Headscarves Become a Life or Death Issue

PARIS – The French ban on Muslim headscarves at school was to have been a domestic, if controversial move when it came into force this week. But the abduction of two journalists over the issue has turned it into an international crisis.

The so-called Islamic Army in Iraq kidnapped two French journalists Aug. 20 and demanded withdrawal of the ban on headscarves as ransom for the reporters.

The French government, the opposition, and Muslim leaders in France have come together to condemn the abduction and the demands.

President Jacques Chirac has said his government is doing "everything needed to obtain the freedom of the journalists." He said in a televised message, "France is the cradle of human rights, it is a land of tolerance, and it guarantees the freedom of religious practices."

These values "have inspired the French foreign policy in Iraq," he said in a reminder to the kidnappers that France opposed the U.S.-led invasion, and that it has not sent troops to the country.

The two French journalists, Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot, disappeared on way from Baghdad to Najaf, then the center of violent conflict between the U.S. occupation forces and the Mahdi army of Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

The Islamic Army confirmed a week later that it was holding the two journalists. It gave the French government an initial 48-hour ultimatum to "annul the law on the headscarf." It called the ban "an injustice and an aggression against Islam and against personal freedom."

As schools opened this week, the French government announced that the ban will go into force without changes, despite the demands of the abductors.

Nine foreign journalists have been kidnapped in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in March last year. Italian reporter Enzo Baldoni was executed Aug. 26 by the same group that kidnapped Chesnot and Malbrunot. The abductors had demanded the pullout of Italian troops from Iraq.

French reporter Frédéric Nerac, who covered the invasion for the British ITN news channel, has been missing since March 22 last year.

The French government passed the law in March banning the wearing of "ostensible religious symbols in schools" in order to protect their secular character. But Muslim leaders in France and around the world have seen the ban as intended mostly to prevent Muslim girls wearing headscarves and to encourage them to rebel against religious traditions.

The ban provoked anti-French demonstrations in most Muslim countries and also in the United States and Britain.

Mayor of London Ken Livingstone called the ban "the most reactionary law ever passed by a European parliament since the end of the Second World War."

Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a renowned Egyptian scholar in Qatar, said the ban was "a cause of suffering and pain for all Muslims." He warned the French government "not to provoke the hatred and the enmity of Muslims."

Dalil Boubakeur, president of the French Council of Muslim Faith, a leading Muslim organization in France, called the abduction of the journalists "odious blackmail." He urged the kidnappers "in the name of Islam to respect the lives of our compatriots."

Lhaj Thami Breze, leader of the Union of French Islamic Organizations, who had vehemently opposed the ban on headscarves, said the kidnapping of the two journalists is "unacceptable," and insisted that France is "a friend of the Arab world."

Breze told IPS that "the kidnappers are enemies of Islam. Their behavior is absolutely irresponsible, and is damaging the Muslim community in France."

But he added that "this kidnapping should not lead French Muslims to renounce our rights. We hope that the school directors will make concessions, and will accept that girls wear an inconspicuous scarf."

His group has encouraged girls to attend school "wearing whatever they like" and if necessary provoke conflict with school authorities. Muslim institutions have set up advice centers in major French cities to help girls interpret the ban and to find ways of bypassing it.

"If the head of my school wants me to take off the headscarf, I would rather go back home," Samia, a 17-year old visiting one such advice center, told IPS last week.

This is just what many French teachers and education experts who opposed the ban fear.

"Instead of excluding immigrant youth from school using silly arguments such as the French secular tradition, we should see that they, especially girls, get a good education," social scientist Antoine Boulangé said. "That is the surest way to guarantee that they will grow free."