The College Student Who Has France’s Secularists Fulminating

8:21 PM Aida Alami 0 Comments

PARIS — The French interior minister, Gérard Collomb, called her appearance “shocking.” Marlène Schiappa, the minister of gender equality, said she exhibited a “manifestation of political Islam.” The satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo put her on its cover with a drawing that many considered racist.
Her offense: wearing a head scarf during a television interview.

Elected last December as the leader of the Sorbonne chapter of the French National Students’ Union, Maryam Pougetoux, 19, is used to hearing from those who disagree with her progressive views. But she was entirely unprepared for what happened last month after she criticized recent changes in educational policy in the interview.

Ms. Pougetoux, a practicing Muslim who wears a head scarf that covers her hair and neck, had been asked to comment on one of the main television channels, M6, about proposed changes that would make admission to universities more selective. She and the hordes of students who took to the streets recently in protest consider the measure discriminatory and elitist.

But the debate that followed had nothing to do with education and everything to do with her appearance. It was set off in large part by Laurent Bouvet, a secularist and member of a group called Le Printemps Républicain, or Republican Spring. The group was created in 2016 to defend the French republican ideal of “laïcité,” which emerged during the revolution as a way to keep the Roman Catholic Church out of the affairs of state. But in recent years, critics say, some groups have used it to suppress the growing influence of Islam in France.

In a Twitter post, Mr. Bouvet said, “we aren’t hunting anyone but merely pointing to the inconsistency” of a leader of the student group wearing a head scarf. “How can one defend values like abortion and feminist principles while displaying conspicuously their religious beliefs,” he asked.
Pretty soon, it seemed that almost everyone had something to say about this unapologetically religious student.

Ms. Pougetoux herself was baffled by the outburst, saying she had to research “political Islam” online to understand the accusation. She also was not particularly outraged by the caricature of her on the profanity-laced cover of Charlie Hebdo, which many said made her look like a monkey.
“I first laughed. Charlie Hebdo mocks everyone, I didn’t take it personally,” she said in a recent interview. What she liked, she says, is that, “they were the only ones who actually emphasized my message.”

Still, she realized not everyone shared her sense of humor. “I was extremely hurt when I realized that it caused a lot of pain for my family and friends,” she said.
Not surprisingly, she has received plenty of support from her peers.

“In five years I have never seen this level of mistreatment of a student leader,” one student from Denmark said to Ms. Pougetoux in the offices of the student group. “You are super amazing. Don’t let the racists win.”

A sparkle came to Ms. Pougetoux’ blue eyes as she thanked the young man. She has been receiving similar demonstrations of support over the past two weeks on her university’s campus, on the streets of the French capital, and online.

But the entire experience has been quite an ordeal for the 19-year-old, who is studying literature and communications.

Ms. Pougetoux did not break any law. While head scarves and other religious symbols are banned in public service and in primary and secondary public schools in France, they are permitted on college campuses. Moreover, one expert said, the concept of laïcité should not be used to stigmatize minorities but instead to ensure freedom for everyone.

You can finish reading the story on the New York Times' website

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