Muslims Say French Misunderstand Headscarf Issue

On the eve of a parliamentary vote expected to outlaw religious emblems in state schools, Muslim leaders say France does not see that girls who wear headscarves may be trying to escape family traditions, not reinforce them.

Politicians championing the ban, on which the National Assembly is due to vote Tuesday, portray schoolgirls who cover their hair as the thin edge of an Islamist wedge being driven into the heart of France's secular state.

They say these girls are manipulated by Islamic militants, parents or brothers and that banning the veil means breaking chains of bondage to enjoy France's equality and freedom.

"You can forget that," Dounia Bouzar, an anthropologist and member of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, told Reuters. "You don't have to be a theologian to see this has nothing to do with religion."

Bouzar, who has worked with young Muslims in poor suburbs around Paris, says these schoolgirls are integrating quickly into French society but need Islam to help make the transition.

Religious leaders agree that teenagers born and educated in France are growing up quite differently from the way their mothers or grandmothers did in the villages of North Africa.

"They're liberated -- look, they choose their own husbands. They want to establish a new Islamic identity," said Khalil Merroun, rector of the large Evry mosque south of Paris.

"The last thing a lot of these girls want is for a man to tell them what to do," said Lhaj Thami Breze, president of the Union of French Islamic Organizations (UOIF).

The ban, which would also outlaw the Jewish skullcap and large Christian crosses in state schools, will go into effect in September. Muslim leaders say they may have to open private schools to educate girls expelled from the public system.


The headscarf issue clashes with prevailing political and social views in France. The schoolgirls act like other modern French women when they claim a right to choose for themselves.

But their choice -- modesty out of religious conviction -- is a challenge to a society that flaunts sex and nudity openly but declares that faith must be kept a private matter.

Bouzar, who does not believe Islam insists women cover their hair, said French officials do not understand what is going on in the heads under the scarves, where a complex process of integration is taking place.

Born and educated in France, such girls are often caught in a conflict with immigrant parents who favor village traditions such as arranged marriages, or education for boys only.

Bouzar said one way for such girls to resist this was by turning to religion and telling their parents such traditions have nothing to do with religion.

"Religion has replaced ethnic origin as a way to stay loyal to their families," said Bouzar, born in France to a family with North African and Corsican roots. "The link to mama and papa is no longer by being Moroccan or Algerian, but by being Muslim.

"That gives them more flexibility to refuse some traditions. They can say: 'Mama, nowhere in Scripture does it say I have to marry my cousin or someone from my ethnic background. I can marry a Greenlander. You were fooled, Mama'."

Bouzar said French officials had consulted experts on North Africa and Iran to find out more about headscarves.

"That's downright anthropological and historical nonsense," she said. "Going to French schools has influenced these youths. You can't say they're like someone born in Iran."