Faith is driving pupils apart

30th July 2004 at 01:00

In supposedly integrated French schools, Muslims and Christians are eating in different parts of the canteen, even using separate taps. TES correspondents across the globe examine the escalating battle between religion and secularism

The strictly secular nature of France's education system is being challenged by mounting Muslim opposition to a ban on pupils wearing conspicuous religious signs and growing social segregation in schools as students of different faiths eat separately and boycott lessons they deem immoral.

The controversial law forbidding state school pupils from wearing not only Islamic hijab scarves but other obvious religious symbols, including Jewish skullcaps and large crucifixes, is due to take effect in September.

But the French Union of Islamic Organisations has publicly encouraged Muslim girls to go to school "in whatever clothes they choose to wear" - implicitly including hijabs - and the Conseil Francais du Culte Musulman, an Islamic advisory group of which the union is a member, has promised that it will give practical support to girls banned from wearing hijabs.

Meanwhile, an unpublished report by education inspectors has revealed how insistence on adhering to religious rules is leading to increased social segregation in schools.

In primary schools the inspectors found some Muslim pupils refusing to sing, dance or draw faces. In one school, a tap in the lavatories was reserved exclusively for Muslim pupils and the other for "the French". One father also refused to allow his daughter to attend class when a man replaced the woman teacher.

Some secondary pupils refused to take part in games and swimming. In literature and philosophy certain authors were considered "licentious" or against Islam. Girls called to write on the blackboard put on coats "to avoid arousing sexual desire", said the report.

Pupils refused to eat meat that had not been ritually slaughtered, leading some schools to segregate pupils in the canteen and offer separate menus. Proselytism rose during Ramadan, with pupils being pressurised into fasting.

Children were also taking more days off, said the report. Jewish pupils and, especially, Seventh-Day Adventists were more often absent on Saturdays than Muslims on Fridays, though Muslims were increasingly skipping school during their religious festivals.

Muslim pupils were also wearing clothes representing national flags - notably Algerian or Moroccan. There were also instances of girls wearing burkas and boys Afghan dress. The inspectors said these practices seemed linked to religious groups competing to be more radical than each other.

The report noted that schools affected were in deprived areas where devout young men were replacing their more moderate elders, and offering children from immigrant families a positive Muslim identity.

It said everything should be done to develop pupil integration, and called for training and support for teachers to cope with dissent.

The constitution requires state schools to be strictly secular and religiously, philosophically and politically neutral.

Parliament adopted the new law on religious signs in March as politicians and some teacher unions demanded a response to the growing numbers of girls at school wearing hijabs.

The problem of Muslim pupils refusing to remove their hijabs at school arose in 1989 when a head excluded three girls.

Subsequent rulings allowed pupils to wear discreet religious signs such as a small crucifix so long as pupils did not proselytise, provoke or propagandise, or refuse to take part in lessons such as games or biology.

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