Earlier this month, for the first time this century, the French government did something right.
By a vote of 494 to 36, French Members of Parliament decided to ban Muslim headscarves from the schoolroom. The bill now goes to the upper house, the Senate, where it is expected to be approved.
The imminence of the vote gave French television an opening to discuss the issue after years of tamping it down, and mind-boggling candor was suddenly flooding the airwaves. At last the French were saying openly what they had been saying to each other for a long time in private: Many Muslims in France have not only refused to assimilate, but are intolerant of the host society.
Those appearing on discussion shows speaking against headscarves on school property included well-dressed, well-coiffed young Muslim women who view the hijab as a sign of backwardness and male oppression. Their Western manner and articulate dismissiveness contrasted tellingly with the black serge-clad blobs with sneers on what one could see of their faces, who regard themselves and their religion as somehow having the right to override the French secular state.
To counteract charges that North African immigrants, uniquely, after 40 years of living in France, have refused to assimilate as, for example, the Jews did centuries ago, there was a demonstration in the streets of Paris with hijab-clad women carrying signs that read: "France is my country. The veil is my choice." Out of a population of five million Muslims in France (8 percent of the population -- the largest in Europe), they only managed to muster around 20,000 and their appeal fell on stony ground. Said mainstream, center right MP Jacques Myard, "A lot of Muslim girls say that they wear the headscarf freely. But in fact when you look at it carefully you will see that they are in most cases motivated by religious fundamentalists and if you give them just a bit of a finger they will eat your arm up to the elbow."
Strong words! How did it come to this?
France's immigrants come from its former colonies -- mainly Algeria and Morocco. Unlike Arabs who come to the US for their education or to emigrate, many of France's Islamic immigrants hold a grudge and an agenda. And unlike immigrants to the US, they have settled in colonies within the large cities and have shown precious little interest in assimilating. In fact, those who settle in the vast projects hold themselves above assimilation.
A few hijab-wearing girls scattered around schools in small towns and villages has never perturbed the French who are, by and large, enlightened, tolerant and have placed a premium, since their Revolution, on human rights. But the scarf has provoked a battle of wills between the secular state and fundamentalist Islam. In the large projects outside big cities such as Lille, Lyon, Marseilles, Strasbourg and Paris, the majority population is immigrant, and what can be seen in the school grounds and the streets is acres of headscarves with only a few indigenous bareheaded French girls scattered around. In such an environment, the wearing of the hijab is being interpreted as divisive. Jacques Chirac himself, in a rare moment of abandonment of nuance, has called it an "aggressive" gesture against the host society.
American and British commentators are viewing the issue as a French lack of tolerance and argue that teenage girls should be allowed to wear what they like to school. But wearing the hijab is not the equivalent of turning up with spiked gelled hair and a tight tank top. It is not a fashion statement. It is a statement of a deep religious and cultural divide. It is a statement of refusal to integrate into the host society. It is a statement of superiority: my religion is more religious than yours. I am modest and you are a slut.
Although the ban is being presented as a crackdown on religious symbolism, the headscarf is not a religious requirement at all. The wearing of it is cultural. It is a badge. A trademark, if you will. Nowhere in the Koran or the hadiths is it mandated that women and girls cover their hair. They are merely advised to "dress modestly." No one is trying to force Muslim girls to come to school dressed like Janet Jackson. And they will be free to re-don their headscarves the minute they step outside school property.
But why, if schoolgirls wish to wear a headscarf, should they not be allowed to do so?
But do they wish it? Do little girls really want to be marked out as "different" from the mainstream French? How much more likely that most are forced to wear it by their fathers and brothers, who don't want men and boys "looking at" female members of their families?
The Agence France Presse says that scarf partisans are duplicitously using a double tactic and a double language to impose their views on Muslim women -- their ultimate goal being the destruction of the liberal-democratic state itself. In short, Islamic extremists are using French secularism to impose theocracy. As a writer in London's Daily Telegraph noted: " ... they are members of a religion with a strong aggressive, proselytizing, and imperialistic streak -- a religion that ultimately recognizes nothing but itself, not even the secular state, as a source of authority." This tendency was first identified in continental Europe by flamboyantly gay Dutch millionaire turned politician Pym Fortuyn. Fortuyn, assassinated two years ago, saw that fundamentalists were using the secularity of the tolerant and enlightened West to try to impose their bigotry on it.
And this brings us to the darker underside of the discussion. In the large public housing projects, where Muslims sometimes comprise over half of the population, gangs of Muslim youths "punish" Muslim girls who try to integrate and adopt Western dress with gang rape. The boys regard them as "asking for it," so no blame attaches to them in their minds.
Equally, the iron fist of Islamic fundamentalism is reaching out to the host society to impose Islamic control on the indigenes. French Catholic girls whose families have been part of France since time immemorial and whose forebears over the centuries established French borders, custom and its legal system, are being "taught a lesson" by gang-raping Muslim youths for having the temerity to leave their apartment without donning a Muslim headscarf. Indigenous schoolgirls leaving their homes in the projects without wearing a scarf are such an affront to the Islamic male authority of Muslim teenage boys that they too are "punished" with gang rape.
Raping girls who are bold enough to chance it is such a popular pastime in the projects that it has its own noun: tournantes -- "taking turns." I understand that there is even a mobile phone ringtone for tournantes.
Such is the power of these young males that a code of silence is easily enforced on the victims.
Algerian born writer Samira Bellil, now 30 and herself a victim of gang rape aged 14, was an active and vocal campaigner for the ban on the hijab, saying the last thing young Muslim women need is to be disempowered yet further. Her book Dans l'Enfer des Tournantes ("In The Hell of Gang Rapes") became a best seller in France last year. Ms. Bellil told the New York Times that she was beaten, kicked and gang-raped throughout the night, but she only reported the assault after three of her friends told her that they too had been raped by one of her attackers.
According to government statistics, the incidence of rape in the projects has gone up by between 15 and 20 per cent every year since 1999, although women's rights advocates say that unreported rapes make the figures even higher.
November 2002 saw the release of the movie La Squale ("The Squaw") which tackled the lives of perpetrators and victims of gang rape in the projects. The film left French moviegoers white- faced with shock.
According to the BBC's Rosie Goldsmith, it was this film that pushed the issue to the front of French political life and got the attention of Jacques Chirac personally and the education minister Jack Lang.
When the proposal of the new law began to develop legs, a few weeks ago, I opined that many Muslim mothers would secretly welcome it. This week it was revealed in a new poll that 40 percent of Muslim women questioned approved of the ban. These would be young mothers, probably second generation themselves, with school-age daughters they want to see integrated into the mainstream, which is where the opportunities are, in the land of their birth. They know from their own experience that the hijab is a barrier, not a statement.
Sadly, having been forced to turn the issue into a "religious" one, so it could be combated with secular laws, the French have, in the name of consistency, been obliged to ban genuinely religious attire worn by children of other religions. Thus, although Jewish boys are industrious, achieving and not known to go out and rape anyone for not wearing one, the yarmulke has fallen victim to the new law. The government genuinely regrets this and is trying to find a solution. Similarly, Sikh boys will not be allowed to wear their turbans, which are a genuinely religious requirement, unlike the hijab. Much has been made of this, but there are a minuscule number of Sikhs in France and, in my own experience in India, not every Sikh man wears long hair and a turban. But they all wear the steel bracelet, and this will still be allowed, as will small crucifix pendants or earrings, Stars of David and Islamic pendants.
It is worth noting that not all Muslim schoolgirls in France wear the hijab. In the far south, which borders the Mediterranean, with North Africa just across the sea, it is not that common to see a Muslim schoolgirl wearing a headscarf or any other distinguishing clothing. And, perhaps the strongest real indicator that the hijab is divisive and creates barriers is, in its absence, after school the streets are crowded with mixed groups of indigenous and North African girls walking home from school together laughing and jostling to attract the eyes of the boys, like schoolgirls the world over.
Val MacQueen writes frequently for TCS. She last wrote about the controversy over armed marshals on airplanes.