Al-Ahram Weekly Online   26 February - 3 March 2004
Issue No. 679
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Balancing reactions

France's controversial anti- hijab bill continues to spark protests on Egyptian campuses. Gihan Shahine talks to analysts in Cairo and Paris about a complex socio-political dynamic


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Thousands of Al-Azhar students protest against the French hijab ban. Some wear headbands declaring, "I won't take off my veil."

France's much-discussed hijab ban has definitely squandered much of the popularity France enjoyed in the Middle East for its pro-Arab policies and strong objections to the US war on Iraq. Demonstrations against the French ban have been taking place on an almost daily basis on Egyptian campuses in different parts of the country, including Cairo, Kafr El-Sheikh, Luxor, Aswan, and Al- Menoufiya.

On Monday, about 6,000 Al-Azhar University students demonstrated on campus. Police cordoned off the university gates while students chanted slogans. Veiled students wore headbands reading, "I won't take off my veil." One banner said, "No to Chirac, my veil is my liberty."

On Sunday, about 5,000 Tanta University students protested against the ban. The previous week, hundreds of Cairo and Helwan university students -- both Muslim and Christian, veiled and non-veiled -- did the same. Banners at those protests read, "French democracy is false" and "My veil is the way to paradise."

In Kafr El-Sheikh, up to 12 students were reportedly suspended after they tried to take a protest against the French ban off campus grounds. Similar protests were staged at the Lawyers' Syndicate over the past few weeks, and student unions are planning to organise rallies that will be held simultaneously on all Egyptian university campuses next week.

"We are against imposing a ban on all religious symbols, not just the veil per se," said engineering student Waleed Abdel-Qader, who heads Helwan University's student union. "We believe everyone has the right to practise his/her religion freely, and to wear whatever he/ she likes. The ban is discriminatory against all religions, not just Islam."

In fact the French ban prohibits all "conspicuous" religious insignia -- including the Islamic veil and "large" Christian crosses and Jewish skullcaps -- from France's public schools. The ban passed with an overwhelming majority, and will probably be in force by next September. Many French MPs said their support for the ban stems from a desire to protect the secularity of the French state by keeping religion out of schools.

Many of the students spoken to by Al- Ahram Weekly said it upset them that France, "a country where freedoms are highly respected, is curtailing people's personal freedoms and violating values of human rights and secularism".

According to prominent Al-Ahram columnist Salama Ahmed Salama, "much of the public outcry stems from the fact that people in the Middle East feel they have little political weight in the West." Salama said the ban has placed French secularism squarely in the spotlight. "The French government is exaggerating in thinking that a little piece of cloth would actually endanger the French secular state."

Many analysts speculated that the spread of the hijab among France's 6- million Muslims -- considered one of Europe's largest Muslim communities -- has been misinterpreted as a manifestation of a strong wave of political Islam. Salama said the US's post-9/11 war on terrorism had also played up concerns that Islam was a rising power in the West -- a misconception that French politician Jean-Marie Le Pen has also tried to exacerbate while mobilising support for his extremist Right Front.

Egyptian students, according to Abdel- Qader, have been trying to bring home the point that, "the veil is a strictly religious matter that has no political connotations whatsoever. A girl who veils is only practising her religion, and not making any attempt to spread a certain thought or belief."

Twenty-two-year-old Reham Fouad, a veiled student at Aswan University's Faculty of Arts, said that even if young schoolgirls were sometimes forced by their parents to wear the veil -- as claimed by some French MPs -- "prohibiting those who voluntarily choose to veil would be an equal infringement on women's liberty." Fouad said it was "amazing how France was using a double standard when it comes to issues of liberty". She was also concerned that other European countries would follow in France's footsteps.

But were the Egyptian protests really helping Europe's Muslims protect their rights? According to Ahmed Abu Zeid, an engineering major at Aswan's South Delta University, at the very least students "want the whole world to know they reject the veil ban" -- a message Abu Zeid believes Al-Azhar Grand Sheikh Mohamed Sayed Tantawi failed to convey. There was a consensus among students, Abu Zeid said, that Tantawi "let the Muslim community down when he said the anti- hijab bill was an 'internal matter', and that Muslims there should abide by France's laws".

Fouad admitted that the protests did not seem to be making that much of a difference. "Perhaps we also need to build up a dialogue with the French ambassador in Egypt, or delegate someone to do that for us, in order to clear up Western misconceptions about Islam."

Meanwhile, the ban has created divisions within the French Muslim community itself. While many of the Muslims who have participated in anti-ban protests in France are happy that people in Muslim nations are rallying to support their cause, the president of the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) -- Dalil Boubakeur -- urged Muslims not to take part in such demonstrations. One of the largest groups within the CFCM, the Union of Islamic Organisations of France (UOIF), also called for demonstrations to be peaceful.

UOIF head Tohami Perez told Weekly, "we do not want to provoke the French government so as not to lose the gains we made over the past few years." Islam, Perez explained, was officially recognised in France in April 2003; it has been added to France's three recognised religions -- Catholicism, Protestantism, and Judaism.

"Demonstrations, of course, convey an important message: that the veil ban violates values of human rights and secularism," Perez told the Weekly in a telephone interview. "But we just do not want protesters to use slogans that are antagonistic to France, a country where Muslims also have the liberty to perform their prayers in mosques. The veil ban, after all, is only restricted to state schools and Muslim women are still free to wear it in public."

Perez said that, instead of attacking the French government, "we would better build a dialogue with French officials." In line with that policy, the UOIF is currently lobbying for the exclusion of discreet forms of hijab, such as smaller headscarves or bandannas, from the hijab ban. The UOIF is "also attempting to clear up misconceptions about hijab, which is widely misinterpreted as a symbol of women's submission", Perez said. Meanwhile, the UOIF "will also take the matter to court since the law already contradicts the French Constitution".

Salama agreed that Muslims should "carefully balance their reactions in order not to lose France as a political ally". Salama warned that anti-Islamic lobby groups might use the hijab controversy to drive a wedge between the Muslim community and the French government. "Those groups want to prove that Muslims are unable to adapt to life in France, and should thus be ousted," Salama said. "Some Jewish lobbying groups in France may also use the hijab furore to claim that Arabs are behind the spread of anti-Semitism in Europe."

Perez agreed that, "some groups in France want Arabs to lose France as a political ally."

According to Salama, French President Jacques Chirac's anti- hijab initiative "is an unspoken attempt to gain public support in the coming elections over the rival far-right National Front, which, under the leadership of Le Pen, has gained popularity for its anti-Islam propaganda".

In any case, Salama said, "the French government has to know that its claims of liberalism are now in the limelight. It is the role of the media and intellectuals to question France's commitment to secularism's true tenets, which should not contradict with human rights and personal freedoms."

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