School trip hijab clash sparks new secularism row in France

Muslim women demonstrate in favor of the right to wear the hijab in Strasbourg, France. (Reuters)
Updated 15 October 2019

School trip hijab clash sparks new secularism row in France

  • Far-right politician Julien Odoul asked a woman accompanying her son and other children on a school trip to a regional parliament to remove her headscarf
  • The issue has divided politicians and citizens in a country that often struggles with finding a balance between individual religious freedom and constitutionally-guaranteed secularism

PARIS: A new row over secularism and the wearing of the Islamic hijab in public buildings has erupted in France after a far-right politician asked a woman accompanying her son and other children on a school trip to remove her headscarf.
The issue has divided politicians and citizens in a country that often struggles with finding a balance between individual religious freedom and constitutionally-guaranteed secularism in the public sector, including schools.
Julien Odoul, a member of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) party, caused widespread outrage when he posted a video on Twitter of him confronting a woman who accompanied pupils last Friday to the regional parliament in Bourgogne-Franche-Comte in eastern France.
Citing “secular principles” in the wake of the killings in Paris this month of four police staff by a radicalized convert to Islam, he insisted the woman, whose son was among the group, remove her headscarf.
Members of the RN then walked out of the chamber before issuing a press statement denouncing “an Islamist provocation.”
But many, including regional parliament speaker Marie-Guite Dufay, criticized Odoul’s actions, saying neither the law of the country nor the rules of the chamber prohibited a member of the public wearing a headscarf.
Dufay denounced a “surge of hatred” and what she described as “undignified behavior” on the part of a lawmaker.
With the RN playing up the issue, the controversy has exposed divisions within the centrist ruling party of President Emmanuel Macron which is keenly aware Marine Le Pen’s faction is its chief political foe.
Even the country’s Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer seemed unable to pick a side, stressing Sunday that “the law does not prohibit women wearing headscarves to accompany children,” while saying “the headscarf itself is not desirable in our society” because of “what it says about the status of women, what it says about our values.”
Government spokeswoman Sibeth Ndiaye also weighed in, saying it was important to allow space for exchanges between women who wear headscarves and those who do not, as this promoted “inclusivity.”
But Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire came to the defense of “a culture in which religion remains in the intimate, private sphere and does not have a place in (the) public sphere.”
And Budget Minister Gerald Darmanin added: “I would prefer that women in the Republic, in France, do not wear a headscarf.”
Prime Minister Edouard Philippe told parliament he was opposed to any kind of new law specifically targeting what should be worn on school trips.
The controversy is the latest in France over face and body-covering garments which many perceive as inappropriate in a secular country while others argue the garments allow Muslim women to be active participants in French society.
The French state and church were officially separated by law in 1905 to give form to the concept of secularism rooted in the 1789 French Revolution.
In 2004, the government prohibited the wearing of conspicuous religions symbols in public schools and banned the hijab — a garment that covers a woman’s hair but leaves her face exposed — from classrooms and government offices.
The country with Europe’s largest Muslim population is also deeply divided over the body-concealing “burkini” swimsuit, with opposition to the garment forcing the closure of some swimming pools earlier this year in the midst of a heatwave.
Also this year, French sports retailer Decathlon was forced by public pressure to back down from a plan to sell a runner’s hijab in France.
An opinion poll released on Monday found that two in three French people are in favor of prohibiting parents accompanying kids on school trips from wearing visible religious symbols.
France does not officially collect data on religious affiliation but is believed to have a Muslim population of just under 10 percent. Not all are observant.
A study published in September by the IFOP polling group found that more than half of Muslim men questioned said they went to the mosque every Friday, compared to about one in five women.
The upper house of parliament, the Senate, will discuss the subject as early as next week, with a committee examining a draft law seeking to “ensure the religious neutrality of people who contribute to the public service of education.”


Somalia struggles after worst flooding in recent history

Updated 11 min 29 sec ago

Somalia struggles after worst flooding in recent history

  • At least 10 people went missing when their boat capsized after the Shabelle river burst its banks
  • More than 250,000 people across Somalia were displaced by the recent severe flooding
MOGADISHU, Somalia: Ahmed Sabrie woke up to find his house half-submerged in fast-rising flood waters.

Frightened and confused, he herded his sleepy family members onto the roof of their home in central Somalia as scores of thousands of people in the town, Beledweyne, scrambled for their lives. Clinging to an electric power pylon by the edge of their roof, the family watched as their possessions were washed away.

“I could hear people, perhaps my neighbors, screaming for help but I could only fight for the survival of my family,” the 38-year-old Sabrie, the father of four, recalled.

As one of his children, unfed, wailed the family waited for more than 10 hours before a passing rescue boat spotted them.

Authorities have not yet said how many people died in the Somalia flooding last month, the country’s worst in recent history and the latest reminder that the Horn of Africa nation must prepare for the extremes expected to come with a changing climate.

At least 10 people went missing when their boat capsized after the Shabelle river burst its banks. Local officials have said at least 22 people in all are presumed dead and that toll could rise.

“This is a catastrophic situation,” Mayor Safiyo Sheikh Ali said. President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, who visited the town and waded through submerged areas, called the devastation “beyond our capacity” and pleaded for more help from aid groups.

With no proper emergency response plan for natural disasters, local rescuers used rickety wooden dhows to reach trapped people while helicopters provided by the United Nations plucked people from rooftops. African Union and Somali forces have joined the rescue operations and the Somali government airlifted food.

“Many people are still trapped in their submerged houses and we have no capacity and enough equipment to cover all areas,” said Abdirashakur Ahmed, a local official helping to coordinate rescue operations. Hundreds are thought to still be stuck.

With more heavy rains and flash flooding expected, officials warned thousands of displaced people against returning too quickly to their homes.

More than 250,000 people across Somalia were displaced by the recent severe flooding, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council.

Beledweyne town was the worst affected. Several thousand people were sheltering under trees or in tents.

“Floods have destroyed more than three-quarters of Beledweyne and submerged many surrounding villages,” said Victor Moses, the NRC’s country director.

Aid groups said farms, infrastructure and roads in some areas were destroyed. The destruction of farmland near rivers is expected to contribute to a hunger crisis.

The possibility of further damage from heavy rains in the coming days remains a concern, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Parts of the Lower Juba, Gedo and Bay regions, where IOM has supported displaced populations for years, have been affected. Many displaced people were stranded without food, latrines or shelter.

“In Baidoa, people have moved to high ground where they are in immediate need of support,” said Nasir Arush, the minister for humanitarian and disaster management for South West State.

Survivors like Sabrie now must struggle to rebuild their lives.

“We’re alive, which I am thankful to Allah for, but this flood disaster wreaked havoc on both our livelihoods and households so I see a tough road ahead of us,” he said from a makeshift shelter built on higher ground outside town.