French veil ban prompts Muslims to open separate schools

Paris, France - The trend of Muslim schools look strong enough for French media to talk about ‘a new activism’ among Muslims, who now make up 8 percent of the population in France

FRANCE’S ban on religious symbols in state schools, a move meant to check a feared spread of Islamist radicalism, is prompting some Muslims to pull out of the system and launch their own schools and tutoring services.

Representatives of new projects around the country turned up at France’s largest Muslim convention at the weekend, canvassing for money and support to educate girls who have dropped out or been expelled from school for insisting on wearing headscarves.

The projects are informal and probably number more than the dozen that ran stands at the annual fair of the Union of French Islamic Organisations (UOIF). Some are in the planning stage while most of those operating help only a handful of pupils.

But the trend looks strong enough for French media to talk about “a new activism” among Muslims, who now make up 8 percent of the population in France.

“The demand is increasing and it’s clearly linked to the headscarf law,” said a man collecting money for a planned high school in the southern city of Marseille. He declined to be identified, saying his project did not want too much publicity.

“We are not a real school, but we may become one if this law continues to exclude girls from state schools,” said Romina Fauser, who runs a study centre in a northern Paris suburb for 16 girls following correspondence courses to finish high school.

France allows private religious schools and subsidises them partly if they meet state standards. The Roman Catholic Church runs a large network and Jewish schools are growing in response to anti-Semitism pupils say exists in some state schools.

The Education Ministry has declared the headscarf ban a success, saying it ended 15 years of tension between girls insisting on a right to wear a headscarf and school officials unsure of whether they could discipline them for doing so.

Hanifa Cherifi, the ministry’s inspector general, said only 48 pupils had been expelled from schools for wearing headscarves while almost 600 more had agreed to uncover their hair.

Hungry for knowledge: Activists at the UOIF fair took a more negative view. The March 15 Freedom Committee, which runs a telephone hotline to advise schoolgirls, counted at least 806 “victims of the law” including drop-outs and girls pressured to uncover their hair.

“There are girls who took off their headscarves but now want to put them back on. There are girls who simply dropped out of school whose numbers we don’t know,” said National Secretary Fatima Ayach at the Paris-based committee’s stand.

Fauser’s group, whose SMS-style name “Gfaim2savoir” means “I’m hungry to know,” mobilised 20 volunteer teachers last autumn to help 16 girls prepare for their baccalaureat tests.

“It’s very hard to do that alone,” she said. “We give them a structure to study. We keep regular school hours and we have occasional field trips. They shouldn’t feel they’re victims.”

Fauser said her group depended on donations to raise the annual cost of 3,750 euros per pupil per year.

In the northern city of Lille, Lycee Averroes - the only approved Muslim high school in France - saw enrolment grow from 15 when it opened in 2003 to 45 this academic year, said deputy principal Makhlouf Mameche. “We needed a school that integrates Muslim culture, teaches Arabic and respects Ramadan and other holy days,” he said, adding the new law had probably boosted enrolment. ALIF, a study centre launched last year in the south-western city of Toulouse, ran a stand to collect funds. “By the grace of Allah, it has acquired more spacious premises but they need refurbishing estimated at 490,000 euros,” its appeal said.