Redefining “ostenibles” – the headscarf in Réunion

Despite the recent hostage taking of French journalists in Iraq and the demand that the ban on the hijab be lifted as the price of their return, the French government is unsurprisingly still planning on implementing the law when school reopens this week. Killing French journalists in order to attack a French law – even a bad one – only makes it harder to repeal. By attacking it in this fashion, this silly law will become even more entrenched.

This story is currently the lead article in all the major French dailies. The government is trying to negociate the release of these two journalists – Christian Chesnot of Radio France International and Georges Malbrunot of the daily Le Figaro. It is presumably also considering more direct action to free them. The French Foreign Minister has personally gone to Baghdad today. He is – I presume – talking to American and Iraqi authorities.

I should note that this hostage-taking has been roundly condemned, not only by Islamic authorities in France but by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, an organisation that has clearly taken a stand against banning the hijab, by the Secretary-General of the Arab League, by the Council of Arab Ambassadors in Paris and by Tariq Ramadan.

La rentrée – the beginning of the French school year – starts a little earlier in some parts of France than it does in the Metropole. It started two weeks ago in Réunion – an area with a disproportionately larger and better entrenched Muslim population than France. National Assembly deputies from Réunion demanded – but did not get – a special provision in the law recognising their unusual circumstances. And, how has the new code forbidding conspicuous religous symbols fared there? There were no serious incidents reported. Of course, school authorities in Réunion redefined the kind of headscarf most commonly worn in Réunion to be something other than “conspicuous.”

According to an article in Sunday’s Le Monde, school authorities in Réunion have had little difficulty getting students who wear a more concealing hijab to replace it with a kichali – little more than a bandana covering the hair which is worn by the bulk of Muslim women in Réunion and Mayotte. According to Huguette Bello, a National Assembly deputy from Réunion, “no one ever went so far as to think that a young girl wearing this sort of headscarf was displaying a conspicuous sign intended to prostylise.”

A number of Muslim associations have been trying to get scarves of the sort worn in Réunion specifically recognised in the Metropole as acceptable, but no official rule is forthcoming. The ministerial directives sent to schools only name the hijab, the kippa and “excessively large crosses” as examples of what is forbidden. According to Le Figaro, some schools have banned all head coverings, but the law grants individual schools authority in deciding whether a student wearing some particular item intends it as a sign of religious faith or not.

This highlights the profoundly silly nature of this ban. Local authorites are still called on to determine what precisely constitutes a “conspicuous sign.” The ministry requires school authorites to make determinations on the basis of intent. Wearing certain garments is only forbidden when the wearer actually means something by it, or at least when the school thinks they might mean something.

The certainty that the law will be inconsistently applied makes it an excuse to discriminate against particular religions and their practitioners. It empowers local school authorities to act in a manner contrary to the disinterested secularism which the state claims to be trying to protect. Just as authorities in Réunion are able to reinterpret this law to tolerate what is quite specifically a sign of Islamic identity, one has to suspect that authorities in the Metropole will find it easy to tolerate many sorts of signs of religous belief while castigating specifically Muslim girls, a few Jewish students wearing a kippa, and such Goths as France has, in obedience to the letter of the directives they’ve received. What does not bother the authorities will simply be considered non-ostensible.

School opens in France this week. In light of the events in Iraq, I imagine it will be even tenser than expected. We should soon enough see how the law is actually applied in practice.

7 thoughts on “Redefining “ostenibles” – the headscarf in Réunion

  1. We’ve talked about this before, I think. This sort of outcome, selecting against a restrictive hijab closely associated with misogynistic gender ideologies and making the hijab into a matter of fashion and hence one of voluntary choice, does seem to be a good way of undermining the issue. Not an ideal one, but still.

  2. Inasmuch as a modern Hijab is always associated with misogynistic prcatices, Randy, to use a grammatical construction you’re fond of.

    But the issue is over with, and there’s no changing it now. After the bigoted anti-Catholic Orangemen decisively won the Manitoba schools crisis of 1896, dooming the francophone minority to irrelevance and near extinction, Canada moved on to other battles. Since we’re all Canadians here, let us do the same.

  3. Inasmuch as a modern Hijab is always associated with misogynistic prcatices, Randy, to use a grammatical construction you?re fond of.

    Inasmuch as it’s frequently associated with a misogynistic ideology, yes, and inasmuch as the association appears to be particularly strong in the (metropolitan) French public school system, yes.

    You know, I think we’ve gone over this before, back on some GNXP comments thread or another.

    But the issue is over with, and there?s no changing it now. After the bigoted anti-Catholic Orangemen decisively won the Manitoba schools crisis of 1896, dooming the francophone minority to irrelevance and near extinction, Canada moved on to other battles.

    Perhaps, though there’s not a particularly close correlation. The practice of Islam isn’t being banned in the French public school system, and the question of the introduction of Arabic or Kabyle or Wolof into the French public school system hasn’t been raised even by the most forthright defenders of the hijab. Certainly, questions of French Canadian identity were never reducible to a belief that French Canadian women existed to serve as subordinate jewels for real human beings to admire.

  4. …women existed to serve as subordinate jewels for real human beings to admire

    I think the intended irony here is misplaced and illustrates a misunderstanding of the position of women in moslem societies. My understanding is that the purpose of islamic rules about womem’s attire etc. is an attempt to protect rather than subjugate. Not “jewels” as much as equal partners with job specialisation that doesn’t include security, breadwinning or leadership. Most moslem women, and many of their western counterparts, are quite happy with the concept (if not the implementation.) Once upon a time it even made sense.

    Perhaps the biggest irony is that most moslem men cannot handle the authority this provides them. However, as the silly French headscarf law illustrates, failure to use authority effectively is not just an islamic problem.

  5. Surely the issue shouldn’t over whether this particularly targets Muslims, but whether France actually has the right of the power to impose restrictions on people’s religious freedom? Europe has human rights laws to prevent just this sort of thing, and the French government must surely be in contravention of these?

  6. Actually, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in favour of Turkey’s ban, on the grounds of the maintenance of public order and on the protection of rights and freedoms of non-hijab wearers. The same reasons would port over to France, I suspect.

    It’s a pity that, for the rising generation of young French Muslim women, the hijab appears to have acquired much the same resonance as the yellow star with Jews, or the word “queer” with non-heterosexuals. Certainly symbols like those can be reclaimed–witness the modern usage of queer–but it takes time to rehabilitate them.

  7. Well, my take on this: I am in favour of even an inconsistently implemented ban (Randy’s arguments stick with me) until Muslims don’t demand that boys get permission to bear a keffiyah. Male hair can be unbearably attractive, too (I’m told by women).

    Incidentally, when I went to school for two years in Germany, I had a classmate from Tunisia. She was nice, but the contrary of an ‘easy girl’, shy and reclusive, but she was rather happy with not wearing a hijab, and with not having to walk behind the men in his family as she told was custom in the vilage she came from.

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