‘Veiled Debates’

Paola Mattei

8th September 2017: This week as children went back to school, reports of 5 year old girls wearing a hijab – the headscarf often worn by Muslim girls for reasons of modesty after puberty – follow earlier controversy about headscarves in a Burnley secondary school, claimed by some as not ‘modest enough’. In France, by contrast headscarves have been banned by law at school along with other religious symbols since 2004. Here Paola Mattei* considers the French approach:In France the 2004 ban of the veil in schools was intended to serve as a defence of laïcité as a republican value, from the perceived threat of religious extremism and radicalization of schoolchildren.

In France the 2004 ban of the veil in schools was intended to serve as a defence of laïcité as a republican value, from the perceived threat of religious extremism and radicalization of schoolchildren.

The opponents of the 2004 ban claim that it is an infringement on individual freedom of expression. The restriction by law on the display of ostentatious religious signs is viewed as a limitation to individual freedom. Schoolgirls who choose deliberately to wear the hijab in schools are restricted in their ability to do so in public, and in turn they are said to feel discriminated against. The alleged discrimination against women who wear the hijab raises the question of whether the ban is a means of discrimination against Muslim minorities in France. The claim is that girls are prevented from expressing adherence to their cultural values and undermined in expressing freely their religious practices. I disagree with the assumption that treating citizens identically automatically means treating them inequitably. In the case of the 2004 ban, the intention was to ensure that all schoolchildren received equal treatment under the law, even if the implementation focused more on Muslim girls wearing headscarves.

However, the advocates of the ban argue that laïcité actually protects individual freedom of religion because the public sphere in schools ought to be neutral and remains secular. The neutrality of the public space is one of the key tenets of the value of laïcité in France, entrusted in the 1905 Law. Far from being discriminatory against specific groups and embodying a preference for non-religion, this law determines that the state acts as a guarantee of the individual freedom of conscience (Liberté de conscience). The state must protect all public places from religious pressures. The 1905 Law guarantees all citizens the freedom of religion. It is therefore the opposite principle to the denial of individual expression. Schools are protected from dogmatic beliefs such religious and political extremism, a remnant of the historical battles with strong religious institutions like the Catholic Church. Far from being the suppression of individual liberties, French laïcité as a legal principle does not violate freedom of religion, but it can protect all schoolchildren from external pressures and constraints, by creating a neutral public space in the classroom. This idea is also sanctioned by laïcité’s strongest guarantor the 1958 Constitution of the Fifth Republic, which declares that “France respects all beliefs, la France respecte toutes les croyances”.

Education empowers individuals to know their rights as citizens and to exercise their duties. The primary goal of the French education system is thus to educate each individual to acquire their freedom and dignity. Religious dogmatism and culturally differentiated rights is thus condemned and has remained outside the framework of the French public education system.

*Paola Mattei is an Associate Professor in Comparative Social Policy and Fellow of the European Studies Centre at St Antony’s College, Oxford. Her  recent publications include  Secular Institutions, Islam and Education Policy (2016). She is a co-author of Politeia’s forthcoming  study with New Direction, The State, National Identity and Schools, on the same subject .