Hijab, Religion Sparks Higher Ed Debate in France

The hijab debate has seen a renewed level of controversy in France, as a female student was ordered to remove it during a class at La Sorbonne University.

“Are you planning on keeping your thing on throughout all my classes?” the geography lecturer asked the student, French daily Le Monde reported. The names of the lecturer and the student were not made public.

“I’m here to help you integrate into professional life, and that [headscarf] is going to cause you problems,” the lecturer added.

Upon refusal to remove it, the student was ordered to “go to another class.”

A 2004 law prohibits the wearing of any sort of religious symbol in an open display in all French schools.  However, the law does not apply to universities.

In 2010, another law was introduced banning the wearing of the full Muslim face veil, the niqab or burqa, in public places.  The law did not ban the hijab, but Muslim women still find it difficult to find work outside the home that allows them to wear their headscarves, causing many of them to leave their jobs, some as business executives, to work for themselves at home.  Some have started websites selling clothing, wall decals, and other items.

Several Muslim women joined together in 2011 to form Akhawate Business, a network that provides support for e-trading.  The business now has over 100 members.

According to the French government, the ban, approved by the Constitutional Council, was meant to protect the secular culture and the separation of church and state that is strictly observed in the country.  A ban on the headscarves was recently suggested in order to alleviate any tensions present.

Professor of the ancient history of Christianity Jean-Marie Salamito described the incident as a “very rare” occurrence.

He added: “French university professors are generally very open-minded and tolerant, and France is the country of freedoms. Calling the Islamic headscarf a thing can be considered a sign of disrespect to the student and to Islam.”

Salamito added that “the attitude and comments of one professor doesn’t reflect how French professors treat veiled students,” nor does it reveal a rise in Islamophobia in France’s education system.

University president Philippe Boutry apologized to the student last week in a letter in order to avoid any sort of controversy aimed at the school, claiming the professor had simply misunderstood the 2004 law.

The student, insisting that the professor fully understood the law, is asking that the lecturer be punished to avoid any future incidents.

As similar incidents have occurred in the past in France, professors are now discussing the issue in terms of integration into French society.  They consider the wearing of burqas to be a problem, as “a professor isn’t able to see the face of the person they’re talking to.  It’s a matter of normal communication,” said Salamito.

Muslim student Leila al-Hakim told reporters she was in shock over the incident and is asking university staff to respect all students, “no matter their origin or religion.”  She added that such treatment highlights the divide between Muslims and other students.  She has never been subjected to treatment of this nature at the university herself.

France is home to one of the largest Muslim populations in Western Europe.  Of the 5 million Muslims living there, somewhere between 400 and 2,000 are women who wear face veils.