We will never take our turban off


RIGHTS-EUROPE: Headscarves Blindfold a Government or Two

Julio Godoy

PARIS, Jan 26 (IPS) - A proposed French law to ban the wearing of religious symbols in schools and public buildings is turning rapidly into an international joke.

It does not help France that some Germans want to repeat the French move..

The dispute began with headscarves but has not stopped there. In an attempt to explain that the French law does not target Muslims, French minister for education Luc Ferry told French parliament last week that Sikh turbans would have to be invisible under the law.

Ferry said also that the law would prohibit beards and bandanas if they can be interpreted as religious symbols.

"People can develop religious symbols starting from a certain hirsuteness," Ferry told parliament. And so beards and other hair- prominent styles must also be banned. Ferry has claims to a background in philosophy.

The proposed law will be debated in parliament next week, and a vote is due Feb. 4. Given the large government majority, the law is expected to go through.

All this follows a declaration by President Jacques Chirac last December that the government would pass a law to separate state from religion, a guiding principle of the French revolution of 1789.

The law aimed to ban the Muslim headscarf in schools after several girls insisted on wearing it in defiance of school regulations. But it sought to cover also the Jewish kippa and large crucifixes, to declare its secular character.

France is predominantly Catholic, but it is also home to some five million Muslims, about 600,000 Jews and several other religious minorities.

"I cannot believe that France has fallen into this debate only because of a piece of textile," leading commentator Maurice Druon wrote in the Le Figaro newspaper. "To transform this into a state debate, and even an international issue, is a record."

The proposed law sees the turban as the Sikh equivalent of the headscarf.. Tens of thousands of Sikhs in France plan to demonstrate against the government move Jan. 31.

"We will never take our turban off," Sikh spokesman Jasdev Singh Rai declared at a press conference.

"Some of our ancestors gave their lives for France in the first and second world wars," Rai told IPS later. "If a French authority would have asked them to take off the turban, our grandparents and parents would never have fought for France.."

About 25,000 people had demonstrated in Paris against the ban Jan. 17. Several thousands marched in other cities, though French Arabs are divided how far to confront the government.

Demonstrations against the proposed law have taken place also in several Arab countries, in Britain, the United States and even Indonesia.

Some French teachers say the law cannot be enforced. "France is making a fool of herself," says Jean-Yves Souben, principal of a public school in Saint Denis, 15 km north of Paris. "Are we going to ban t-shirts with pictures of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the Palestinian keffiehs, and force people to eat pork against their will? This is ridiculous." Senior ministers have said the law is staining France's image abroad. Minister for foreign affairs Dominique de Villepin is reported to have said in a confidential government debate last week that the proposed ban has placed France in an untenable situation, particularly in the Arab world.

The foreign ministry later denied that De Villepin had used these terms. But it said he had emphasised the "need to make a particular effort to reduce misinterpretations in a certain number of countries."

A similar debate has been launched in Germany by the right-wing opposition led by the Christian Democratic Union. Monika Hohlmeier, education minister in the southern state Bavaria says banning the headscarf for teachers would be "a signal for parents that the school defends with absolute conviction the constitutional values of
human dignity and gender equality."

Bishop Margot Kaessmann from Hanover called for a general ban on the Muslim headscarf in all public services. "The headscarf is often misused as a political symbol," Kaessmann argued. But he said that the carrying of a Christian crucifix, a Jewish star of David, or of the Islamic half moon cannot be forbidden. Commissioner for migration issues Marieluise Beck opposed the ban on constitutional grounds. "Those who call for a ban in the name of the German constitution obviously ignore the basic verdict given by the constitutional court," Beck said.

The German constitutional court asked federal states in October to pass a common law on the use of religious symbols in schools that would respect equality among all citizens regardless of their religion.

The debate has not touched Britain where many among about two million Muslims wear headscarves and no one looks twice. The British are watching the turmoil across the English Channel with some amusement. (END/2004)