Hijab debate returns to France after student asked to remove her ‘thing’

French law bans religious symbols at schools but not universities

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Controversy surrounding the Muslim female headscarf in France has returned after a student was ordered to remove it during a class at the prestigious La Sorbonne university.

“Are you planning on keeping your thing on throughout all my classes?” the geography lecturer asked the student, French daily Le Monde reported. The names of the lecturer and the student were not made public.

“I’m here to help you integrate into professional life, and that [headscarf] is going to cause you problems,” the lecturer added.

When the student refused to remove it, the lecturer reportedly asked her to “go to another class.”

A 2004 law prohibits the wearing or open display of religious symbols in all French schools, but it does not apply to universities.

In 2010, a law banned the wearing in public places of the full Muslim face veil, known as the niqab or burqa. However, it did not include the headscarf.

France argues that the ban, which was approved by the Constitutional Council, is necessary to protect the country’s secular culture and the strict division between religion and state.

Recently, a French government agency responsible for maintaining the country’s secular values recommended a ban on Muslim headscarves in universities to limit tensions.

Jean-Marie Salamito, professor of the history of ancient Christianity at Université Paris-Sorbonne 1, told Al Arabiya News that this latest incident was “very rare.”

He added: “French university professors are generally very open-minded and tolerant, and France is the country of freedoms. Calling the Islamic headscarf a thing can be considered a sign of disrespect to the student and to Islam.”

However, “the attitude and comments of one professor doesn’t reflect how French professors treat veiled students,” and it does not indicate a rise in Islamophobia in France’s education system, Salamito said.

Seeking to contain the growing indignation over the incident at La Sorbonne, the president of the university, Philippe Boutry, apologized to the student this week, Le Monde reported.

In his apology letter, Boutry said the incident was due to the lecturer’s misunderstanding of the 2004 law.

However, the student said the lecturer was aware of the law. She is demanding that the latter be punished to avoid similar incidents in the future.

The incident, which is not the first of its kind in France, has led professors to discuss the role of Muslim dress in the integration of individuals in French society.

Headdress should not be a measure of integration, but burqas may be problematic, said Salamito, because “a professor isn’t able to see the face of the person they’re talking to. It’s a matter of normal communication.”

Leila al-Hakim, a Muslim student at La Sorbonne, told Al Arabiya News that she was shocked by the incident, and that university personnel must respect students “no matter their origin or religion.”

Hakim said even though she had never faced discrimination from professors, the incident reflected persistent inequalities between Muslim and other students at the university.

The Egyptian-born student added that the number of students displaying religious symbols on campus is limited.

France has one of the largest Muslim populations in Western Europe. Of the country’s estimated 5 million Muslims, between 400 and 2,000 women wear face veils.

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