France: Chirac’s proposed ban on students’ headscarves polarises society

Socialists oppose right wing agenda

An introduction to the headscarves debate and, below, an article (translated from French) by Fatima, a member of Gauche Révolutionnaire.

Chirac’s proposed ban on students’ headscarves polarises society

For some months, a debate has raged in France about the right of female Muslim students to wear the headscarf or hijab in state schools.

The right wing has cynically used the language of ‘republicanism’, and the historic division of church and state, to launch a campaign against symbols of Islam. Some school authorities have actively campaigned to exclude students who attend classes wearing headscarves. In some cases, these campaigns were successful.

French President, Jacques Chirac, recently announced that he will support a law that forbids the wearing or displaying of “ostensible” religious symbols in state schools. Although Chirac claims this targets Christian and Jewish symbols, as well as Islamic symbols, and only a few thousand that wear the hidjab, the law is generally regarded as a new attack against the five million Muslims in France. The result has been to sharply polarise French society along religious, race and national lines. The ultra right wing party of Le Pen, FN, of course, hopes to make gains in this atmosphere.

Many young women chose to wear the headscarf in an attempt to protect themselves in a society where racism is rife. They also see it as protection against the influence of capitalist sexist ideology, which treats women as objects most clearly in advertising and the “entertainment industry”. It is also the case that many leaders in the Muslim community use the headscarves issue to oppress women. But it is wrong to think that a law banning female students’ rights in schools will ‘liberate’ these women. In fact, Chirac’s legislation will increase the strength and influence of the Muslim religious leaders. Only a united struggle of the working class, across all religious, race and sexual barriers, can win genuine rights for women.

The debate over headscarves has wider implications. The banning of headscarves at school is the first step towards banning all religious and political symbols. According to the International Herald Tribune (12/01/04): “some politicians are calling for the ban to apply to political symbols in schools as well, such as the Palestinian kaffiyeh and T-shirts emblazoned with the face of the Cuban guerrilla leader Che Guevara.”

Gauche Révolutionnaire (CWI in France) opposes Chirac’s reactionary law on religious symbols. Socialists oppose all forms of discrimination, including along religious, sex, ethnic, and race lines. All young people should have access to properly funded, public education, and should have the right to practice their religion. No religion should have special status in schools. And students should not be told what they can and cannot wear.

The hypocrisy of the French government is shown by the fact it is not applying the “principles” of secular education in the private education sector, which is 95 percent Catholic.

Socialists stand for the unity of the working class against the real enemy – the bosses’ system, which Chirac and the main parties defend. We are against either the state or religious leaders ordering any woman to wear a headscarf, just as much as we oppose attempts to ban women wearing one.

We also oppose the neo-con and imperialist policies of George Bush, who preaches his own brand of Christian fundamentalism. Socialists condemn the domination of one religion over another or over people that hold no religious beliefs.

Against the law that forbids the wearing of the headscarf

Public education is a right for all

In capitalist society it is the ruling class who, by the means of the media, advertising, movies etc, projects an image of women as objects without rights.

This sexist ideology influences a growing number of people, who in turn show a more disrespectful and oppressive attitude towards women.

Confronted with this violence, young girls in the deprived boroughs of French cities believe they can try and protect themselves by wearing the headscarf. For them, wearing the headscarf or hijab, signals that they are not “approachable” and it has become a measure of “protection”.

The headscarf is also favoured by the leaders of the Islamist movements that use communal and sexist methods to divide workers and youth. In this context, the wearing of the headscarf is a subjection of women, even if some of them wear it voluntarily.

If female students that wish to wear a headscarf, who are vulnerable because of their age and their situation at home, are excluded from schools, this will add to their isolation. They will be forced to stay at home, with a future imposed upon them by their family, or they will be made to continue their education at a private ‘Koranic’ school, where they will have to undergo even more subjection. That is why we have to be against a law that prohibits the wearing of the headscarf in schools.

In the name of ‘secularism’ the ruling class wants to prohibit the wearing of the headscarf in schools, while the same ruling class contributes towards the oppression of women generally. The French ruling class uses secularism in a demagogic and hypocritical manner. Politicians like to present themselves as secular. But when it suits them the same politicians use religion for their own ends and they also lean on the establishment of the main religions. That is why it is not surprising to see Raffarin visited the Vatican to take part in the 25th anniversary celebrations of Pope John Paul II’s pontificate; or to find the French Interior Minister Sarkozy attending Muslim worship.

The banning of headscarves at school is the first step towards banning all religious and political signs and symbols and the return of school uniforms. Jack Lang (Parti Socialiste leader and the Minister of Culture in the Jospin government) proposes to prohibit all “religious, political or philosophical symbols” with the exception, of course, of designer labels and logos.

The wearing of the headscarf, just like the practising of a religion, is a private matter for the individual. It is not up to the ruling class to decide what is in our and our children’s interests. That is why it is up to youth, teachers, educational staff, and the unions to explain what the ban on wearing the headscarf really means. And only through our struggles, against this capitalist society and for a democratic socialist society, will the full emancipation of woman take place.

  • No to the exclusion of girls who wear the headscarf
  • No to the law that prohibits the wearing of the headscarf

Fatima, Gauche Revolutionnaire, Rouen

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January 2004