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.