Socialist Worker

Headscarf ban unveils racism

Paul McGarr says we must oppose the French government's new law

Issue No. 1882

THE FRENCH government is proposing to ban Islamic headscarves in schools. It is a racist measure, whatever spin is put on it.

The official commission, which recommended the ban last week, spoke of defending 'secular' education against 'fundamentalist' religion. In an attempt to appear even-handed the commission called for the banning of all 'ostentatious' displays of 'religious or political' symbols.

But there can be no doubt at all that Muslims are the real target.

Many who should know better have fallen for arguments designed to justify this law. Much of France's Socialist Party, equivalent to the Labour Party here, back the law in the name of the supposed 'secular' values of France's education system. Some feminists see the plan as a welcome assault on women's oppression. And some on the French far left have, shamefully, fallen for similar arguments.

Secular education should mean no religion has any special status in schools, not that the individual pupils should be told what to wear.

For the French state to prattle about the principles of secular education is hypocrisy. Are such principles upheld by the private, but largely publicly funded, schools which exist across France, 95 percent of them Catholic? Or by the 1,500 or so Catholic chaplaincies within the walls of French state schools?

Christian religious education is compulsory in state schools in Alsace and Moselle, a large chunk of eastern France.

Only someone entirely blind to the record of the racism and imperialism of the French state could hide behind its claimed commitment to 'republican' values of 'liberty, equality and fraternity' to justify the proposed law.

Was the French republic upholding 'liberty' in the 1950s, when it waged a colonial war which cost the lives of one million Algerians? Was the officially decreed second class status of Algerian Muslims during the colonial occupation an example of 'equality'? And has the systematically racist treatment of the five million Muslims in France today been a shining example of 'fraternity'?

Both the current Tory government and its predecessor Socialist Party government have reinforced that racism.

Equally outrageous is the argument that banning the headscarf is striking a blow for women's liberation. You cannot liberate a 14 year old Muslim girl by telling her she will be excluded from school unless she dresses in a particular way.

Is it somehow 'liberating' to conform to sexist stereotypes and advertising imagery of TV but 'oppressive' to choose to wear a headscarf?

It is outrageous for the state or religious leaders to order any woman to wear a headscarf. But it is equally outrageous for them to order her not to wear one.

There is a serious fight to be had against women's oppression in France (as elsewhere) today. Women still get paid on average a quarter less than men. Women make up 85 percent of part time workers and do three quarters of the housework. They are also subject to continual sexist imagery in the press and on TV. The unequal burden on them is made worse by welfare cuts.

These are the real things oppressing women, not the wearing of the headscarf by some young Muslim women. Some people argue that young women are being pressured to wear the headscarves.

The evidence from the young Muslim women themselves shows a more contradictory picture. Many have chosen to wear the headscarf in an attempt to define their identity against a society which they rightly perceive as racist.

There certainly are reactionaries within the Muslim population who want women kept firmly in a second class role in society. You do not undermine such people by tearing the headscarves off young women and by threatening to ban them from school. You stand alongside these women when they fight back against racism and against all other aspects of an unjust society.

Only in the process of such united struggle can you successfully challenge those who seek to prevent women playing a full, equal role in those struggles and in society.

The reactionary nature of the proposed law is shown by the fact that its targets include displays of 'political' symbols in schools. That presumably would ban the wearing of a Che Guevara T-shirt, a sticker in support of striking workers or an anti-war badge.

Virtually no one in Britain today is prepared to argue for a ban on the scarf here. Even the Tory Daily Telegraph is critical of the French approach. But things were rather different in the not too distant past. Then there were attempts to pick on ethnic minorities by forbidding them to dress according to their religions.

Attempts were made in places like Leeds and Bristol to stop Sikhs working on the buses because of their turbans. Young Rastas could expect to be sent home from school because of their dreadlocks.

These forms of discrimination were only beaten back because of hard, anti-racist struggles.

There remain plenty of individuals and groups in Britain today with a kneejerk prejudice against Muslims that is little different from those driving the proposed law in France.

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Sat 20 Dec 2003, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1882
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