I’ve got another post to make you think today. In my education class this week we debated France’s ban on burqas. You may have heard some mention of it at home in the US because the topic is a hot one here. Recently France banned women from wearing a burqa, the Islamic full-face covering, in public. This policy is controversial itself, but in class we focused on the ban of religious symbols in schools.
Since 1789, France has been a secular state. (Fun fact- France and Turkey are the only secular states in Europe.) Secularism is called laïcité in French. In the 1880s, French schools were also made secular. This idea is incredibly important to French society. French politicians do not make nay public displays of religion, from making arguments based in religious philosophy, to wearing symbols like crosses, to mentioning God in speeches (like American politicians saying, “God bless America.”) A politician’s religious and personal beliefs are rarely taken into account by the public because personal affairs are exactly that- personal.
French culture also centers itself around liberté, égalité, fraternité– liberty, equality, brotherhood. These principles govern almost all aspects of French culture, and the government works to uphold these values and grant them to all citizens.
It is for these reasons that the display of religious symbols has always been banned in schools. For many years, the rule was not enforced mainly because there was no real need to. However, in the past few decades, the problem has grown, especially with the arrival of many Muslim immigrants. There were more and more incidences of girls at the lycée wearing headscarves in schools. Interestingly, there were few problems at the university level because most women simply chose not to wear headscarves. In 2004, Jacques Chirac decided to enforce the ban. Students are not allowed to wear any sort of religious symbol when they enter public schools. This means no cross necklaces, no headscarves, no yarmulkes, no turbans.
Seventy percent of French people support the ban. They say that there is a time and a place for religion and that it is in the private sphere and should be kept at home. Proponents argue that by removing religious symbols at school, distractions are removed and the population becomes more homogenous and equal. They argue that those who openly display their religion are more likely to be ostracized, so the ban encourages students to get to know one another outside of religious contexts and look past the veil to see the real person underneath. Once students accept one another as individuals, they will be more likely to accept religious differences outside of class. The idea is the ban will increase equality and brotherhood among students.
Many proponents including Sarkozy also argue that the ban liberates women who are forced by their husbands or fathers to wear the veil. The government passed a law to deny men French citizenship or impose fines upon them for forcing a woman to wear a veil. They argue that by preventing girls from wearing a headscarf at school, they are protecting their individual rights.
Although the ban applies to all religions, it has been criticized for singling out Muslims. Islam is the second largest religion in France behind Catholicism meaning the law disproportionately affects Muslims. It is also easy to conceal a small cross necklace by tucking it into one’s shirt, but it is impossible to hide a headscarf. Some Indian men also oppose the ban because their culture dictates that they wear turbans, not their religion.
Many accuse the French of being racist and against Muslim immigration. Opponents say the French want to encourage immigrants to assimilate to French culture or else force them to return home. Although the French have had some extreme views on immigration (look at their policy towards the Roma) I don’t think the French law was intended this way.
Some French argue that if women insist on wearing headscarves in schools, they can simply transfer to an Islamic school. However, only two or three Islamic schools exist in France, leaving these women with no other option other than accept the law or drop out of school.
The biggest argument against the ban is that freedom of religion should allow everyone to display their religion in any way they choose. Being openly exposed to other religions is argued to make people more tolerant and understanding. Opponents argue that religion is not something that be turned on and off; it’s a 24-hour commitment.
The question ultimately boils down to this: which is more important freedom of religion or the separation of church and state. The French have obviously chosen the separation of church and state.
When we took a class poll after our discussion, eight students voted against the ban, and two voted for it. Although I am not entirely convinced in my decision, I actually voted for it. I see both sides of the argument. I understand why people want to protect religious freedom. But I also admire the French dedication to separating church and state. I like that people’s personal lives are kept out of politics, so it makes sense that schools, extensions of the government, should also be devoid of religion. I remember when I discussed burqa bans with my German host father a few years ago, I was appalled that people would try to infringe on one’s right to practice their religion freely. It’s interesting to see how my views have evolved over time. I think that in my view, it’s important to remember why the law was created- in order to equalize, not to discriminate.
What are your reactions to this policy? Do you agree with the French system? Could this ever happen in the US? Feel free to share your thoughts- I would love to hear them!