Court backs Muslim girl over scarf ruling

FRANCE. A devout Muslim girl excluded from school nearly two years ago for wearing an Islamic headscarf has had her case against exclusion upheld by the State Council.

France's highest appeal body has ruled against Francois Bayrou, the education minister, confirming a civil court decision that wearing the scarf, or hijab, did not constitute "proselytism'' or "wearing ostentatious religious signs".

Turkan Unal, was excluded from the Jean-Jacques Rousseau lycee in Strasbourg in January 1995 because she insisted on wearing the hijab at school.

M. Bayrou had issued a circular the year before to clear up confusion over the controversy of schoolgirls wearing the scarves, which first arose in 1989. According to the French constitution, state schools must be strictly secular and religiously, philosophically and politically neutral, a rule overwhelmingly supported by teachers. Although there is a substantial independent Catholic sector and some Jewish schools, there are no Muslim schools. M. Bayrou had previously upset Islamic groups by saying that the hijab was "too ostentatious" to be worn in school.

His circular did not specifically mention Islam or scarves, but stated: "All discrimination, whether of sex, culture or religion, must stop outside the school door ... It is not possible to accept at school the presence and multiplication of signs so ostentatious that their significance precisely separates certain pupils from the rules of community life." However, about 50 secondary schoolgirls in Alsace were subsequently excluded for refusing to remove their hijabs.

In 1995, the Strasbourg civil court annulled 32 of the exclusions. Citing the European Convention of Human Rights, the magistrates considered the Bayrou circular could not order a general and absolute ban on the wearing of the scarves at school.

Francois Grosdidier, an MP in the neo-Gaullist RPR party, has called for urgent legislation to put a stop to "this expression of the most fundamentalist Islam and of utter contempt for the basic principle of equality of the sexes".

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