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A Mother Wearing A Hijab On A School Trip Is A “Provocation” (Part 1)

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In France, a member of Marine Le Pen’s party has caused a controversy by demanding that a Muslim mother accompanying a school trip remove her hijab. The pupils on the trip were visiting a regional parliament; a member of that parliament, Julien Odoul, confronted the woman and demanded that she remove her hijab while in the building. This caused outrage among some, though the outrage should have been directed at the woman who insisted on keeping her hijab on while in a government building. The story is here.

The issue has divided politicians and citizens in a country that often struggles with finding a balance between individual religious freedom and constitutionally-guaranteed secularism in the public sector, including schools.

There are two separate French laws that are relevant here. The first is from 2004, passed during the Presidency of Jacques Chirac, which banned the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols in schools. While no specific religious symbols were mentioned, the law has always been considered to specifically target the wearing of headscarves. For this reason it is occasionally referred to as the French “headscarf ban” in the foreign press. The banning of the headscarf from schools, it has been argued, should also apply to all school events, even outside the school building – such as accompanying a class on a field trip to a regional parliament.

The second law, passed in 2010,  is that which bans face coverings everywhere – the “burqa ban” – but does not everywhere ban a head covering that leaves the face uncovered, such as the hijab. This law does not affect the hijab ban in schools and universities, which remains.,

Julien Odoul, a member of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) party, caused widespread outrage when he posted a video on Twitter of him confronting a woman who accompanied pupils last Friday to the regional parliament in Bourgogne-Franche-Comte in eastern France.

Citing “secular principles” in the wake of the killings in Paris this month of four police staff by a radicalised convert to Islam, he insisted the woman, whose son was among the group, remove her headscarf.

Why was Odoul’s asking the woman to remove her headscarf a cause for “outrage”? She was on a school trip with her son; the trip, with teachers, mothers, and pupils, was an extension of the school day, a part of the school’s curriculum. It thus should be considered as falling under the law of 2004 banning the wearing of “conspicuous religious symbols in schools.” That ban surely should apply to students and supervisory adults out on the playing fields as much as inside the classrooms, and should apply as well when the students are taken on field trips for a pedagogic purpose. It would be disruptive to have teachers, pupils, and parents exiting a school, for a school trip, then suddenly putting on hijabs, against the letter and spirit of the 2004 law banning “conspicuous religions symbols” in the schools.

In fact, a bill specifically banning mothers on school trips from wearing the hijab was passed by the French Senate in May 2019, but the upper house, the French Assembly, failed to approve it. Nonetheless, there is a very strong belief school trips should be treated as if they were extensions of the school, as part of its curriculum, and thus subject to the same rules affecting the school buildings themselves, where hijabs are strictly forbidden.

Members of the RN then walked out of the chamber before issuing a press statement denouncing “an Islamist provocation.”

The hijab-wearing mother knew exactly what she was doing. She was flaunting her hijab, on a school trip, in the full knowledge that many in France agree with the French Senate when it attempted to ban the hijab on school trips. Furthermore, she was entering a public space, the regional parliament, where hijabs are not banned but certainly discouraged, as violating the French principle of laicite. It has been argued that “conspicuous religious symbols” should not be worn by people working in, or visiting, government buildings, but so far that has not been made into law.

The RN members were quite right: the woman wearing the hijab was no innocent, but with malice aforethought was challenging the enforcement of the 2004 law that had been held to ban the hijab from the schools. She was clearly on a school trip, performing quasi-official duties by helping teachers to shepherd the pupils, and maintaining  discipline; she was openly challenging those many French people, including  a great many members of the French Senate, who believe the hijab ban in schools should also cover school trips.

But many, including regional parliament speaker Marie-Guite Dufay, criticised Odoul’s actions, saying neither the law of the country nor the rules of the chamber prohibited a member of the public wearing a headscarf.

Dufay denounced a “surge of hatred” and what she described as “undignified behaviour” on the part of a lawmaker.

Marie-Guite Dufay is right that a “member of the public” can wear a headscarf, though not a face veil, but wrong in not acknowledging that the hijab cannot be worn in schools. She ought then to have added “the hijab is banned in schools and many in this country, including a majority in the French Senate, think that ban should also extend to both adults and children while they are on school trips.”

As for this “surge of hatred” against Muslims – what is Marie-Guite Dufay talking about? There has been no “surge of hatred” against Muslims, in France, not even after the murders of the Paris police. There have been no attacks on Muslims anywhere in France, since those police were murdered. There is mounting, and well-justified, anxiety about Muslim terrorism, and about the police not having recognized the danger posed by the Salafist Mikael Harpon.. There is increasing alarm about the failure, or more exactly refusal, of Muslims to integrate into French society. There are fears of a demographic Jihad, given the much higher Muslim birthrate. There is dismay at the high levels of Muslim unemployment, and Muslim crime. Is any of this anxiety, this alarm, these fears, this dismay illegitimate?

The “undignified behavior” she refers to is that of Julien Odoul, a member of the regional parliament, who merely asked the Muslim mother to remove her hijab. Why was that request “undignified”? He did not threaten her; he did not block her path into the parliament; he merely asked in essence that, while on a school trip, she voluntarily comply with the spirit of the 2004 law banning the wearing of “conspicuous religious symbols,” such as hijabs, in schools. He no doubt also had in mind the recent bill banning the wearing of hijabs on school trips, one that had passed the Senate last May, but was rejected by the National Assembly. Is it “undignified” to object to someone flaunting her indifference to what many, possibly most, French people want?

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