Religious symbols in the schools
August 23, 2004
Last year, I was an English teaching assistant in two French junior high schools in southern France. The experience was rewarding, frustrating and very interesting on many levels – one of which was a raging controversy over a new French law.
This year, French students will be heading back to class with a new and highly controversial dress code in place. The new code is not about shorts and baseball caps (which French kids don’t tend to wear as much anyway), but about religious symbols.
In early 2004, the French parliament passed a law outlawing all “obvious” religious symbols in public schools. This means no yarmulkes, crosses or head scarves.
France’s substantial Muslim population was outraged, many of them feeling as though they were directly targeted by the code. After all, France’s Jewish population is small, and Christians can easily wear a cross underneath their shirt to avoid being “obvious.” Traditional Muslim women, on the other hand, are required to wear a head scarf or veil over their hair in public. For traditional Islamic families, sending their daughters to school sans head scarf poses a major problem.
But the French government, which is strongly secular, maintains that it is only enforcing a strict separation between church and state, and that the new dress code will help ward off racial and ethnic tension in schools.
The subject is an emotional one; most people I talked to about it felt very strongly either one way or the other. I myself am oddly unable to make up my mind on the issue.
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As an American, I value diversity and believe in the very American value of individualism – people should be allowed to be who they are. Coming from a country based on immigration (“le melting-pot,” as the French say), I don’t quite agree with the French mentality of “you come to our country, you adopt our ways.”
But, as a believer in women’s rights, I can’t say I hold with the head scarf. I admit that I like the idea of young Muslim women getting the chance to feel the equality of having their heads uncovered in a public place. And perhaps, as some French teachers believe, it will engender more tolerance amongst young male Muslims.
I also believe strongly in the separation of church and state. I can understand the message the French government is trying to convey: leave all religion at home; the school is a public, secular place.
Ironically, I always thought the U.S. was a champion of secular government until Europeans pointed out to me that our presidents are always very religious, Americans swear oaths on the Bible in court, and we have things like “in God we Trust” on our currency.
For their part, the French government is free of all religious references, and French politicians scrupulously avoid any allusions to faith in their public life and speeches.
But sometimes I think the French are a bit overzealous in their secularism. Eliminating religious symbols in schools obviously won’t eliminate the religion of the wearer. Students’ faith will no longer be openly displayed by symbols, but must be revealed through conversation and actions. In some respects, the new dress code seems almost a weak effort to hide religious faith and avoid its being out in the open.
Racism against Muslims, and to a lesser extent Jews, is a serious problem in France. I have witnessed some of it firsthand. But based on what I saw in my schools, I have faith in the younger generations. I saw a lot of French-Arab pride, but few conflicts.
Once, before one of my classes, a French-Muslim boy made a provocative comment about how girls should speak less and not be in the same class with boys.
Before I could say anything, a couple of girls calmly replied that it may be like that in his country, but he was in France now, and men and women were equal in France. The boy actually agreed with their point, and the subject was dropped.
I realize that not all religious and cultural conflicts in schools end this way, and that there’s still a lot of progress to be made. I just wonder if this new rule banning religious symbols in schools is going to help.
As the French say, on verra bien (we’ll see). While I don’t agree with the restriction on students’ individualism, I hope the new law will afford new freedom to young French-Muslim women.
Amanda Walker, Carson High class of ’99, graduated from Boston University with a dual degree in English and French language and literature.