Paris, France: Muslim fundamentalists are challenging France’s ‘line in the sand’ and the battle is now in one of the most prestigious of French institutions founded by Napoleon.
The French ‘Grande Ecole’, Sciences Politiques, was Tuesday the scene of a very strange event which is creating quite a tempest in France: Hijab Day. Muslim students at the school called on their fellow female students to wear the Islamic headscarf for a day in a bid to “demystify the cloth.”
A table was laid out at the entrance of the university where women could take a headscarf and wear it for the day. Apparently, few did. Sciences-Po said the event did not break school rules but that they were not endorsing it.
“We want to bring an idea of liberty and tolerance,” an organizer named Oumou told the French daily Libération. “We want to get out of the debate over the potential danger of the veil.”
The students were accused of proselytism which is not allowed in French public institutions. The conservative weekly Challenges accuses the women of Hijab Day of belonging to “an international structure which organizes these events.” They suggest this is not as innocent as the organizers would have us believe.
The Science-Po move can be seen as either a provocation, or a response. It comes on the heels of a statement by Prime Minister Manuel Valls in favor of a law banning the headscarf from Universities. Earlier this month, the Premier came to the rescue of his Minister of Women’s Affairs, Laurence Rossignol, when she said “women wearing the veil is like American Negros who supported slavery.”
French President, François Hollande, distanced himself from his Prime Minister by ruling out any law against the veil in universities. Nevertheless, the Hijab Day sparked fiery debate, and not only at Science-Po.
Former French Interior Minister and Science-Po Alma Mater, Claude Géant, called the initiative “scandalous” and “something very grave.” In a radio interview he said: “We are in the midst of communitarianism. The Laws of the Republic are no longer respected.”
He went on to express outrage at internet ads for full veil covering from head-to-foot for four year olds. Guéant’s opinion finds support on both sides of the political spectrum among those who say France cannot tolerate the ideology behind the cloth, i.e. Salafism.
Perhaps Zoé, a student at Science-Po sums it up best: “They are trying to de-religionize the veil,” she said. “They believe you can think of symbols outside of their history and their signification. Like if I put on the Jewish Kippa to protect myself from the sun.”
In reality, the debate over the headscarf, one way or the other, is political. In 1990, very few Muslim girls in France wore the headscarf. As Islamic Fundamentalists gained popularity in the French Muslim ghettos, known as ‘banlieues’, the pressure on females to wear the headscarf grew in pace with a feeling among Muslim youth of not belonging to the country of their birth. It is a sign of ‘identity’ which says “I am not French. I am Muslim.”
Professor Christopher Leroy of the University of Perpignan Via Domita wrote in the daily Le Monde: “There are more and more veiled students at university and it is causing us problems.” He believes those who think there is no need for a law to ban headscarves in universities, such as his boss, the Minister of Higher Education and Research, Thierry Mandon, are “veiling the problem.” Leroy writes that “banning the headscarf would protect teachers” because then they could not be challenged by Islamist students for not respecting the Koran, nor be accused of “Islamophobia.” Students are asked to remove head-gear before classes and exams but Muslim female students refuse.
The Fundamentalist movement, known as Salafism, has the French government so concerned that Prime Minister Valls decided he wanted to declare an ideological, political and judicial ‘war’ on them. He admitted that “all Salafists are not Jihadis,” but he added “all Jihadis are culturally Salafists.” For Valls, the headscarf is one more expression of an ideology “which has no place in France.”
France already has a law in place which bans people from covering their faces in public areas. Although the law is not ‘explicitly’ aimed at Islam, it is clearly Muslim women wearing Burkas and full face veils who are targetted.