World on Trial

By KELLY ANN DIAZ on December 9, 2013

Attending and assisting at the World on Trial: Headscarf Law event was one of the most rewarding experiences I had during my time as an intern for the Center for Global Studies at Penn State. It was my personal project to create a shift schedule that worked for all interns. It was stressful trying to coordinate everything before hand, but it paid off when everyone was able to make his/her shift, was on time, and performed the duties without conflict. The other reason this program was so meaningful to me was because I hope to be a human rights attorney. This event focused on a nuanced distinction between right and wrong in the legal and political world.

World on Trial introduced me to this human rights issue of the Headscarf ban in public schools in France which I did not know much about previously.

I learned a lot of information from Penn State’s speaker, Sandra Rouseeau, about French history and the Franco-Algerian relations. I did not know about the term Laicite, which means freedom from religion. This principle, highly regarded in French society, is used as the basis for the ban of “ostentatious displays of religion,” which now has become known as the “Headscarf Ban” because of the limitations of who it realistically affects.

People who disagree with the law argue that it restricts freedom of religion. The distinction between “Freedom of religion” and “Freedom from religion” is very complex and an integral part of this debate. Another branch of this is the difference between keeping the “state” secular and keeping individuals secular. Many believe that the government, public schools, etc., should be kept secular, but that individuals should be free to practice religion without consequences.

In the video we watched on the trial for the headscarf law, the proponents of the law said that this ban was necessary to protect Muslim women from the Brothers who force them to wear it and violently punish or shame them if they do not. However, this is a very tricky argument to make, because you are taking the position that the law IS specifically targeted at this one group of people, which then makes it unjust and illegal. As a future lawyer, this is an interesting issue for me.

Many people who oppose this law fear that it promotes Islamophobia and heightens this sense of discrimination against all followers of this religion.

Even after the nine-hour seminar, I was unable to reach a final conclusion about whether the law should be allowed or not. It was comforting to hear that the academics who presented and in the audience were conflicted as well. However, it was a wake up call as to what I will be dealing with as a human rights attorney in about four short years and presumably in legal internships before then.

As Penn State’s legal expert, Courtney J. Restemeyer shared, in France, Human Rights need to be enforced and explicitly written. Their purpose is to protect individuals from the State. An interesting question raised was whether or not France was bound to the ICCPR (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights), of which they are a signatory.

Another point raised that resonated with me is that France is doing this under the pretense that they are promoting “Freedom from religion” and that the State has a responsibility to be secular, but isn’t creating this law becoming involved with religious affairs, not staying out of them?

The speaker from Pitt, Melek Yazici, gave a very informative presentation on her personal experience with headscarfs. Before, I was one of the ignorant people who thought the Hijab strictly referred to the restrictions on Muslim women. However, from her presentation, I learned that it actually refers to expectations of modesty for both men and women, and that men are asked to lower their gaze, etc. I was also intrigued and pleased to hear Yazici dispel the common myth about the “oppression” of Muslim women. She feels that the choice to wear a headscarf is completely up to her, and that she would feel naked and uncomfortable without it. Furthermore, she finds it to be much more liberating than oppressive. She feels that when she is covered, people focus on her intellect and personality, and not on her physical beauty, which makes her feel free. People argue that the law creates a safe haven for girls who do not want to wear the scarf, but Yazici argues that it makes it an unsafe place for girls who do.

From a legal lens, I liked seeing the limited scope of the supposedly wide-spread ban on religious paraphernalia. For example, we questioned whether a French student wearing a Christian Cross necklace would be punished in a similar manner to a girl wearing a headscarf. It was also mentioned that the French law technically forbids covering one’s face in public, but motorcycle helmets do the same thing, and people covering in such a manner are never punished. The last interesting argument about this law’s discriminatory nature, is that it only realistically affects girls. French schoolboys are not put in the same position.

When I applied to and accepted the position as an intern for the Center for Global Studies, I hoped that it would increase my awareness about global issues and various cultures. In the first month or two I feared that I was not fulfilling that expectation I had for myself, but after attending this event I can attest to having gained a significant amount of knowledge on the French and Muslim cultures.

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