Helsinki Federation Assails French Move to Ban Religious Symbols

Legislation Heads to Senate After National Assembly’s Approval

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PARIS, FEB. 11, 2004 ( The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights has spoken out against the French legislation that aims to ban the Muslim head scarf in public schools, saying it violates international conventions.

On Tuesday, the National Assembly voted 494-36 for the bill that would prohibit the wearing of «ostensible» religious symbols in public schools.

The ruling Union for a Popular Movement and the Socialist Party voted in favor of the measure, which will go to the Senate next month.

This proposal «violates the international conventions on the rights of man and the international norms that France has committed herself to respect,» Helsinki Federation President Aaron Rhodes said the day before the vote.

As early as Dec. 17, the Helsinki Federation (IHF) published a statement saying that it «believes that such a ban would bring the French state in collision with international human rights standards on freedom of religion because wearing religious clothing can be an inherent part of manifestation of one’s religion.»

«It is not at the discretion of a state to determine which manifestations are legitimate as long as they do not violate other people’s basic human rights or do not endanger public safety, health or morals, as defined by international law,» the statement clarified.

«At issue is specifically the question on how to best integrate Muslims into French society and take a firm stand against the alleged increasing militancy among the French Muslim community,» the statement continued.

«The IHF believes, however, that adopting legislation to ban head scarves in public institutions would not be an adequate measure to promote integration and to combat Islamic militancy but might, indeed, contra-productively result in increased alienation and marginalization of Muslims living in France,» it said.

The IHF statement added: «Moreover, while proponents of a headscarf ban insist that wearing a headscarf is simply a fundamentalist symbol of the subservience of Muslim women and a sign of the oppression they face, for many Muslim women wearing a headscarf is a deeply personal choice and a sign of their religious conviction and has nothing to do with Islamic fundamentalism.

«A head scarf ban would automatically but mistakenly stigmatize all Muslim women wearing the head scarf as fundamentalists.»

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