At the beginning of the 2004 school year, students in public schools in France who refused to remove their hijab, turbans or yarmulkes were to be expelled. The illegitimate law was added to the French Code of Education on the 15th of March 2004, as an extension to France’s existing constitutional concept of “laïcité”, the separation of state and religion.  Students had to be faced by the diatomic choice between the freedom to express a religious affiliation and education. Ever since 1905, France has stood secular, dealing with its affairs in a manner away from any religious influence, specifically the previously influential Catholic Church. The law to ban religious symbols in public schools was a new addition to its adopted secular stance towards any conflicting issue in the nation. The French government argues that there are many conditions it has considered before passing such a law, the main one being the further encouragement of religious freedom in public schools. Even after looking into the reasons behind imposing such a law and its consequences, it still remains to me an illegitimate act from the French government. France’s extension of secularism into public schools, framed in such a law, has encouraged the oppression of religion rather than its freedom, which in turn will further encourage religious intolerance within the nation.
In 1905, France passed a law to declare itself secular, dividing the affairs of the state from the church. Before the law was passed, the Catholic Church not only played a large role in the affairs of the people of France, but even influenced the decisions of the government. Historically, France has always been divided socially due to religion. The French revolution is an example of how social upheavals took place because of conflicting opinions about the influence of the Catholic church. Consequently, after the Revolution of 1789, the new republic sought to control the Catholic Church and began to structure the new secular government.  After 1905, religion was to be seen as a personal matter rather than a state matter. As a result, civil workers were expected to deviate from generating religious manifestations and conduct their duties in a neutral manner. Such neutrality was to be expanded into the walls of public schools, where teachers were expected to not provoke religious topics and point of views to the students. The announcement of a secular France was made in an attempt to blend social differences in schools specifically, thus allowing students to flourish and learn in an environment free from any tensions that could be generated due to religious topics.
Because violence in public schools had increased across the nation, the French national assembly and the presidential commission had agreed that imposing the concept of “laïcité” in such schools was the solution to cut down on such violence. To the French government, a solution to its fragmented nation was to further impose a secular attitude even on student’s personal choices in clothing. Patrick Weil, a member of the presidential commission put together to pass the law, argues the ban is necessary for it “ensures the protection of children from fundamentalist pressure yet does not enforce a break in religious ties.” In an article he publishes in opendemocracy.net, he frames the argument of the commission in a manner that legitimizes the law for the sole purpose of freeing Muslim girls from outside pressure to wear the hijab, either from other Muslim students at school or family members. He does, however, acknowledge the unfortunate that girls who wear the hijab out of personal choice will face. But there still remains an opportunity for such girls to express their religion during their education – in private schools rather than public schools. Weil argues that it is crucial to ensure the safety of the students by banning any religious symbols for “Principals and teachers have tried their best to bring back some order in an impossible situation where pressure, insults or violence sets pupils against one another,” but there will be “no question of forbidding religious display in universities or elsewhere in the adult world.” Therefore it is clear that the motive behind the law was to create a uniformity within the walls of public schools, and provide a space for students to be educated away from any religious pressure from family or friends.
Though the reasons mentioned by Weil support a need for action by officials to ensure the safety of the community, religious oppression proves to be the consequence rather than religious freedom. The motive behind the law of banning religious symbols from public schools cannot be questioned, for the general wellbeing of the community is the inspiration. But the law proves incompatible with the intention of the law. Weil states that the ban will not “enforce a break in religious ties,” a statement which I find hypocritical. The notion of a ban encourages attitudes to break away from such religious symbols, for their schools discourage them. Students who choose to wear such religious symbols out of personal choice will feel resentful and oppressed as they attend a school that does not allow them to express themselves fully, especially since they aren’t causing any harm through such expression. Those who are relieved from the pressure to wear such religious symbols because of family or friends will no doubt feel oppressed as well, for they will dwell with an identity confused in two worlds, one representing their schools and the other representing their culture and religion. Because France has established itself as a secular nation, it is vital to build curriculums that encourage religious tolerance, rather than pretend that such diversity does not exist. France has one of the largest populations of Muslims, Buddhists and Jews in Europe. Therefore, it is crucial that students be exposed to the different ways religions shape a person’s physical appearance. It is necessary to foster an atmosphere where students can become acquainted with different religions, for after school, religious affiliations will be seen in college or the workforce. The ban represents a superficial solution to the matter, for the reason behind the violence has not been solved, rather covered up. This law enforces uniformity, which does not allow students to be exposed to religions, which causes differences to be oppressed rather than embraced. Therefore it is obvious to me that the presidential commission failed to realize the implications of such a ban on its diverse nation, for religious oppression is what is being encouraged, rather than religious freedom.
In conclusion, the ban on religious symbols in public schools in France represents a superficial solution that encourages the oppression of religion, rather than its freedom. Instead of embracing diversity, the French government has infringed the freedom of expression by disallowing students to have the choice to announce their religious affiliation through their clothing. Since the majority of the student population attends public schools, the ban has robbed them from the chance to embrace religious differences and learn how to tolerate them. Instead of investigating the reason motivating students to engage in violent religious acts, the government further widens the gap between religious groups by enforcing them to give up their affiliations while at school. Though secularism has proven to be an effective approach for the French nation, the ban of religious symbols is incompatible with the tolerance such stance encourages. The ban of religious symbols in French schools fosters attitudes of religious oppression rather than religious freedom.
 “Religion in France.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 10 Dec 2009, 00:18 UTC. 10 Dec 2009 <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Religion_in_France&oldid=330763767>.
2 “French Revolution.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 8 Dec 2009, 11:16 UTC. 10 Dec 2009 <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=French_Revolution&oldid=330439042>.
3 “A nation in diversity: France, Muslims and the headscarf.” Opendemocracy. 24 March 2004. 1 Dec 2009 <http://www.opendemocracy.net/faith-europe_islam/article_1811.jsp>.
4 “A nation in diversity: France, Muslims and the headscarf.” Opendemocracy. 24 March 2004. 1 Dec 2009 <http://www.opendemocracy.net/faith-europe_islam/article_1811.jsp>.
* Hind Al-Khulaifi is a Junior in Carnegie Mellon University. She is majoring in Business Administration and minoring in English.
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