A group of university students have rekindled the heated debate over the acceptance of the Muslim veil in French society as they invited fellow classmates at the prestigious Sciences Po university to try on the garment.
Around a dozen young women wearing colourful Muslim veils paced about nervously in the main hall of Sciences Po university in central Paris on Wednesday morning, bewildered by the numerous journalists on hand for “Hijab Day” and seemingly unprepared to answer questions about an event that had roused such attention.
They huddled around a small table, on top of which a diverse assortment of scarves had been neatly laid out. Propped up against the table a sign written in black marker read, in English, “France got 99 problems but Hijab aint one”, a rap reference that seemed lost on most passersbys.
Initially reluctant to explain why they were inviting fellow classmates to don the religious attire, they eventually gained a measure of confidence as two women stepped forward to participate.
“We could no longer allow people to say things supposedly on our behalf, it was time to speak for ourselves,” a student identifying herself only as Laetitia told journalists, insisting that the event aimed to encourage discussion among students, but in no way intended to convert people to Islam.
Laetitia and others in the group said they were disheartened by recent public comments by members of France’s Socialist government that likened wearing the Muslim veil to enslavement.
Last month, Laurence Rossignol, France’s minister for women’s rights, compared Muslim women who wear the hijab to “American negroes who were in favour of slavery”. More recently, Prime Minister Manuel Valls said he was in favour of a law banning head scarves in public universities.
An Australian student spending one semester in Paris was one of the first to accept the challenge. Hannah Bartlett threw on a bright purple scarf with the help of one of the organisers. “Supporting other women is important. Wearing a veil is their choice,” she said, expressing surprise the issue was so controversial in France.