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The “Headscarf” Battles

The law banning “conspicuous religious signs” in public schools adopted in France in 2004, as well as the prohibition of headscarves for academics and students in Turkish public universities, illustrate many of the tensions described above. In both countries, the battle of the veil has divided the human rights movement, especially advocates of women’s rights. How to defend freedom of belief, women’s autonomy, and the right to education without promoting an often politicized agenda and the undermining of a broader range of rights by religious groups is indeed a challenging question for the human rights movement.

In France, the debate on “religious conspicuous signs”—coming on the heels of tense controversies around migration, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and terrorism—has polarized public opinion and cut across traditional political alignments. The headscarf controversy raises the crucial issue of the place of Islam in the French Republic. This is not only because France’s growing Muslim communities are seen as diverging from the mainstream on thorny questions like religious conversion, homosexuality, or divorce, but also because their very existence seems to call into question the long accepted tenet that life in a Western democracy will increasingly secularize adherents of all faiths.

The intensity of the debate, however, has expressed much more than hostility toward Islam. Supported by many other denominations and most significantly by the Catholic Church, the headscarf has been seen as a direct challenge to the founding principles of the French Republican model born in the French Revolution and forged through the merciless church/secular battles of the 19th century that led to the strict separation between state and religion, the privatization of faith, and the proclaimed “preeminence of Reason.” The “headscarf issue” thus has forced French authorities to confront the very nature of the Republic and to reconsider the concept of laïcité (secularism) and to ponder over its adequacy and relevance in an increasingly multicultural society.

In its assessment of the legislation shortly before its passage, Human Rights Watch concluded that the law infringed the internationally recognized right to freedom of religion, but identified the need to reconcile seemingly contradictory concerns. “Human Rights Watch recognizes the legitimacy of public institutions seeking not to promote any religion via their conduct or statements, but the French government has taken this a step further by suggesting that the state is undermining secularism if it allows students to wear religious symbols.” As we concluded: “[P]rotecting the right of all students to religious freedom does not undermine secularism in schools. On the contrary, it demonstrates respect for religious diversity, a position fully consistent with maintaining the strict separation of public institutions from any particular religious message.” 


<<previous  |  index  |  next>>January 2005