The headscarf dilemma in France

Should Muslim girls be allowed to wear headscarves in state schools in France? Would that contradict the principles of secularism (laïcité) and respect for freedom of religion? Does this freedom require public spaces to be kept free of religious influence? Or would that constitute discrimination against the Muslim immigrant community? Or does the headscarf reflect subjugation of women by men? Few controversies have aroused as much passion—on both sides—and raised more penetrating challenges to accommodating cultural diversity in recent years.
The  controversy dates to 1989, when a secondary school expelled three young women who wore headscarves in class on the grounds that this violated French principles of secularism. This triggered massive public debate. The Council of State declared that the wearing of religious tokens is not in itself  incompatible with secularism as long as it did not have an  “ostentatious or militant” character. The Ministry of Education appointed a special mediator to deal with future such incidents.
The controversy quieted down until December 2002, when a girl  in a predominantly immigrant neighbourhood in Lyon appeared  in school wearing a headscarf. The headscarf had been reduced nearly to a headband, covering neither her  forehead nor her ears. The principal called in her parents and  demanded that the girl stop wearing a headscarf to school. The  parents protested that they had already accommodated French  norms by reducing the headscarf to a headband. The mediator  was called in but was unable to find an acceptable solution.  Some teachers threatened to go on strike if the student were  allowed to continue to wear the headscarf in school.
The affair quickly turned into a politicized debate. Members of  the National Assembly on both the left and the right proposed a  law explicitly prohibiting the wearing of headscarves in  schools  and other public spaces. Leftist intellectuals quickly took   positions for and against: either in defence of freedom of  expression and against discrimination against Muslims, or in defence of secularism and values of gender equality, since it was  thought that many girls were being intimidated into wearing the  headscarf.
In 2003 the Ministry of Education and the National Assembly  established a committee of enquiry. In July an Independent  Commission on the Application of Secularism in the Republic  proposed a ban on the wearing of any obvious religious symbols  in schools, including the headscarf. Ultimately, the legislation  was passed, but opinions were divided. Positions did not fall as might be expected along typical divides: left–right,  non-Muslim–Muslim, or women–men. Opinion polls taken just  prior to the vote showed Muslim women equally divided for and  against the new law.
The case highlights the dilemmas that countries face in trying to  accommodate the religious and other cultural differences of    immigrant communities. As in this case there are difficult  tradeoffs and complex arguments. Those who defend the ban  argue that it is a defence of freedom— freedom of religion and  freedom of women from subordination. But so do those who  argue against the ban—freedom against discrimination and unequal opportunities. Such trade-offs of principles are  particularly difficult in public education, which is intended to  impart the values of the state.
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