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France’s hijab ban causing tension

France’s ban on religious symbols at state schools unfairly discriminates against Muslim women, say critics, pointing to the case of a mother who was told she could not go on a field trip with her daughter because she was wearing a hijab.

Earlier this year, Amina signed up to accompany her nine-year-old daughter, Rabia, on a school trip to a museum. But when she arrived at the school, close to their house in Paris, she had an unpleasant surprise.

“The teacher told me that I was not allowed to go with the group unless I removed my headscarf,” the 35-year old says. “She said that I should respect that France is a secular society. She did not care when I said I have spent my whole life in France and I value my equality.”

Amina, a tall, assertive woman, was forced to go back home, leaving her daughter to attend the trip in tears.

It has been nearly a decade since France banned girls in state schools from wearing headscarves.

The 2004 law also banned other religious symbols such as crucifixes and turbans, but the question of hijabs – described by one politician as a national “obsession” – is particularly charged.

The ban applies only to state schools, but its effect is further reaching – for instance, mothers like Amina who are censured despite not being students of the school.

The Socialist government is considering introducing a more far-reaching ban on the hijab in the workplace and universities. In 2011, the niqab (full face covering) was banned in public places, although it is only worn by around 2,000 women.

The overall effect of this is that France's five million-strong Muslim minority feels unfairly penalised. Certainly, Islamophobic incidents in France are becoming more common.

The French Collective against Islamophobia (CCIF) reports that anti-Muslim attacks have nearly doubled, from 298 in 2011, to 469 in 2012. Attacks increasingly target individuals – particularly women – over institutions, although the number of attacks on mosques also doubled, to 40.

The tension exploded in July, when the Paris suburb of Trappes was hit by three days of rioting, after police carried out an identity check on a woman who was wearing a niqab in defiance of the ban.

Campaigners say that tensions in the area were already high after a series of assaults on Muslim women. It was reported last week that a 16-year-old girl in Trappes tried to commit suicide after her headscarf was torn off by skinheads. The police response? To dispatch riot vans. What happened in Trappes was at the most extreme end of the spectrum, but daily humiliations, like that inflicted on Amina, are commonplace.

“It is predominantly women who are discriminated against, because the religious sign of a headscarf is so obvious,” says Elsa Ray, a project manager at CCIF. “It mostly takes the form of discrimination at work, and at school.”

She describes the knock-on effect on aspirations. “Some Muslim women are resigned to the fact that no one is going to hire them, so they don't study, they don't look for a job.”

Amina's daughter Rabia returned from her school trip distressed, and has since told her mother that she wants to move to a different school. She says she doesn't want to go to university because no one will accept her after she starts to wear a headscarf.

“It hurts me that my daughter was made to feel that way,” says Amina.

“She sees her mother humiliated in front of her classmates, and she feels humiliated.

“It is like they are trying to erase us.”

* Samira Shackle

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