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Zero Tolerance

from NottArsed: The Nottwel Review, 2004

Many of us have been shocked by the photographs and footage we have seen of prisoners at America’s Camp Delta in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The pictures of orange jumpsuit-clad, chained and blindfolded ‘enemy combatants’, who are denied both ‘prisoner of war’ status and the legal rights usually afforded to suspected criminals, are not the best advertisement for the US’s humanity in its prosecution of the War on Terror.

While Stateside the prevailing attitude seems to be ‘let the bastards rot’, in Europe human rights groups and others have been up in arms about the treatment of the supposed Islamic militants. But there is another human rights issue that activists should be just as disturbed about. And this one concerns not just alleged Taliban and al Qaeda fighters, but the entire Muslim community. And it is happening much closer to home. 

The French parliament recently voted by some overwhelming majority to ban overtly religious attire in public schools. Several states in Germany have gone similar routes. While the legislation ostensibly applies to all religious get-up, including, for example, large crosses worn by Christians, no one is under any illusions as to whom this law is primarily aimed at: Muslim girls wearing headscarves.

The argument is that the wearing of the headscarf (hijab) sets female Muslim teenagers apart from their peers, and that by banning the headscarf in schools, Muslims will become better integrated into the fabric of French society. But the reality many Muslims have spoken of is that rather than go to school without the hijab, the girls will not got to school at all. See, for devout Muslim women, wearing the headscarf is not a choice, but God’s law. And in their eyes, that takes precedence over any manmade law.

But even setting aside the alienation this law will bring on moderate Muslims during an already difficult time, it seems to me that French legislators have missed entirely the point of public education. I have no problem with private colleges making their own rules as regards dress and so on. Private clubs can run their own shows (to a certain extent). But surely public education is about taking all children, as they are, and providing a learning environment for them, without saying ‘you must obey our dress code’. That’s why uniforms have no place in public schools. If parents want to raise their children according to their traditions, that is their choice, and it is not right for the State to implement laws preventing them from doing so. Rather than it being the responsibility of individuals to conform to what makes the State comfortable, it is the State’s responsibility to accept the diverse religious traditions of its citizens (provided they do not infringe on the freedoms of others). You cannot instil tolerance by telling people to camouflage their differences. Instead, we must ask our youth to embrace diversity.

The old French motto goes: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. But it appears to me that in banning Muslim girls from wearing headscarves in schools, French parliamentarians have neglected the true meaning of the second societal pillar in that motto. Creating an equal society is about accepting the equal worth of the diverse individuals in that society, not about making everyone the same.


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