Sun, 20 Jul 2003

Frenchwoman battles to wear headscarf on the job

Paul Michaud, Contributor, Paris

For Nadjet ben Abdallah, it is all about the right to hold to her religious tenets and to have them respected by others.

But that is not how the French courts see it.

The 33-year-old French Muslim government work inspector has been told by a French administrative court in Lyons that she is being suspended for a year without pay because she dared wear her Islamic headscarf on the job.

She argues that in early 2002 she was summarily removed from her position for the simple reason that she is a French Muslim and refused to remove her scarf as her superiors had so often demanded.

Reacting to the decision -- which her attorneys are characterizing as "very rare and excessively harsh" -- Nadjet ben Abdallah noted that she was "surprised", especially as she thought she had convinced the court that her decision to refuse her superiors' orders to not wear the scarf was taken purely "for personal reasons of conscience."

According to the verdict handed down last week, Nadjet ben Abdallah is being suspended because of her "obstinacy in wearing since Oct. 8, 2001, a headscarf that completely covers her hair," an offense according to the decision that "gravely calls into question the principle of secularity of the state and the neutrality of its representatives".

"I find it hard to accept because I never made use of my headscarf to proselytize," she said, citing a reason that according to French governmental regulations can be invoked against a religious person for imposing legal sanctions.

"Indeed, I've noticed in the same offices where I've worked other personnel wearing large Christian crosses -- one was six centimeters long -- while another employee was said to have worn his yarmulke (small Jewish hat) for 30 years."

"I fear that the decision taken against me was handed down to make an example of me for others, and that is the last thing that my case should become."

She decided to appeal last week's verdict before a higher administrative tribunal, in hopes that her good faith would prevail for once.

She may also go through with her threat to take her case as high as necessary within the French legal hierarchy, It looks increasingly like the French Muslim community and other non- Muslim supporters of religious rights may decide to support her case at a time when the French government seems bent on making it more difficult than ever for French Muslims to express their religious convictions in the same away that members of other religious communities have always been allowed to express theirs.

Nadjet appears to have become a convenient symbol for the French government which has been attempting to discourage French citizens from sporting external signs of religious affiliation on the job.

It was also perhaps not a coincidence that her hearing before the Lyons administrative tribunal was scheduled on the very day that the French government officially named a "Commission of reflection" on the subject of secularity in France.

It is why Nadjet has decided to go all out to win her case, especially, she says, because she realizes that the measures taken against her, and recently other employees, more often than not concern French Muslims, and seemingly never the representatives of other religions.

Indeed, Nadjet had already publicly expressed her apprehension that France seemed to be in the process of employing "double standards" when dealing with the "problem" of the wearing of external signs of religion in the workplace

"What about the gold crosses around the necks of some agents, or the traditional Christmas meal, indeed, the Christmas tree, decorated with angels and other signs of Christianity?"

"If my veil disturbs others, it's because I'm visible, because I've decided to devote myself to the public service and because I do my work as a French citizen," she said.

"If I'd been a cleaning lady, certainly there would never have been a problem."