The National Assembly of France gained overwhelming approval of a proposal banning Muslim headscarves in French schools that would go into effect in September of 2004.
The bill also bans other religious insignia such as Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses.
After an Assembly vote, in which 494 favored the ban and 36 opposed, the measure will now move to the French Senate.
This action by the French government, which would also bar religious symbols in government buildings, is said to reflect the traditional French practice of separation of church and state and the promotion of a secular society.
Though there is much support for the government-backed bill, many say that it is attacking religious freedom and will only lead to more problems than it solves, including discrimination and stigmatization.
According to recent public opinion polls, 70 percent of French citizens favor the ban. Forty-nine percent of Muslim women favor the ban, while 43 percent of men oppose it.
France currently leads all of Western Europe in Muslim population with 5 million, most of immigrant origin.
“The problem is that it’s one thing to be concerned about religious garb worn by teachers, for fear that they’re lending support to a particular religion and possibly pushing that on students,” said Carlin Clauss, a professor of law at the University of Wisconsin. “In France, it isn’t that they’re concerned about Muslim students, but that religious beliefs and practices of some could intrude into the lives of others.”
According to Muslim belief, headscarves are worn because Muslim women’s hair should be kept out of sight from the view of men who are not related to them. Skullcaps, worn by dedicated Jewish men, signify constant reverence to God.
Clauss added that the action by French government could be similar to “the Supreme Court case that upheld that rabbis in the U.S. military must wear their military hat rather than a skullcap because of the need for military discipline and uniformity.”
Some civil rights groups have protested that the ban targets a group who is already excluded from mainstream society. Some Muslims are agitated that real Muslim issues are brushed aside over concern with the dress code.
“I believe that everybody has a right to have their own religious beliefs and they should be proud and able to show that they are religious, whether it be by wearing a headscarf, a cross or star of David on a chain,” UW sophomore Aaron Bonk said. “By no means does wearing a headscarf hurt or harm any other person that is around you. It’s pretty ridiculous.”
Rallies throughout the Middle East and the world have sprung up with overwhelming support, including demonstrations in Paris and Sydney. Those favoring the bill say it’s an act moving toward unity, while opponents say it is one of pure discrimination.
“We must ask, what is the compelling government interest here? From my view, there are two arguments: that they don’t want people to identify their religion when that religion is associated with another country. Or, it’s to protect the children, though I’ve seen no evidence of need for such protection,” Clauss said.