ArticlesVolume 16, Number 1 (2007)

From the Stasi Commission to the European Court of Human Rights: L’affaire Du Foulard and the Challenge of Protecting the Rights of Muslim Girls


On March 15, 2004, President Jacques Chirac signed a law that prohibited “the wearing of symbols or clothing by which students conspicuously manifest a religious appearance” in French public primary and secondary schools. The Minister of Education of France issued a circular, which the Conseil d’Etat quickly upheld, clarifying that “[t]he prohibited signs and dress are those by which the wearer is immediately recognizable with regard to his or her religion, such as the islamic [sic] veil, whatever its name, the kippah or a crucifix of manifestly exaggerated dimensions.” This ban marked the latest development in a fifteen-year, ongoing controversy known as “‘l’affaire du foulard”-the Headscarf Affair. The affair has proved to be an impassioned debate about the integration of Muslims in France, the influence of political Islam on French soil, gender equality in Muslim communities, and the perceived threat posed by Muslim girls wearing headscarves in school to laïcité, a complex and contested term loosely translated as the French principle of state secularism. While the French ban is phrased generally so as to apply not only to Islamic headscarves but also to Sikh turbans, Jewish yarmulkes, and large Christian crosses, it has had a disproportionate impact on one group of students: Muslim girls. Forty-five of the forty-eight students expelled in the four months following the implementation of the ban were Muslim girls who refused to remove their headscarves when entering public school.