French Muslim group courts showdown over headscarf law

PARIS: With just weeks to go before the start of the school year, one of France’s largest Muslim bodies faces a showdown with the government after advising girls they can wear head-coverings to class despite a new law banning conspicuous religious insignia.

The Union of Islamic Organisations in France (UOIF), which enjoys a wide following among the country’s five million Muslims, issued a statement on its Internet site saying girls should wear “discreet” headgear because this would not be in breach of the law.

The Hijab

“Hijab is the modern name for the practice of dressing modestly, which all practicing Muslims past the age of puberty are instructed to do in their holy book, the Qur’an. No precise dress code for men or women is set out in the Qur’an, and various Islamic scholars have interpreted the meaning of hijab in different ways.”
- Wikipedia

“The ban on head-coverings in school is not universal,” the organisation said, arguing that the controversial law, passed in March, “does not call into question the right of pupils to wear discreet religious signs”.

UOIF president Lhaj Thami Breze said “discreet” head-coverings include bandanas or pieces of cloth tied at the back, and he warned school authorities not to “twist the law” by trying to prohibit them in September. “We have been asked not to break the law, but to try to find a way to conform to it. It is not up to schools to tell us how,” he said.

However the UOIF’s stance could put it on collision course with the centre-right government of President Jacques Chirac, which in guidelines to school leaders stipulates that the ban covers “signs and behaviour … whose wearing immediately makes known a person’s religious faith.”

The guidelines say the Islamic veil is banned “no matter what name is given to it”. Earlier this month Education Minister Francois Fillon said the law would be applied “with absolute firmness … I will pay personal attention. There will be no exception.”

The “secularity law” was drafted in response to an official report last year which warned against the breakdown of society into racial and faith-based groups, and recommended the removal of religious symbols from the classroom as well as steps to hasten integration of the large Arab minority.

The ban on “conspicuous” insignia also covers the Jewish skull-cap and large Christian crosses. But the Muslim community believes it is primarily the target, and the start of the new term — when the law will be applied for the first time—is awaited with growing unease.

The UOIF, which enjoins a return to the fundamentals of Islam as laid out in the Holy Quran and sayings of the Prophet Mohamed (PBUH), scored strongly in elections last year to France’s first officially-recognised Muslim body, the Council for the Muslim Religion (CFCM).

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