France's hijab ban
CBC News Online | September 7, 2004
France's ban on religious symbols and apparel in public schools took effect Sept. 2, 2004. The ban includes all overtly religious dress and signs (including Muslim headscarves, Sikh turbans, Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses). However, the furor over the ban has focused mainly on the banning of Muslim headscarves or hijabs.
AP file photo
There are about five million Muslims in France five to 10 per cent of the population the largest Muslim population in Europe.
Some have boiled the debate over the law down to a battle of individual freedom of religious expression against unity and political neutrality.
Support for the ban
France has placed an emphasis on laïcité, or secularism, in modern society. As part of this desire to separate religion and government, religion is given no special status though it is respected and can be freely practised. This system was initially established to prevent religion from interfering in government affairs.
Today, the same concept is being applied in support of the ban on religious symbols in France's public schools.
Some also believe that this ban will help prevent the division of society into ethnic communities, and promote integration into French society.
"Secularism is one of the great successes of the Republic," said President Jacques Chirac in an address to the nation in December 2003. "It is a crucial element of social peace and national cohesion. We cannot let it weaken."
Arguments against the ban
In December 2003, shortly after the French government announced its intention to ban religious attire, about 3,000 demonstrators marched in the streets of Paris. A global protest followed in January 2004, with demonstrations occurring in cities across Europe and North America.
"We live in a country which is supposed to defend human rights, and to practise one's religion is a human right," said Betayeba Hayet, one of the French protesters.
Opponents of the ban say that it violates international laws on the rights to freedom of religion and expression, and that religious practices should only be limited when there is a public safety concern or the practices affect the rights of others.
In addition, some say that this law disproportionately affects those for whom the wearing of religious symbols is considered an obligation, not a choice, such as the wearing of the hijab for women of the Muslim faith. There is also concern that this could discourage school attendance by Muslim women.
Finally, there is also some debate over the fact that the law does not ban all religious symbols, only "obvious" religious symbols. However, whether the fact that this law is selective means that it is also discriminatory has not yet been decided.
Similar issues in Canada
In March 2004, the Quebec Court of Appeal ruled that a Sikh student, Gurbaj Singh Multani, could not wear his kirpan, a ceremonial dagger, to school, arguing that security concerns were more important.
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In September 2003, Quebec's Human Rights Commission agreed to investigate a private school's decision to expel a Muslim student for wearing the hijab, which apparently did not conform to the school's dress code.
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In 1990, after a suit launched by a new RCMP officer, Baltej Singh Dhillon, the federal government lifted the ban that prevented Sikh RCMP officers from wearing turbans.
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