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Two months ago, a senior student suddenly started wearing a head scarf. In my office with her mother and several classmates, I told her she was cutting herself off from our world of education and its opportunities. She agreed to take it off. But two days later, she came back to tell me that after a discussion with friends she had decided to wear the head scarf permanently and leave the school. I believed she had succumbed to pressure.
As matters stand now, the entrances to our lycée are monitored, and students are asked to remove religious and political symbols. At recess, all the students tend to stay among those of their own religious or ethnic origin. Fortunately some communication among the different groups exists, but certain individuals from all groups take it upon themselves to prohibit it, sometimes even by violent means. These episodes reveal a total misreading of what secularism means. They indicate that we can't automatically assume that the same concepts and moral values are shared by everyone. In its task of teaching general rules, the secular school cannot tolerate having some adolescents voluntarily and fearfully bending themselves to the fundamentalism of a community.
A French state school is supposed to be a place of liberty where critical reason can be exercised. It is supposed to be a free zone where adolescents forge their minds, without being constrained by belonging to an identifying religious community. It is meant to be a haven where girls can evolve free of prohibitions based on gender, such as the wearing of a head scarf that separates them from the rest of humanity. The school should ultimately be a place that permits everyone, regardless of their specific community and the legitimate expression of their diversity, to move forward to the universality of the human condition. Secularism allows us to build on the attributes that unite us, and not those that separate us, and to advance universal concerns while allowing beliefs to remain private and individual.
In the high school that I run, there is a clear consensus among the adults that the principle of secularism should be upheld firmly and without exception. I have never had to expel a student for wearing a distinctive religious symbol or proselytizing. But up to what point can we count on the persuasive power of educators to handle this? We can't leave it up to local practices, subject to local pressures. We need a law to undergird our efforts to uphold secularism. Our republic has to speak for itself in all its strength, and suggest a common frame of respect for the principles and spiritual values on which it rests.
PIERRE TEVANIAN, teacher of philosophy, Lycée Delacroix, Drancy
Exclusion is never justified. In my school of some 2,000 students in a disadvantaged area outside Paris, about eight wear head scarves. This habit says nothing about whether they are good or bad students. From my perspective as a teacher, the issue isn't whether the head scarf is an order or an obligation, whether it is religious or political, nor even if it is freely chosen or imposed by some external pressure. The important matter is that the girl wearing it is above all a student and is entitled, like all others, to benefit from the advantages of the state-school system. I know from experience that different girls have different reasons for wearing hijab. I also know that wearing one should never result in something as serious as depriving a student of an education.