France, secularism and hijab paranoia | UpFront (Feature)

The debate over Muslim women wearing the veil has been reignited in France after a mother was verbally abused last month by a far-right politician during her son’s school trip to a regional assembly. The politician demanded the woman remove her headscarf or leave.

Wearing the veil – known as the hijab – is banned in French schools and government offices.

Politicians are now examining a proposed law that would ban parents from wearing religious symbols on school trips.

The legislation has little chance of passing, but it has put the issue of French secularism, embodied in the principle of “laicite”, firmly back in the spotlight.

Critics see a worrying trend where laicite could enter more areas of French society.

“We are witnessing a transformation of ‘laicite’ into a legal monster that it was not aimed to be when the law was implemented,” said human rights researcher Rim-Sarah Alouane, who focuses on religious freedom and civil liberties.

“We have religious freedom at stake, but also constant harassment and targeting of a part of our population,” she added.

Benjamin Haddad, a director at the Atlantic Council, says the law does target Muslims and agrees it should not be extended, but he says it should be acceptable to have a political debate about what some see as problems with integration.

“You have a lot of secular Muslim women who say that they feel pressured, they feel threatened … you also have religious leaders going to mayors asking to have separate hours in public swimming pools between men and women. You’ll have a lot of young girls who don’t want to sit in biology classes in school because they feel pressure from their parents or from their brothers,” Haddad said.

“That makes it very complicated for young women and other groups such as LGBTs to express themselves,” he added.

In this week’s Arena, we discuss secularism in France and its effect on religious freedom.

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