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French Muslim girls flee to private school

Girls seek out private Islamic schools where they can wear headscarves.

Islamic school Paris
Shainez Dib, a student at La Reussite school, transferred from a public school to the Muslim private school this academic year because of the school's calm setting, smaller class sizes and her ability to practice her religion. (Mildrade Cherfils/GlobalPost)

Photo caption: Shainez Dib, a student at La Reussite school, transferred from a public school to the Muslim private school this academic year because of the school's calm setting, smaller class sizes and her ability to practice her religion. (Mildrade Cherfils/GlobalPost)

AUBERVILLIERS, France — When 17-year-old Shainez Dib announced she wanted to start wearing a hijab as a deeper expression of her religious faith, her mother advised against it, telling her daughter she was not yet mature enough. Just because she could, since she was now attending a Muslim private school, didn’t mean she should.

"To wear a veil means you can no longer do foolish things,” said Dib, who ultimately followed her mother’s advice. “You have to adapt your behavior.”

Instead, Dib continued wearing a headscarf, since she no longer had to remove it at her school’s entrance like her friends still attending public school, where covering one’s head as a religious symbol is against the law. A nationwide ban in 2004 outlawed all such symbols in the public sphere.

Read more about the possibility of a 2010 burqa ban in France. 

“If I am to amuse myself wearing it on weekends and not during the week, it becomes a game and that’s not good,” said Dib, who is looking forward to turning 18 in November so she can don a full veil — provided she is ready.

Dib spent more than a year on a waiting list before she could transfer for her second year of high school to Reussite, one of the first Muslim private schools in France.

Several associations and activities are grouped under the umbrella of Reussite, which translates into “success.” The school first opened in 2001 in the drab and densely populated suburb of Aubervilliers, just northeast of Paris. The district is usually associated more with the rioting that erupted there in 2005 than with achievement.

Back then, the school had a handful of middle school students, but today 138 pupils in junior and senior high school (the equivalent to American grades 6-12) study there. Many girls come specifically because of problems they’ve had in public schools related to the veil ban, said Belkhier Okachi, the school’s treasurer.

The school has become a victim of its own success and regularly turns away students in order to keep class sizes small — the average is 24 — so students can benefit from individual attention from teachers.

Patrice Waridel is the director of La Reussite.
(Mildrade Cherfils/GlobalPost)

“This is supposed to be the worst district, the district that can’t do anything, the darkest district that has ever existed,” said Patrice Waridel, the school’s director since 2003. “That’s false. There are extraordinary young people here.”

Recognized by the state, the school follows the same national curriculum as its public school counterparts, Waridel said, with some notable differences. Students are required to take Arabic language classes as well as one hour of religion per week. Although the midday prayer is not a requirement, most students participate in the 15-minute exercise.

The school's enrollment is almost equally split between girls and boys, although it enrolls slightly more girls because they have a harder time in public schools, Waridel said. In addition to allowing girls to wear veils, the school makes other accommodations for their religion, for example allowing girls who are menstruating (a period during which they are considered impure) to go discreetly to a private room during the midday prayer. Male and female students attend the same classes but sit separately. They eat in separate lunchrooms but are grouped together for some recreational activities.

Waridel wants to silence distrustful critics who say the school is just another example of the country’s Islamization with the best weapon at his disposal: test scores. Each year, the school achieves stellar results on national examinations to promote students from middle to high school, Waridel said, and many who take the end of high school baccalaureate exam receive special mentions.

“We have shown with a certain pedagogy, we could bring even mediocre students to succeed in their schooling," he said. "If these young people were supported as they should be, they would succeed."

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/education/100612/france-education-muslim-girls-headscarves