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.