Controversy over the Headscarf (2004)

The French Ban

In December 2003, French President Jacques Chirac announced that Muslim headscarves, Jewish skullcaps, and large crosses were to be banned in French public schools, arguing that he intended to uphold the principle of secularism, which is the “pillar of the French Constitution.” Though the decree was directed towards Muslim, Jewish, and Christian religious articles, critics argued that it specifically targeted France’s growing Muslim immigrant community. Chirac’s announcement set off an international controversy regarding the separation of church and state and the individual right to freedom of expression, prompting responses not only from throughout Europe but in the United States and the Middle East. In March, when the French parliament approved the ban with 276 votes in favor and 20 against, studies showed that about 70% of the French population favored the ban as well as most of France’s political parties.


International Response

International response to the French ban was swift. In December, John Hanford, the Bush Administration’s top ranking official on religious reform, stated that “all persons should be able to practice their religions peacefully, without government interference.” (NYT, Dec 18). Demonstrators against the ban rallied in London, Cairo, Beirut, and San Francisco, and in Paris, thousands of Muslim women marched through the streets chanting “The veil, my choice!” In Iraq, Shiite clerics called for a boycott of French products in protest of the ban. It was also unclear as to how the ban would affect the status of France’s 6,000 Sikhs, and in January, 2-3,000 Sikhs came from throughout Europe to march in Paris’ Place de la Republique. Soon after, over 45 members of the U.S. Congress wrote to the French government to express their concern, arguing that the ban would force French children to choose between their faith and their schooling. The ban is set to take affect in French public schools in September, 2004.


The German Ban and the Italian Controversy

In October, a decision by Germany’s highest court to allow Muslim teacher Fereshta Ludin to wear her headscarf to work as long as no state laws prohibited it prompted the majority of German states to begin planning to pass such laws. In December, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder spoke against allowing public school teachers to wear the hijab, saying that Islamic dress has “no place” among German’s civil servants. (The Scotsman, Dec.22). On April 1, 2003 the conservative German state Baden’Wuerttemberg became the first German state to ban teachers from wearing Muslim headscarves in the classroom, and in December Bavaria, Germany’s biggest state, began drafting a similar law with the aim of protecting pupils against “fundamentalist influences” (Dec. 9, BBC News). By March, six German states in Germany had banned the headscarf, including the city-state Berlin. Meanwhile, a kindergarten teacher in Italy was asked to remove her headscarf in March because it might “frighten children”, prompting an international debate on the role of Muslims in a predominantly Catholic society.


The Oklahoma Headscarf Controversy

The subject of headscarves in the classroom also made headlines in the United States this year. In October, Nashala Hearn, an 11 year-old sixth grader at Ben Franklin Science academy in Muskogee, Oklahoma, was suspended twice for wearing a Muslim headscarf to school. School officials argued that the hijab violated school dress codes, which prohibited students from wearing “hats, caps, bandanna, plastic caps, hoods or jackets” due to gang-related activities. The Rutherford Institute, a Virginia based civil liberties Institute, filed a suit on Hearsts’ behalf, arguing that the school violated her right to free speech and religious expression. In October, the First Amendment Center memorably argued in an editorial: “In France today, a Muslim girl must remove her head scarf if she wants to attend a public school. And in Germany, efforts are under way to ban the hijab from schools and in the workplace... in the United States, it should be un-American to make someone take it off.” On May 19 the Justice Department announced that the Muskogee Public School District must change its dress code to allow for religious clothing.


Selected Links

"Pew Forum Hosts Discussion on International Headscarf Controversies (France)," The Pew Forum.

"U.S. Criticizes French Proposal to Ban Religious Symbols in Public Schools," The New York Times.

"Oklahoma Sixth Grader Suspended Over Muslim Head Covering," Pew Forum.

"Justice Dept. Intervenes on Behalf of Muslim Student in School Headscarf Case," IHT.