Evan Harris on the French hijab ban

In Britain, Liberal Democrat MP Dr Evan Harris, the honourable secretary of the National Secular Society, sees the ban on scarves, yarmulkes, crucifixes and turbans as “in keeping with centuries of secularism as far as state institutions are concerned in France”.

He’s angered by the continual claim that it is all women who are to be forbidden from wearing the hijab. It is, he reiterates, a ban where “girls – not women – in school – not out of school – will be asked not to wear the hijab. That is already the convention and this [law] is just codifying the proposal and the same will apply to Jews with skullcaps in school and Christians with large and visible crosses. There is a tradition that education in France is secular and that there shouldn’t be overt symbols of religion.”

He adds: “The commission in France that looked into this found that in many cases girls were being forced to wear [the hijab], to cover their hair, by the men in their community, and I think that France recognises that in school, at least, girls should be free from that sort of cultural persuasion.”

“In the UK, the position is very clear. Some children want to express themselves culturally by wearing some items of fashion that we don’t allow in schools – it is the same with facial jewellery. In fact, I suspect many more children feel more strongly about fashion and identifying themselves with a fashion than they do with religion. So it is not an unheard-of step for schools to say, ‘We draw the line at this sort of thing.’

“I think it’s a reasonable thing to do and certainly not something that we in this country are in a position to criticise, when we sanction discrimination against children by saying, ‘You can’t come to this school because you are of the wrong religion or of no religion.’ That’s what happens with faith schools in our country.”

Sunday Herald, 18 January 2004