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Illustrations de femmes voilées ( AFP )
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France moves to ban hijab in universities

Hollande-established watchdog agency recommends prohibitting overt manifestations of faith in higher education

The French agency responsible for promoting secularism in the public sphere has recommended extending the country's ban on donning Muslim head scarves to institutions of higher education, Le Monde reported on Monday.

The Observatory of Secularism was tasked a few months ago by the High Council for Integration with the difficult mission of monitoring the nation's universities for observance of secular principles.

The watchdog's preliminary report, cited by Le Monde, proposed legislating a ban on donning the hijab "and other signs openly expressing religious affiliation," in classrooms and all spaces intended for teaching and research in public institutions for higher education.

Should such a measure be adopted, it is expected to spark great controversy, especially in view of the tensions surrounding the debate on secularism in France.

The major challenge of the mission is to enforce the principle of secularism in universities, without encroaching on the freedom of worship usually invoked by opponents of the 2004 law banning the veil in public schools and colleges.

The Observatory of Secularism was established by France's President Francois Hollande earlier this year.

A growing unease

According to the report, university teachers are frequently put in difficult situations by the students' religious demands. The report also referenced "the difficulty teachers sometimes have in organizing collective work between males and females."

Testimonies quoted by the observatory also reveal that "some universities" faced problems “of dealing with acts of proselytism," as well as "challenges to the teaching material or requirements having to do with dietary restrictions."

The group also noted that "the law of March 2004 had helped to reduce tensions in secondary schools" by standardizing the rules of what could be worn.

The battle for secularism is more difficult when it comes to university, however, where attempts to ban the veil have already proven unsuccessful.

In January, a Tunisian student was briefly removed from class by a professor at the University of Nantes on the grounds that she was wearing a head-scarf. The young woman's complaint of discrimination was successful and the university apologized.

The view from America

While France is determined to enforce the secularist principles that lie at the core of its republican constitution, American observers are more than skeptical.

In an annual report issued last April, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, whose members were appointed by the US president and Congress, devoted an entire chapter to Western Europe. France featured large in the report due to its policy of "aggressive secularism," referring to the ban on the full veil in public space.

"In some countries, a very aggressive secularism places worshipers in uncomfortable and difficult position regarding the freedom to practice their convictions and beliefs," said the Commission's president, Katrina Lantos Swett.

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