A story of Two French Sisters’ Reversion to Islam

How unfortunate that the Muslims who whole-heartedly want to follow Islam, as Allah commands, are not allowed doing so & face several hardships. But in our part of the world, we have virtually no restrictions, still we shy away from adopting Islamic way of Life. Two French sisters became captivated by Islam, and their French liberal, `Jewish-by-chance’ father has found himself having to face up to their religiosity and subsequent expulsion from school. The incident has provoked both private and national ferment, writes SHAH TAUSEEF MERAJ.

‘The Beginning’

Laurent Levy, a sworn liberal and a total atheist, noticed dramatic changes in his two daughters, but he did not attribute much importance to them. One day, about two years ago, the two girls stopped eating pork. “No problem,” he said. A while later, they informed him that they intended to fast during the holy Muslim month of Ramadan. Levy thought it the most natural thing in the world that his daughters were adopting . When Levy’s daughters – Lila, 19, and Alma, 16 – told him that they were going to fast for the entire month of Ramadan, he did not stand in their way. “It is their right,” he said.

A while later the sisters informed him of their intention to pray five times a day, as commanded by the Quran. There is no reason why they shouldn’t do this, thought the father. Then they stopped going to the beach and wearing bathing suits, and even stopped using the family swimming pool during vacations. At night the two sat and learned chapters of the Quran by heart. Friends in the neighbourhood and at school were  amazed by the change in the two cheerful young women.  Gradually they began to wrap themselves in long clothing, even in the summer, and covered their legs with thick stockings.

About a year ago the transformation was completed. Lila and Alma donned scarves and covered their heads. After a while they also covered their chins and their foreheads. At school they stopped talking to boys, whispered only to each other and distanced themselves from the other students. They did not take part in physical education classes, as they were required to wear gym clothes that they felt revealed too much of their bodies. Quickly the two sisters became a phenomenon.

Even in Aubervilliers, the northern Paris suburb where they live, eyebrows were raised. In recent years this suburb has been taken over by Muslim immigrants from North Africa, and Parisians have moved away. On Fridays, residents started taking the day off and preferred to spend their time in prayer; many young people do not go to school. During the month of Ramadan the neighborhood is silent during the hours of fasting, and wakes up after the evening meal that breaks the fast.

According to the father, his daughters were captivated by the  Muslim religion and he found himself helpless in the face of their accelerated Islamization. All his life he had loathed religious beliefs of any sort and blamed them for ignorance and various  kinds of distress. He preached secularism and joined the movements of the extreme left, because he only felt at home there. In the not-too-distant past, he served as counsel in suits filed against National Front leader Jean- Marie Le Pen for having described the concentration camps as a “detail” of World War II. He has also represented Islamic organizations that sued actress Brigitte Bardot after she published an anti- Islamic book.

‘Head-covering debate’

About a month ago the two sisters were called into the office of the principal of the Henri Wallon high school, where they studied. Their external appearance, they were informed, was causing ferment among the students, and therefore they must dress like the others; if not, they would be expelled. The girls refused. The school sent a letter to their parents and warned of the steps it was about to take.

The parents, who are divorced, defended their daughters, each in his or her own way: The mother tried to moderate her daughters’ militant stubbornness, the father supported their struggle. The two sisters were suspended from school until the convening of a disciplinary committee that was supposed to decide their fate.

The media depicted the affair as a test of the state’s secularism, and the story quickly hit the headlines. The intellectual community was in an uproar, as were local political institutions; both intellectuals and politicians openly applied pressure on the school’s disciplinary committee members to reach a decision that reflected their point of view.

The debate did not remain at the theoretical level, but dealt with the smallest details of items of dress as they express the state’s secularism, compared to clothing that threatens its status. Before the girls were suspended from school, they were asked to remove their head coverings because of their religious significance.

The school authorities relied on a law that was passed in 1905 concerning the separation of church and state, and argued that the head coverings violated the spirit of the law. During the discussion of the suspension, one of the sisters argued that a Jewish  skullcap covers the head. She was told that partially covering the head does not constitute a violation of the separation of church and state. “I’m angry,” fumed Lila after she was suspended from school.

“They told us we have to show the roots of our hair, the lobes of our ears and our necks. But if we do that we might as well not wear a headscarf at all – we might as well carry it in our hands.”
The disciplinary committee met at the school. Dozens of journalists crowded into the entrance to the school, and television cameras broadcast live the arrival of the girls and their father. The deliberations began at 6 P.M. and went on until after midnight.

The French waited for the committee’s ruling as if the future of the French Republic depended on the decision of a few members of the school board of an obscure suburb of Paris. At the end of the discussion, the members of the Levy family left the hall. The expressions on their faces testified to what had happened inside.

“This was not a pedagogical discussion,” one of the teachers told the journalists. “It was like a court martial.” Another teacher, with a broad smile on his face, related that the correct and inevitable decision had been taken. “We decided to expel them from the school,” he said, “because the internal `balance’ in France makes it essential that a head covering not cover the hair, the ears or the base of the neck. It turns out that Muslim young women do not want to expose these parts.’

`How low France has sunk’

After midnight, the family got home. Levy was furious; the girls were still wiping away tears. “They’ve thrown them out like dogs,” Levy told Haaretz two days later, “and this shows how low France has sunk.” According to him, he couldn’t fall asleep that night, nor could his daughters. They read verses of the Quran. “I was proud of them,” he added. “I educated my children to be rebellious and I am proud that they have followed in my footsteps.” (feedback at : shahtavseefmairaj@gmail.com)

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