(New York, February 27, 2004)—The proposed French law banning Islamic headscarves and other visible religious symbols in state schools would violate the rights to freedom of religion and expression, Human Rights Watch said today. The law, which forbids “signs and dress that conspicuously show the religious affiliation of students,” will be debated in the French Senate on March 2.
“The proposed law is an unwarranted infringement on the right to religious practice,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “For many Muslims, wearing a headscarf is not only about religious expression, it is about religious obligation.”
International human rights law obliges state authorities to avoid coercion in matters of religious freedom, and this obligation must be taken into account when devising school dress codes. The proposed prohibition on headscarves in France, as with laws in some Muslim countries that force girls to wear headscarves in schools, violates this principle.
Under international law, states can only limit religious practices when there is a compelling public safety reason, when the manifestation of religious beliefs would impinge on the rights of others, or when it serves a legitimate educational function (such as prohibiting practices that preclude student-teacher interaction). Muslim headscarves, Sikh turbans, Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses—which are among the visible religious symbols that would be prohibited—do not pose a threat to public health, order or morals; they have no effect on the fundamental rights and freedoms of other students; and they do not undermine a school’s educational function.
Some supporters of the proposed law—known as the “Draft law concerning the application of the principle of secularism in schools, junior high schools and high schools,” which would come into force in September—believe it is necessary to uphold the separation of church and state in education, and to protect the secular state from the perceived threat of religious fundamentalism, particularly Islamic fundamentalism.
However, protecting 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. 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.
Supporters of the law have also defended the ban on the grounds that it will protect Muslim girls from being forced or pressured to wear the headscarf by their parents. Under international law, states must respect the responsibilities, rights and duties of parents to provide, in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of the child, appropriate direction and guidance in the child’s exercise of their basic rights. States must also take all appropriate measures to ensure that children are protected against discrimination or punishment on the basis of the beliefs of their parents or family members. At the same time, states are responsible for taking appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect children where parents are responsible for physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse. Unnecessary restrictions on children’s personal rights and freedoms should not be promoted as a means of child protection.
The impact of a ban on visible religious symbols, even though phrased in neutral terms, will fall disproportionately on Muslim girls, and thus violate antidiscrimination provisions of international human rights law as well as the right to equal educational opportunity. Indeed, the promotion of understanding and tolerance for such differences in values is a key aspect of enforcement of the right to education. In practice, the law will leave some Muslim families no choice but to remove girls from the state educational system.
Some in France have used the headscarf issue as a pretext for voicing anti-immigrant and
anti-Muslim sentiments. Some arguments appear to be based on the premise that all
Muslims want to oppress women, or that women and girls who choose to veil do not understand women’s rights. Public debate has also touched on many other significant social issues: religious fundamentalism and political uses of religious symbols; oppression of girls and women; levels of immigration; discrimination and lack of economic opportunity for immigrant communities; pluralism and national integration.
“The proposed law has raised important issues about religious freedom and the role of the state in France,” said Roth. “The resolution of this issue will have important implications throughout Europe and beyond. But simply banning headscarves and other expressions of religious belief from the schools is not the answer.”