by Tehreem Sultan
As a free and independent state, France apparently observes ‘secularism and religious freedom’ however the recent step taken by France suggests otherwise. This month, France’s Senate approved an amendment that would extend a controversial 2004 law banning people from wearing religious symbols, including the islamic veil known as the niqaab/burqa, while also banning the Jewish Kippah and large Christian crosses. These restrictions are based on adults accompanying their children on school trips, and thus the law currently prohibits such symbols from being work in ‘all’ public institutions including schools, libraries and government buildings.
“French government’s actions towards a ban on religious symbol can be traced back to the “Scarf Affair” of 1989″
Living in this era amidst human rights activists and the freedom of being able to manifest one’s religious beliefs without any question, France’s latest move had stirred up great controversy amongst people of all religions. As the news has struck, France was already previously known as the very first European country to impose a full ban on face-veils in public areas, and was followed by Denmark, Netherlands, and Austria in 2017. A background to these measures is the very first instance where the French government’s actions towards a ban on religious symbol can be traced back to the “Scarf Affair” of 1989. Under this law hijabs/scarves were no longer allowed to be worn in French Public schools. Contempt for this bill led to the adaption of a nation-wide and religiously consistent plan. After which the next step was The Law of Secularity and Conspicuous Religious Symbols in Schools was passed in September of 2004.
“The law seemed to unevenly target the Muslim population”
With mixed reactions from people around Europe, critics say the decision is the latest example of France’s renowned secularism having gone too far. Eric Roux, the President of the European Inter-religious Forum for Religious Freedom and a well-known activist spoke New Europe about the French government’s recent decision and the fresh wave of protests that the move has sparked. With mothers claiming pupils were too disturbed and traumatized when a far-right politician told her to take off her headscarf in a regional parliament in eastern France, followed by a French nun forced to turn down a place in state retirement home due to her religious symbol and habits. These incidents have reignited an on-going row over French secularism and whether politicians can decide how people can be limited from manifesting their religious beliefs.
With increasing pressure and an outbreak of fierce rows, it is unfortunate for the 5,720,000 Muslims residing in France, being unable to manifest their religion. Despite this recent law targeting various religions, the law seemed to unevenly target the Muslim population as felt by the residents. As a free, indivisible, secular and democratic state, every nation shall respect the rights and freedoms of its residents, regardless of their origin, race or religion. These various steps taken by nations including France have clearly increased the religious discrimination amongst people, not forgetting how Muslim women observing the veil were called out as ‘letterboxes’, which indicates the fluctuation of Islamophobia, hatred acts after the enactment of these laws. Such actions make one question clear: is French Secularism really in crisis or are these laws just for the protection of society?