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The MWL and MPAC Strongly Oppose French Ban on Religious Expression

December 18, 2003

The Muslim Women's League and the Muslim Public Affairs Council strongly oppose the decision of the French government to ban Islamic headscarves from public schools as a major affront to freedom of religion and expression. The government also banned Jewish yarmulkes and large crosses as worn by some Christians. This law moves France away from the freedom loving democracies of the world towards a state-imposed religion, i.e. secularism, that resembles the remnants of Communism as seen in countries like Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

In Islam, the headscarf, known as hijab, is not a religious symbol analogous to a yarmulke or cross. Rather, for many Muslim women, it completes an overall commitment to modest dress as mandated, according to some,  by the religious texts. The vast majority of Muslim women who cover their hair do so out of a strong personal conviction and not to make a political statement.  As such, governments should not be in the business of either forcing women to cover or uncover their hair.  Nor should they view the headscarf worn voluntarily as a threat to political or other institutions.

Such laws only have the effect of intensifying the attention placed on women's dress in Islam, instead of promoting debate on issues that have a much greater impact on the lives of women such as literacy, economic development and violence, all of which are serious matters in the daily lives of Muslim women. A similar ban in Turkey prevents women who wear hijab from sitting for their final exams in professional school, taking jobs as civil servants and serving even as elected representatives in the government. Is France headed in the same direction, to institutionalize widespread discrimination against Muslim women who wear this article of clothing?

Girls who wish to cover their hair and who are not allowed to do so in school are at risk for not going to school at all. Many of the Muslim immigrants in France are of lower socioeconomic status and do not have the opportunities for private education as an alternative. Even if they did, the flight of Muslims to their own schools can't possibly be seen as beneficial to the goal of integration and assimilation that the French authorities claim to be seeking.

Anti-immigrant sentiment targeting Muslims throughout Europe is plain and simple racism. Much attention has been paid of late to increasing acts of anti-Semitism targeting the Jewish community in Europe. We ask that the US Commission on International Religious Freedom and the US Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe which have held conferences on anti-Semitism in Europe, expand their work to that of other faith communities and fully address the denial of religious freedom to Muslims in Europe.

We call upon the leaders of Europe, starting with France, to lead their people away from hatred and prejudice and towards tolerance and understanding that would benefit all faith communities, including those who choose not to belong to any religion at all. Banning scarves, yarmulkes and crosses may be satisfying on a superficial level, but it will not address the challenges faced by France's inability to deal with the realities of its changing society.

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