FaithWorld

Collateral damage from French headscarf law continues

When French President Jacques Chirac ‘s government wanted to ban Muslim headscarves in state schools back in 2004, it had to find a way to (1) make the ban look fair and (2) avoid a backlash from the majority Catholic electorate.  A ban had to target all religions, but couldn’t be absolute because that could violate international rights norms. It also risked alienating some Catholic voters because because many Catholic girls wore necklaces with small gold crosses. So Paris came up with a ban on “conspicuous religious symbols” that would bar  Muslim headscarves, Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses. That only bishops actually wore large crosses did not seem to matter. (Photo: Sikhs in France protest against turban ban, 31 Jan 2004/Charles Platiau)

In the haste to pass and apply the law, the government overlooked a religious group that would also be hit by the new restrictions — the Sikhs. There are about 10,000 of them, mostly living in the Paris area, easily identifiable by the distinctive turbans the men wear. When local Sikh community leaders and Sikh activists from London protested that a turban is not a religious symbol, they were given a polite hearing and ignored. The Sikhs said the turban was simply a practical way of covering the real religious symbol, their uncut hair, so taking it off would expose the religious symbol the ban was meant to bar from state schools. It was a clever argument — one that, as the cynical French quip puts it, had the additional merit of being true — but the government was not going to allow any exceptions that could leave a back door open for Muslim girls to squeeze some kind of  headscarf through.

The uproar over the ban has long since calmed down, but the Sikhs continue to campaign to overturn it. A group called United Sikhs asked a U.N. human rights committee on Monday to declare that France had violated a student’s rights by expelling him for wearing a turban and to recommend repealing the law that led to it.

The outlook for this initiative is not bright. Last month, the European Court of Human Rights dismissed an appeal by a Sikh who had been told he could not get his driving license renewed unless he took off his turban for the picture. Earlier this month, it threw out a complaint by two French Muslim girls who were expelled from their school for refusing to remove their headscarves during sports lessons. (Photo: Sikhs in New Delhi protest against French ban, 20 Feb 2006/Adnan Abidi)

Several other countries have made exceptions for Sikhs to allow them to continue wearing their turbans, but those countries are also more flexible than France about Muslim headscarves. Do you think France should make an exception for them too?

Headscarves new target for Austrian far right

It’s already been a big theme in Germany, FranceTurkey and the Netherlands, and now the Austrian far right is asking: Should public employees be allowed to wear Muslim headscarves at work?

 

Two women have become the first schoolteachers in Vienna to wear headscarves while teaching.

 

One is also a local centre-left Social Democrat politician.

 

Teachers in other parts of the country already wear headscarves, and there is no law banning public employees from wearing such items as there is in some other European countries.  

Turkey’s covered women fed up with politics over their headscarves

It started as a women’s protest for the right to wear Muslim headscarves at university, in this case at Marmara University in Istanbul. Then the men showed up with their banners and megaphones, lined up in front of the cameras and began speaking in place of the women. That left the ladies standing demurely on the sidelines or in the crowd, all decked out with their bright silk scarves with nothing to do but clap at what the men said.

It was just another case of what women here often complain about — that the headscarf has been hijacked by politics for decades, leaving ordinary women to suffer the consequences. Some have sacrificed an education for their faith, preferring not to go to university if it means uncovering, and they feel like little more than a political football in this very masculine power struggle.

Check out our video from Marmara University, especially the protester who says “We want freedom to wear headscarves!” Hmmm … do you think he’ll ever wear one?

Turkish tempers flare as headscarf reform nears

Neslihan Akbulut of women’s rights group AKDER, 31 Jan. 2008/Fatih SaribasAnyone looking at Turkish newspapers or television these days would be forgiven for thinking Turkey was in a deep political crisis over government plans to lift a decades-old ban on female students wearing the Muslim headscarf in universities. The two sides — the secular Turks who long held sway here and the newly empowered pious Turks — are debating the issue in the winner-take-all way Turks like to talk politics. The liberal daily Radikal found the tension rising so much that it ran a front page headline this week reading “Republic of Fear” with a reprint of Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream” on the cover.

Readers abroad might ask what all the fuss is about. After all, Turkey is a predominantly Muslim country with a vibrant democracy. But the headscarf goes to the very heart of Turkey’s complex identity. For a feature on the headscarf issue, I spoke to devout and secular women and heard two diametrically opposed views. The devout women, some of whom had been expelled from universities because of the headscarf, said covering their Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, 29 Jan. 2008/Umit Bektashair was all about personal and religious freedoms. “I wear the headscarf, my cousin doesn’t and we go out to family dinners. It is no big deal,” one said. Many secular women feel their rights will be curtailed if the ban is lifted since — they fear — they will eventually be forced to wear the Islamic headscarf.

Male opinion can be just as split. Secular men say that easing the ban on wearing the headscarf in universities would weaken the current separation of state and religion. The pious Muslims — including Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan — say wearing the headscarf is a personal freedom and a right, just like secular women have the right not to wear it.

When others beat you to the blog

Conference of European Churches logoWhen Jane Stranz of the World Council of Churches emailed me a link to her blog about me, I thought I should mention something here that is already out there on the web. The Conference of European Churches in Geneva has awarded its John Templeton Award for the European Religion Writer of the Year 2006 to yours truly.

Atlas of CreationThe Headscarf AffairThe award was for articles on the Atlas of Creation, a Muslim creationist book by Harun Yahya (left) that was mysteriously distributed for free in Turkey (and later more widely in Europe), Vienna imam Sheikh Adnan Ibrahim who says yes to Europe but no to Euro-Islam and a French comic book by René Pétillon called The Headscarf Affair (right) that spoofs the debate about Muslim headscarves.

At the award ceremony in Paris this week, I gave a short speech about the problems international religion writers face when struggling to express untranslatable foreign words and concepts in English. Since much of our reporting and research is done in foreign languages, this is a constant challenge. Ecumenical News International has a short item on the speech and the text.

Smoke without fire – there was no “Paris intifada” in 2005

Car burns during riots in Paris suburb Aulnay-sous-Bois, Nov 3, 2005One of the most persistent canards about Islam in France is that Muslim groups played a key role in stoking the three weeks of rioting in the suburbs of Paris and other French cities in late 2005. Stories still regularly pop up on the Internet talking about “Muslim riots” or mentioning that cries of Allah-o-akbar were heard amid all the burning and trashing that went on. These cries, reported in the French press at the time, were taken as a sign the Islamists were behind the unrest. Bloggers coined the term “Paris intifada.” Some talked about “Baghdad-on-the-Seine.” Others were frustrated because the media did not make clear what role religion played in the unrest.

The French television channel France 2 has just broadcast an excellent documentary called Quand la France s’embrase… (When France Flares Up) about the 2005 riots in the suburbs and the 2006 student protests in the centre of many French cities. They interviewed dozens of police, politicians, community leaders and residents. They showed a lot of previously unbroadcast on-the-spot video footage taken on cellphones (sometimes by the rioters themselves). Their conclusion is actually not new. Most journalists covering the riots at the time (myself included) came to same conclusion after some initial confusion caused in part by false statements from politicians who should have known better. But the documentary is an excellent analysis of those confusing days, with new information filling out the story better than anything done before.

Rioters and police face off in Clichy-sous-Bois, Oct. 29, 2005The unrest was spontaneous and hardly organised at all, the documentary concluded. The rioters protested against widespread discrimination, unemployment and the government’s failed integration policies. Many were from North African immigrant families, and therefore from a Muslim background. But religion was not the driving force and Islamists did not organise or stoke the unrest. Some politicians accused Islamists early on in the saga, but this was more a case of clueless suits seeking a scapegoat than solid facts the police observed on the ground, the documentary concluded.