Paris (AFP) – Students at an elite Paris university sparked fierce debate Wednesday by inviting classmates to wear the Muslim veil for a day in a bid to “demystify” a practice that is highly divisive in France.
Students at Sciences Po urged women to take part in Hijab Day “if you too think all women should have the right to dress as they wish and have their choice respected”.
France is grappling with rising Islamophobia after a wave of terror attacks by jihadists, and the students’ Facebook page said that those agreeing to put on the veil would “experience the stigmatisation experienced by veiled women in France”.
A dozen students handed out flyers at the university by a table covered in colourful headscarves with a sign reading: “France got 99 problems but Hijab ain’t one”, adapted from a hit by US rapper Jay Z.
“It is to raise awareness, open the debate and give the floor to women who are often debated on in public but rarely heard,” said Laetitia, one of the organisers.
Another student, Imen, said she wore a veil for the first time Wednesday morning on the metro and felt “stares” in her direction.
The organisers’ Facebook page lashed out at Prime Minister Manuel Valls who earlier this month said the veil was being used as a political symbol for the “enslavement of women”.
France has banned the full-face veil in public places, and Valls said the headscarf was being used by some as a challenge to the country’s prized secular society.
His comments came after the minister for women’s rights sparked a furore last month when she compared veiled women to “negroes who accepted slavery”.
– ‘A sharia day next?’ –
The Sciences Po initiative, which trended at the top of French Twitter under the hashtag #HijabDay, drew a mixture of praise and anger.
Former agriculture minister Bruno le Maire, who teaches at Sciences Po and is also angling for the right-wing Republicans party’s presidential nomination, expressed his “disapproval” on Twitter.
“In France women are visible. No to proselytising,” he wrote.
Writing on its Facebook page, the student wing of the far-right National Front (FN) criticised an initiative coming from a “Parisian middle class disconnected from social reality”.
“This initiative is particularly nauseating when women all over the world are fighting to throw off their shackles. In Iran, for example, women have acid thrown in their faces if they don’t wear the veil,” it said.
Philosopher and author Bernard-Henri Levy tweeted: “Hijab Day at Sc Po. When will there be a sharia day? Stoning? Slavery?”
But a feminist group on campus, Politique’elles, threw its support behind the move.
“Whatever they wear, whether a miniskirt or a veil, (women) are criticised,” a group statement said. “Feminism must remain universal to defend all women, independent of their religion, origin or social class.”
The university distanced itself from the initiative in a statement on Twitter, saying the fact it was taking place on the campus “should not be interpreted as support.”