Liberté, égalité, fraternité - Liberty and the veil

Submitted by Anon on 25 November, 2003 - 5:41

By Joan Trevor

French teachers, who waged an inspiring battle during the spring and summer against government attacks, have hit the headlines in the "rentrée scolaire" (back to school) not for their continued industrial militancy - things have gone fairly quiet on that front - but, in one school anyway, for excluding two young Muslim women from high-school for wearing a Muslim headscarf.
Alma and Lila Lévy-Omari were suspended from the lycée Henri-Wallon d'Aubervilliers in September on the grounds that they could not take part in physical education lessons while wearing their scarves, and expelled a few weeks later after a disciplinary board hearing.

This case is famous - there have been other exclusions in recent years - for several reasons. Some of them distasteful, like the frisson of excitement over the fact that the girls' father Laurent Lévy is, you've guessed it, Jewish.

He is also a liberal lawyer, connected with one of the main anti-racist organisations, Mouvement contre le racisme et pour l'amitié entre les peoples (Mrap; Movement Against Racism and for Friendship Between Peoples).

Mr Lévy is contending that the school's conduct is illegal. Under a law of 1905, "concerning the separation of churches and the State" (in fact, when it was enacted, there was only one, the Catholic, church that worried those who wanted the law) public servants are not allowed to display their religious faith while at work, ostentatiously wearing a crucifix, for example.

Mr Lévy says that the law does not apply to the recipients of public services, only to those who deliver them, that his daughters do not wear the headscarf (in France it is more commonly called "the veil") to proselytise for their religion, only to practise it, and that they have in fact been discriminated against.

Why else has this episode hit the headlines?

The right-wing government recently set up a commission headed by Bernard Stasi to review the law, setting itself up as the champion of secularism. The commission will report before the end of the year.

At present schools are free to apply the law to pupils as they see fit. The government is considering making it illegal to wear the headscarf in schools (as well as to wear other religious "symbols").

In this it is hypocritical. For example, it is in favour of providing more money to private schools, including faith schools.

It is not to champion a girl's right to wear 'immodest' dress that the government does this. Government minister, Xavier Darcos, banning young women from wearing g-strings to school, commented: "It is normal to demand of young women when they start to be desirable that they take steps to ensure that they don't provoke anyone."

And of course this is a racist government enacting draconian measures against illegal immigrants and seeking to limit immigration. It is the government whose interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy has in his sights the "delinquent" youth of the suburbs, meaning mainly young people of North African descent.

The far-left has come out against such a new law. They argue that it aims mainly to force France's immigrant communities to assimilate into mainstream French culture, or, worse, and more likely, to score political points with racist voters for pretending to do this.

Yet the far-left are also largely resigned to see exclusions of young women when persuasion - the favoured and most used and generally successful method of resolving headscarf conflicts - fails. Or when a compromise cannot be found, such as when a young woman agrees to wear, instead of the veil, a scarf that covers just her hair, not hair, ears and neck.

Such half-way house negotiations as were gone into with Alma and Lila seem quite ludicrous.

It is a complex debate, and the far-left itself is torn.

Some quotations from some observers show what is at stake.

These comments are from a paper, signed by a few members and circulated at the recent congress of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR). It appears to have had no official status and looks at odds with most of the group's literature on the subject, which tends to favour exclusions as a last resort. (Secularism is a big issue for leftists in France, and especially for teachers; it has been since the 1789 revolution.)

"The discussion on the veil in school exercises the organisation again. It is necessary to define a clear position for our current on this question. Our objective must be to defend the general interests of the workers and to fight against all forms of oppression. The first condition for this is not to caricature the positions of one or the other side. The partisans of exclusion are not anti-Muslim racists, and neither are those who reject this solution, fans of charia…"

But the writers themselves are against exclusions.

"…to exclude young girls is in no way an answer to the religious discourses, since it will systematically be the girls (and never the men) who will be excluded… exclusion evidently strengthens the partisans of communal schools…

"What drives young women today to choose to wear the veil is a complex phenomenon. It might be a question of family or religious pressures that impose a position of submission on the girls. It is a question also sometimes of a strategy deployed by the young women to deflect violence, the daily insults of which women are the victims. To put on the veil is also sometimes the only way to get the respect of boys. It can also be a case of a search for identity for a generation that lacks cultural references. This phenomenon of internalising oppression by the oppressed must be taken into account, to be better fought. And it is absurd to explain this by the 'manipulation' of 'fundamentalist groups'…

"As for the fight the Republic intends to lead to combat the oppression of veiled women, one has the right to wonder that they put so much energy into excluding young women from school to send them back to a home described by the 'eradicators' as the den of their oppression."

On the other hand we have this from an editorial of the bulletin Fifth Zone:

"If Alma and Lila have won, it is not only their right to veil themselves that they have conquered. In seeking to unfasten the ban on the veil in schools, they create the risk that other girls will themselves be obliged to cover themselves by those of their brothers or fathers who already give themselves the right to strictly monitor the way they dress.

"But Lila and Alma are not bothered by that: daughters of an atheist lawyer, they are guaranteed to be able to unveil themselves when it seems right to them. Who can guarantee that will be the case for all those that they will have contributed to putting under the veil?"

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