French Muslim girls flee to private school 

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.

"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.

"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."

Still, Waridel decried what he perceived as "a great movement of Islamophobia in France," a country that more than 5 million Muslims call home, and the double standard that seeks to choke the "success of those who shouldn't succeed."

After five years of existence, a private school in France can apply for state subsidies, provided it meets certain criteria and follows the state curriculum. Although Reussite has existed for nine years, it has yet to qualify for any aid, despite submitting the required paperwork, according to Waridel.

For funding, it relies largely on the 2,500 euro annual tuition per student as well as donations from local businesses and private sources. And now the money is running out, Waridel said.

"We understood there was a block somewhere" on the school's state funding, said Waridel. Currently, the school is seeking redress through the courts.

"They are doing everything to survive," said Jacques Salvator, the Socialist mayor of Aubervilliers. "They are on the verge of ruin." He said that "resistance from the government" was one of the reasons for the hold-up in the application for state funding. While it might have to do with a fear of Islamic fundamentalism or the perception that the school would run counter to integration, Salvator said that a poorly timed legal dispute involving one of the founders of the school may also have played a role in the funding delay.

While decisions about Reussite's future wind their way through the legal system, it is business as usual in the classroom. On a recent Saturday, the place was buzzing with the sounds of students attending weekend Arabic courses.

Dib was on hand to help students having difficulty. She said she didn't mind her 90-minute commute to school and was grateful her family could afford the fee. "Here, it is calmer," she said. "In public school, there are always fights." Just last week, a 19-year-old man young man was stabbed in the chest and seriously injured by a 17-year-old student in a fight outside a public school in Aubervilliers, news reports said.

The school is not only a haven for students but also for veiled female staff who would otherwise have difficulty getting work in a public school while wearing religious garb.

Myriam Hacib, 22, an administrative assistant and classroom monitor, previously worked as a store cashier but found it difficult to manage having to remove her hijab every time she entered or left work. Once, as she exited a train, someone feigned surprise and commented she looked like a ghost. "We're judged right away [in France] and that hurts," she said.

When the discussion turned to the recent law seeking to ban the niqab in France, set to take effect this fall after a final legislative step next month, both young women had a similar reaction. "To ban the burqa is really like chasing a flea," said Dib.

"It's a shame because this is a country of freedom," said Hacib. "I am French, I was born here but I don't feel French."

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