western ignorance about parts of the world that may or may not have something enlightening to share with them in the way of advancing human rights is one thing.

But equalizing the deprivation of rights in a given society is not a sign of its own advancement - for women or anyone else. I'm not aware of how a lack of liberty generally is anything but more detrimental for segments within.

There's also quite a bit of confusion in the above post - I would count only 4 of the 16+ non-Western countries as functioning democracies: India, Indonesia (only stably so as of very recently), Bangladesh, and the Phillipines. It strains credulity for Ms. Nichol to even mention not only Libya, Egypt, Iraq, and Sudan, but Iran (theocracy), Pakistan (military dictatorship), Algeria, Tunisia, ...and the rest.

Of course this doesn't prevent the more insidious of the aforementioned usual suspects from, say, chairing human rights organizations or participating in the security council at the U.N., as if they could hide behind the false veil of "international solidarity" to erroneously portray themselves as being in a position of moral leadership on such issues. And the red herring of Palestinian land ownership sounds like an argument in favor of capitalism as a principle factor for promoting human development. Yet, given previous statements, I somehow doubt that Ms. Nichol would have had the conscious foresight to have seriously advanced the claim - despite its standing as the only logical conclusion, and likely, a correct one.

The point about the scarf is more accurate, but contributes little to elevating my hopes for human development in the Middle East. A little is better than nothing, however - it's true. Pathetic but true.


Laura Nichol - 9/22/2004

"Re: Meanwhile, how many Muslim women around the world have the right to vote ?"

Quite a lot, actually: Muslim women in Eastern Europe, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Pakistan, Algeria, Bangladesh, just about all other parts of East Asia, Egypt, Tunisia, Iran, all the Muslim women living in Latin America and western countries, Muslim women in Africa, Morocco, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq under Saddam, South Africa, Sudan, Libya.... of course that vote doesn't mean much in dictatorships like Libya, Syria, Saddam's Iraq and Egypt but in those cases, it's BOTH men and women whose votes mean nothing---there was no disfranchisement of women specifically. And of course over 3 million Palestinian Muslims and Christians--women and men--have no right to vote at all, or do anything at all on their own land. The Israeli gov't and military who control their lives every day won't allow that.

I'm often amazed at how many ignorant people there are in the West who actually believe that "MOST" Muslim women in Islamic countries go around wearing a burka or chador, can't drive and can't vote. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are the *exceptions* when it comes to driving and the vote. And if you go to countries like Tunisia, Morocco, Lebanon, Syria, Malaysia, India, the south of Pakistan, Bangladesh, Jordan, Algeria, Egypt, many central and southern African countries, you'll see many Muslim women without a veil or scarf, or wearing normal western clothing and a simply scarf. But understanding that reality would require actual knowledge about the people of the region, something which is in very short supply here on this board---whose members always talk about Muslims using only popular cliches gleaned only from superficial press coverage. Amazing how many people in the West feel they can speak about a huge portion of the planet they've never seen.