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Headscarves, Human Rights, and Harmonious Multicultural Society: Implications of the French Ban for Interpretations of Equality

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Through the lens of the French law prohibiting Muslim headscarves in schools, this article examines the way in which societal tensions that arise in the context of religious and cultural pluralism are translated into legal discourses relating to human rights and equality. It explores the way in which the law is rooted in France's broader sociopolitical structure and history and contrasts it to the United Kingdom and Turkey. It proposes that the law is based on an anachronistic, formal interpretation of equality that is inappropriate for addressing the inevitable cultural diversity of modern French society, and through its permeation into law and policymaking more widely, it is a primary cause of the heightened social tensions involving the Muslim minority. An assessment of the legitimacy of a law that restricts minority groups' cultural practices in this way in any society should be based on a substantive interpretation of equality and should necessarily involve an active endeavor to understand the meanings of those cultural practices for those groups within their distinct context. Upon this foundation, law and policy can be developed in a way that better reconciles the pluralism of modern society with the common objectives of social harmony, stability, and tolerance.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1 Crown Office Row Chambers in London

Publication date: 2007-09-01

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