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France Turns to Tough Policy on Students' Religious Garb - NY Times, USA

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  • Zafar Khan
    France Turns to Tough Policy on Students Religious Garb By ELAINE SCIOLINO Published: October 22, 2004
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 23, 2004
      France Turns to Tough Policy on Students' Religious
      Published: October 22, 2004


      PARIS, Oct. 21 - To enforce its new law banning
      religious symbols from public schools, the Ministry of
      National Education has decided to get tough.

      This week it held formal disciplinary hearings and
      began expelling students who violated the law. The
      goal was to get rid of those defined as hopeless cases
      before the 10-day All Saints school vacation that ends
      with a national holiday honoring all of Catholicism's

      The French government sees no contradiction or irony

      Nine female Muslim students who have refused to remove
      their Islamic head coverings have been thrown out of
      schools across France. After the All Saints break,
      dozens of cases that are pending will be reviewed.

      "The phase of dialogue and consultation is over," said
      an official at the ministry, who refused to allow her
      name to be used. "It was an unbearable situation for
      the teachers and the pupils. It was a crazy situation.
      The law has to be respected at some point."

      Since school started a month ago, students who have
      refused to remove what school administrators define as
      conspicuous religious symbols have been quarantined in
      study halls or libraries and not allowed to attend

      The banned symbols include anything that can be
      construed as an Islamic veil (head scarf, bandanna,
      beret), a Jewish skullcap, a large Christian cross and
      a Sikh turban.

      Officially the law is aimed at enforcing France's
      republican ideal of secularism. Unofficially it is
      aimed at stopping female Muslim public school students
      from swathing themselves in scarves or even long

      There have been odd, unintended consequences.

      Despite the 1905 law separating church and state in
      France, public schools have been allowed to keep
      chaplains, most of them Catechism-teaching and
      Catholic, on their staffs as long as they were not
      paid by the state. In 1960 a law set up a formal
      process to create new chaplain posts and allowed
      existing ones to continue.

      But this fall some teachers at the Dumont d'Urville
      high school in the southern city of Toulon objected to
      what they said was a double standard: Muslim girls had
      to doff their scarves, but the Rev. Antoine Galand,
      the school's Catholic chaplain, could wear his
      priestly garb.

      So Father Galand was barred from the school and may
      return only if he removes his collar and cassock and
      dons a business suit.

      "We regret this interpretation of secularism, because
      it's not what the law says," said the Rev. Charles
      Mallard, the priest responsible for youth instruction
      in the Catholic Diocese of Toulon. "But it's not worth
      fighting over an article of clothing, knowing that in
      Catholicism, 'the cowl doesn't make the monk.' "

      He added that even in secular France it was considered
      "normal" to have Catholic chaplains in public schools.

      Cennet Doganay, a 15-year-old Muslim of Turkish origin
      from Strasbourg, showed up on the first day of school
      in a large beret. The school administrator told her
      that the beret was a religious symbol, refused to
      admit her to class and advised her to take a
      correspondence course from home, Ms. Doganay said.

      She refused. She asked her parents to help her shave
      off her hair, returned to school in the beret and when
      she was required to remove it, she revealed her bald
      head in protest. Since there is nothing particularly
      religious about baldness, she is going to school

      "They drove me crazy and tried to brainwash me so much
      that I got fed up and I did it - I shaved my hair
      off," she said. "Now I feel alone; I feel like a
      monster. It's like being naked on the street."

      France's Sikh community, meanwhile, challenged the new
      law in court after the Louise-Michel school in the
      Parisian suburb of Bobigny barred three male Sikh
      students from classes because they were wearing

      The three boys were at first put into a separate room
      where they could not attend class and then banished
      from school without having the chance to defend their
      case at a formal school hearing, Antoine Beauquier,
      one of the boys' lawyers, said.

      "For the moment we are in this no man's land of no
      law," Mr. Beauquier said. "These three kids, who are
      good students with no problems, have had no access to
      classes. The effects are terrible."

      Confusing matters, he added, some Sikh boys in other
      schools have been allowed to attend school wearing a
      hairnet or a small piece of fabric on their heads.

      In a letter to President Jacques Chirac nearly a year
      ago, the Sikh community argued that the turban should
      be allowed because it is a cultural, not a religious,

      Under the new law, expelled students have the right to
      appeal to their local school boards. If they are under
      16, the legal age for quitting school, they have a
      stark choice: they must be schooled at home or by
      correspondence or find a private school. France has
      only one Muslim high school.

      In an interview with France Inter radio on Tuesday,
      Education Minister François Fillon said he was pleased
      with the way things were going. He said that at the
      start of the school year there were 600 cases of
      students refusing to remove their religious symbols -
      most of them Muslim girls in scarves - but that most
      had agreed to do so after a "dialogue."

      A number of opponents of the law criticize the
      "dialogue" process as nothing more than pressure to
      break the will of students. "It's a machine that
      destroys the individual in the name of a
      fundamentalist secularism," said Dr. Thomas Milcent, a
      Strasbourg physician and convert to Islam who heads a
      Muslim lobbying group. "Some girls have been treated
      with cruelty, kept in isolation for days. This is

      Hélène Fouquet and Ariane Bernard contributed
      reporting for this article.

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