‘Hijab Day’ at prestigious French university renews veil controversy

A Sciences Po university student tries on a Muslim veil during the 'Hijab Day' event on April 20, 2016. AFP
A Sciences Po university student tries on a Muslim veil during the ‘Hijab Day’ event on April 20, 2016. AFP
A group of university students have rekindled the heated debate over the acceptance of the Muslim veil in French society as they invited fellow classmates at the prestigious Sciences Po university to try on the garment.

Around a dozen young women wearing colourful Muslim veils paced about nervously in the main hall of Sciences Po university in central Paris on Wednesday morning, bewildered by the numerous journalists on hand for “Hijab Day” and seemingly unprepared to answer questions about an event that had roused such attention.

They huddled around a small table, on top of which a diverse assortment of scarves had been neatly laid out. Propped up against the table a sign written in black marker read, in English, “France got 99 problems but Hijab aint one”, a rap reference that seemed lost on most passersbys.

Initially reluctant to explain why they were inviting fellow classmates to don the religious attire, they eventually gained a measure of confidence as two women stepped forward to participate.

“We could no longer allow people to say things supposedly on our behalf, it was time to speak for ourselves,” a student identifying herself only as Laetitia told journalists, insisting that the event aimed to encourage discussion among students, but in no way intended to convert people to Islam.

Laetitia and others in the group said they were disheartened by recent public comments by members of France’s Socialist government that likened wearing the Muslim veil to enslavement.

Last month, Laurence Rossignol, France’s minister for women’s rights, compared Muslim women who wear the hijab to “American negroes who were in favour of slavery”. More recently, Prime Minister Manuel Valls said he was in favour of a law banning head scarves in public universities.

An Australian student spending one semester in Paris was one of the first to accept the challenge. Hannah Bartlett threw on a bright purple scarf with the help of one of the organisers. “Supporting other women is important. Wearing a veil is their choice,” she said, expressing surprise the issue was so controversial in France.
The Islamic veil, along with other religious symbols like crosses and Jewish stars, have been banned in public primary and high schools for both students and teachers since 2004. In 2011, French lawmakers banned the wearing of full-face veils or masks – anything that disguises the wearer’s identity, ostensibly for security reasons. The law is aimed at all face coverings, but critics say that, in practice, the law disproportionately affects and stigmatises Muslim women.

Student Massil Mameri, who is working towards a masters degree in finance, said he welcomed the initiative. “This is a place of learning. These women are here to explain their beliefs and answer people’s questions. I am not Muslim, but I think it’s an opportunity to better understand the issue.” Asked if he would be willing to wear a hijab that day, he replied, “Why not?”

A ‘shocking’ event

Josselin Marc, president of the Sciences Po chapter of the UNEF student union, explained that the event had gained unexpected attention after far-right groups found out about it, posting insulting comments on social media in recent days. Many students who had been largely indifferent to “Hijab Day” then rallied to support it in view of the attacks, Marc explained.

“This should not have caused such a stir. It is an event that respects the rules of this university and the law in general,” he said, noting that the UNEF union did not take a position on wearing the hijab inside institutions of higher learning, but supported an initiative meant to “advance public debate on an important topic”.

Sciences Po adopted a similar stance as “Hijab Day” inflamed passions, telling the AFP news agency that the fact that the event was being held on campus did not mean the school was endorsing it. Sciences Po is one of France’s oldest and most influential universities, known for educating France’s political and business elite.

It has gained attention in the past for marching to a different beat. It was the first institution of higher learning in France to introduce affirmative action in its admissions process to bring in students from lower-income suburbs – a measure that is absent in most French schools and enjoys little support among the public.

Helena was among the Sciences Po students who disapproved of “Hijab Day”, calling the event “shocking” as she watched journalists fire questions at one of the organisers. “It’s ridiculous to hear them tell us that [the hijab] is just a piece of fabric, especially in this day and age,” she said.

French MP Bruno Le Maire, a member of the opposition Les Républicains party and a presidential hopeful, on Wednesday said he opposed the event. “In France, women are visible. No to proselytism!” Le Maire, who is also a professor at the university, wrote on his Twitter account.

Anais, another “Hijab Day” organiser, said the initiative was meant only to demystify the Muslim veil among classmates and empower women to express themselves on the subject freely. She said no other follow-up events were planned.

  • 5thDrawer

    Another example of the uneducated whacking at anything the more educated attempt to have some fun with.

  • PatienceTew

    They need lessons from Haifa if they really want to know how to wear one correctly!

  • SparklingMoon,

    Islam has universality in its teaching with enough flexibility to adjust itself easily among the people of different cultures without loosing the soul purpose of its teachings. It is a mistake to consider that God Almighty has ordered women to cover their faces in all condition when they come out. There is very flexible teaching given by God in the Quran about the practice of veil . The following verses have guidance to practice veil in different places and in different situations.

    (Quran 33:60) O Prophet! tell thy wives and thy daughters and the women of the believers that they should draw close to them portions of their loose outer coverings. That is nearer that they may thus be distinguished and not molested. And Allah is Most Forgiving, Merciful.

    [Quran 24:31] Say to the believing men that they restrain their eyes and guard their private parts. That is purer for them. Surely, Allah is well aware of what they do. [24:32] And say to the believing women that they restrain their eyes and guard their private parts, and that they disclose not their natural and artificial beauty except that which is apparent thereof, and that they draw their head-coverings over their bosoms, and that they disclose not their beauty save to their husbands, An or to their fathers, or the fathers of their husbands or their sons or the sons of their husbands or their brothers, or the sons of…. they strike not their feet so that what they hide of their ornaments may become known.And turn ye to Allah all together, 0 believers, that you may succeed.

    The following inferences are clearly deducible from the verses quoted above:

    (i) When they go out, Muslim women are to wear an outer and wrapping garment which should cover their heads and bosoms in such a manner that the garment should come down from the head to the bosom covering the whole body including the face.

    (ii) Muslim men and women are to restrain their eyes when they happen to face each other.

    (iii) The third commandment by the words” And stay in your houses” imply that whereas women may go out when necessary, the principal and primary sphere of their activities is inside the house.

    The first commandment (in verse 33:60) applies to women when they go out. Then they are to use an outer garment which should cover their whole body including the face.

    The second commandment (in verse 24:32) relates to “purdah” primarily inside the four walls of the house when near male relatives frequently come and go. In that case men and women are only to restrain their looks and as an additional precaution women are to take care that their ‘ Zeenat ‘ (beauty) of person, dress and ornaments, is not displayed. They are not required to use ”Jalbab” (outer garment to cover face) because that would be very irksome and even impracticable in view of the free and frequent visits of near blood relations, (because all the persons mentioned in the verse (24:32) are very near relations who generally visit the houses of their relatives.)

    In verse 33: 60 the garment which a woman is to use when she goes out is ” Jalbab”,( In the verse (33: 60) the Arabic words used are”Judneena aleihina min Jalabibihina” they should let down over them their outer garments )

    The garment which she has to use inside the house when relatives visit is ) Khumar” ( in the verse 24:32 the words used are ”Jazribna bekhomorihina ala jubihina” i.e. they should cast their head-coverings over their bosoms.)

    It is clear that in the former case the garment will cover the head, the face and the bosom while in the latter case only the head and the bosom will become covered and the face may remain uncovered.

    It may also be noted in passing that the shape and form of the outer-garment which, as mentioned above (in the verse 33: 60), a woman must wear when she goes out and which covers her whole body including the face will vary according to the customs, habits, social status, family traditions and usages of various classes of the Muslim community.

    The commandment (in the verse 24:32) with regard to “Veil” within the four walls of the house will also apply to shops, fields, etc., where women of certain sections of Muslim society have to work to earn their living. There a woman will not be required to veil her face. She will have only to restrain her eyes and to cover her ”Zinah” beauty, her ornaments and other embellishments, as women within the house have to do when their relatives visit them.

    In the expression ( in the verse 24:32) the Arabic words ‘La Ubdeena Zeenatahuna’ (they display not their beauty), the Arabic word ‘ Zeenatah ‘(Beauty) includes both natural and artificial beauty. It signifies the beauty of person, and includes the beauty of dress and ornaments which women wear on their hands, feet, ears, arms, necks, bosoms, etc.

    The expression in the verse (24:32), “except that which is apparent thereof,” contains all those things which it is not possible for a woman to cover such as her voice, gait or stature and also certain parts of her body which remain uncovered according to her social status, her family traditions, her avocation and the customs of the society. The permission to keep certain parts of the body uncovered will be subject to certain variations. Thus the words, “they display not their beauty” will have different connotations with regard to women belonging to different sections and grades of society and the connotation will change with the change in the customs.

    In short a woman can uncovered her face (before other men) in a time if it is required by law of a country or it is a requirement of her work or education or she is in need of a medical treatment etc. with the practice of this advice of the Quran ”to restrain her eyes and to cover her ”Zinah” ( her ornaments and other embellishments).