The Debate on the Ban on Headscarves in French Schools. A Symbol for the Threatened Unity of the French Republic?

Essay, 2019

9 Pages, Grade: 1,3




Talal Asad's view of the French secularism

Jansen Yolande's view of the French secularism

Comparison ofboth approaches




For more than twenty years, the Muslim headscarfhas regularly raised public debates on the content and values of the French Republic, its relationship to cultural plurality in general and to the Maghreb population of the former colonies in particular. This is the main part of the Muslim minority in France. The headscarfhas become a symbol of the threat to secular values and thus to the Republic as such, and is seen as the omen of fundamentalist Islam, incompatible with the democratic-liberal values ofFrance.

From the beginning of 2003 to the beginning of 2004, the discussions about the headscarf in France flared up particularly strongly and provoked passionate internal social controversies that overtook all other national and international debates. Demands for a legal ban on the headscarfbecame more and more urgent: it was about laicism, preserving the unity of the French Republic, protecting the young Muslim woman from male oppression and thus upholding human rights, halting the advance of a political Islam that was dangerous for the Republic and putting a stop to the resulting "communitarian tendencies". The debates took on a scale that led the government, in the autumn of 2003, to entrust a commission of experts with the task of verifying compliance with the basic principles of secularism in the Republic and, in particular, in French schools. The so-called "Stasi Commission", led by immigration expert Bernard Stasi, drew up a bill after several months of investigation which reaffirmed the general demands to prohibit girls of school age from wearing headscarves in school lessons.

In March 2004, a law banning the wearing of ostentatious religious signs in schools and public institutions was passed.

But what actually led to the headscarf debate being able to occupy politics and the media to such an extent, and the Republic seeing itself questioned in its foundations or in the values that constitute them? Can some headscarves worn by minors in schools really threaten the unity of the Republic and the concept of secularism to such an extent that they have to be stopped by law, or are social problems that only remotely have something to do with the actual message of the headscarf worked off against the girls? Is it possible to speak of the headscarf at all, or does it not rather represent a range of meanings from the underlining of ethno-religious descent, traditional habitus to the emphasis on religious identity?

Is the headscarf really a sign of female oppression and thus an affront to genderjustice anchored in international human rights?

All these questions raised in the course of the social discourse about the headscarf are not necessarily connected, but have been continuously mixed up in the course of the debate. The result was a dense cluster of topics, which was only loosely held together by the scarf and the concept of the headscarf debate itself.

The aim of the present work is to unravel this tangle and to work out the individual themes from which the debate was nourished.

The basic assumption of my work is that the theme of the headscarf and the strands of association linked to this symbol, such as fundamentalist Islam, cultural archaism and female oppression, are instrumentalized for a number of socially relevant secondary discourses, such as the question of the identity of the French Republic in a society that is becoming increasingly pluralistic both religiously and culturally, and the handling of a steadily growing Islamic community in France.

The work is also intended to draw attention to the topic and, for example, to deal in more detail with the gender debate that is developing in subsequent work. This analysis is based on two commentaries, each of which irradiates the headscarf debate differently. In the following chapter Talal Asad comments on the behaviour of the state, because it cannot take the right out of it to determine what religious signs or individual orientation is. The next chapter deals more with assimilation and the problems that arise in this context. It will be discussed to what extent it seems impossible in our modern society to drop habitualized religious symbols. Finally, a comparison of these two approaches and a personal statement on this topic will follow.

One of the motifs of the investigation that runs through all chapters of this work is the question of whether and in what way the headscarf, "alienated" from the girls in the course of the debates, served various public discourses as a legitimate means of distracting attention from the experiences of racism and exclusion of the 2nd and 3rd generations, of working off problems within society, and of strengthening a common, French sense ofidentity.

Talal Asad's view of the French secularism

In his work Talal Asad deals with the power of the French state. As already mentioned in the introduction, the Stasi report discussed the wearing ofheadscarves in schools and identified it as an oppression of young women. According to the theory of secularism, religion and politics should be separated. Secularism is reinterpreted by the French state and called Laïcité. In her commentary, Asad has to expose the fact that through this ideology the state evaluates and restricts religions with the law introduced in 2004.

"The headscarf worn by Muslim schoolgirls has become the symbol of many aspects of social and religious life among Muslim immigrants and their offspring to which secularists object" (Asad 2005: 94). The state assumes that the conspicuous religious symbols endanger the morals and social norms ofFrench society. According to Asad, the actual task of the state is to ensure the well-being of the citizens and their security. With its current behaviour, the state segregates between religions and the moral view of politics. This leads to disputes between French politics and its citizens. Multiculturalism puts the state in a complicated position, while France, with its restrictions, tries to guide its citizens towards integration. Thus, Asad demands that the state should first sensitize itself to the religions, so that one gets a better understanding of each religion, in order to construct from it a regulation fair for all parties. Thus, for the first time a definition of religions would be necessary in order to formulate an acceptable standard for all. Thus in 2004 a bill was passed prohibiting the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols in school institutions. In which the state took the power to determine that headscarves are worn voluntarily according to their understanding, which, however, is not the case in the strictly Muslim faith. The French state thus did not understand the asymmetry of the meaning of the headscarf. On the other hand, Asad describes the restriction of freedom of opinion and religion. Asad sees the problem not only in secularism itself, but also in the lack of neutrality towards religions. But why did the French state decide to secularize at all? The reason lies in the history ofFrance and the newly emerging insecurity of politics. Thus, secularism was apparently only expanded in France, since a mistrust towards Muslims developed and no other solution was found.

In conclusion, Asad sees this law as a violation of freedom of expression, and politicians have devised a superficial solution to a cultural problem. However, the Christian religion has always been a component ofFrench politics, so it would be utopian now to separate these two powers completely from the point of view that one is insufficiently informed about the newly appearing religions in the country.

In the next chapter the perspective ofYolande will be dealt with.


Excerpt out of 9 pages


The Debate on the Ban on Headscarves in French Schools. A Symbol for the Threatened Unity of the French Republic?
University Institute of Lisbon
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ISBN (Book)
debate, headscarves, french, schools, symbol, threatened, unity, republic
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Iryna Lysenko (Author), 2019, The Debate on the Ban on Headscarves in French Schools. A Symbol for the Threatened Unity of the French Republic?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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