'What do we do if Hindus refuse beef?'
For most of the young women interviewed, the issue is a "cultural problem" rather than a religious one. The head teacher and his deputy of one middle secondary school in La Courneuve told us, off the record, that they are shocked at the comments they hear. "Just because they are ‘going steady' girls are singled out as whores and ostracised by other self-righteous young girls. But it's not necessarily the girls from the most pious families that are the most intolerant," they say.
As long as there is no violence, the principal stays out of it. On the other hand, when, in the name of religion, families refuse participation in certain school activities, he is directly concerned. In his school, where three quarters of the student body is Muslim, out of 80 girls in the French 6th grade (aged 11) who should be taking swimming classes, there are regularly one or two cases that pose a problem every year. The school refuses to back down in these situations nor does it give in over physical education classes, nor when families find all sorts of excuses so that "their daughters avoid physical contact with boys".
The principal of another collège (middle secondary school) we spoke to, previously confronted with similar issues in another town in the Seine-Saint-Denis, has a more moderate view. "It's difficult to sort out the religious problems from those linked to co-ed schools, to teenagers and to the pretext of religion which is used to get exempted from sports," he explains.
Natural science classes can also lead to protests. This year, two families kept their daughters out of class. "They don't represent anyone but themselves," says Hocine Bouhai, chair of 'Overture', visibly irritated by the question. "Those families represent only themselves, they are not acting in an organised manner. We have to stop focusing on exceptions."
Nonetheless, these issues are a concern for some. The principal of one of the two schools quoted above, talks of his "discomfort" when he meets students' parents on Saturday mornings and cannot shake the hands of all the mothers. He speaks of his deep unease when a "bearded" part-time teacher showed up to apply for a job. "Fortunately, he didn't want to work on Friday afternoons so he withdrew his application on his own," he recounts. "But we would not have hired him. No more than we would hire a woman with a large cross around her neck."
He has a lot to say about a subject much debated in the schools: the "substitution meal" proposed to all Muslims, once a month, on those days when pork is on the menu. La Courneuve is the only town served by the Siresco (Intercity Union of Collective Catering) that does not propose a substitution meal. The battle became political. "There was a feeling of not wanting to be picked out as an example," explains the mayor, who nonetheless says he suggested a policy "orientation" towards offering the substitute meal two years ago.
That "orientation" seems to have gone unnoticed. "It's difficult to implement," Poux said, though it appears he didn't give the measure much impetus. "It got a frosty reception and there was no real motivation in the [administrative] services to implement it. We find ourselves in a weak position. If the Hindus tell us they don't want to eat beef, what do we do? We already have requests for halal1. There is a fear that this will build up."
The UOIF is clear about its demands. A halal dish should be proposed to the Muslims each time meat is served in the lunchroom. The mayor disagrees and says the issue is not on the table "for the time being". And it might never be. According to the Muslims we met, the halal question is far from their real concerns.
1: Halal food is prepared according to Islamic ritual.
English version: Patricia Brett
Next in the series Muslims in France: Nora's story: 'my hijab is my freedom'
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