A ban on markers of difference

The general public in France sees the face-veil differently from French Muslims

The face-veil has played a political role in French society since the wearing of all "conspicuous" symbols of religion, including the hijab, was outlawed from schools in 2004. However, this debate has received new impetus in the past seven months, since President Sarkozy said that the face-veil, or niqab, was "unwelcome" in French society.

The French parliamentary panel tasked with informing policy on the matter yesterday recommended a partial ban on the niqab in all hospitals, schools, public transport and government offices. The report concluded that "the wearing of the full veil is a challenge to our republic". It also wants women who cover their faces to be denied state services, including work visas, residency papers or citizenship.

A complete ban on the face-veil in public was pulled at the last minute, following a challenge from the Socialist opposition and concerns over the legality of such a move.

Presenting the report, the Speaker of the National Assembly, Bernard Accoyer, said: "It is the symbol of the repression of women, and . . . of extremist fundamentalism."

However, the findings of the Muslim West Facts Project questions this claim. This collaborative research venture between the Coexist Foundation and Gallup, published as the Gallup Coexist Index 2009 at the end of last year, explores "attitudes and perceptions among Muslims and the general public in France, Germany and the United Kingdom about issues of coexistence, integration, values, identity and radicalisation".

Perhaps surprisingly for Accoyer, the report's findings do not corroborate his views.

With regard to "extremist fundamentalism", the report notes: "The general European populations surveyed are more likely to associate the hijab [sic] with religiosity than fanaticism, oppression, or being against women." Importantly, the general French population is more than three times as likely to associate fanaticism with the hijab than the French Muslim population.

Regarding the link between "repression of women" and the hijab, the views of the two communities differ by an even greater margin: 52 per cent of the general French population associate the hijab with repression, compared to 12 per cent of French Muslims.

First, it is important to note that there are differences between the hijab and alternative forms of veiling, as noted by Mehdi Hasan. The report can be rightly criticised for conflating the two. But there are more pressing points that need to be made.

Given the differences in attitude between the general and Muslim populations in France, the state should not be engaging in demonising and outlawing different forms of veiling. Rather, its resources should be invested in engaging with why such symbols and communal markers cause such consternation and discrepancies in attitude. As the report notes:

In terms of what religious signs and symbols are necessary to remove for minorities to be integrated, Gallup Poll findings show that the headscarf and face-veil strike the loudest chords among the general populations surveyed.

The removal of the face-veil from the public eye is not the way to reconcile issues of integration. Dialogue between and within different communities is the only way in which misconceptions and barriers to integration can be removed. Recognising the differences within and between communities, pluralising discussions and understanding the "other" are the steps to integration -- not wholesale bans on markers of difference.

 

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It's a stab in the dark: the myth of predicting your student loan repayments

Even the company responsible for collecting repayments admits that it can't tell students what they'll be.

In response to renewed calls to overhaul the student finance system, the universities minister Jo Johnson insisted last week that the "current system works". He pointed out that a university degree boosts "lifetime income by between £170,000 and £250,000".

What he failed to mention is that not even the people administering the loan system can tell students what they will be expected to pay back each month, because they can't work out what they'll earn. 

When asked by the New Statesman why it had pulled an online calculator designed to tell students what their repayments would be, the Student Loans Company (SLC) said it wasn't "possible to answer customers' questions about how long it will take to repay their loan or how much they will owe at a point in the future because there is no accurate way of predicting their future earning".

The confusion around student loans stems from the fact that, unlike loans from banks, their repayment is income contingent.

Until May last year, the SLC had a calculator on its website which students and parents could use to predict how much they may have to repay in the future. But after Andrew McGettigan, a higher education journalist, emailed the SLC noting that the calculator did not take into account gender inequality in future salaries, it was swiftly taken down. 

It was in response to queries about this calculator from the New Statesman that the SLC admitted that there was no accurate way to predict future repayments. The organisation added that it was "exploring new and better ways to present information" to its customers. 

This admission appears to undermine Johnson’s “fair and equitable” description of the student finance system. If even SLC can't say what repayments could look like, how do we know? 

Further controversy around student loan repayments is expected when a report is published later this year by the Department for Education on student finance and expenditure. This is expected to highlight the discrepancy between the maintenance loans students receive and rising rent costs. 

There are still a range of unofficial student loan calculators on the internet, but many use overly optimistic projections for future earnings. McGettigan says this is because they are based on salary trends from the 1980s to the 2010s. He also adds that these unofficial calculators are all based on the official one that was removed – and that they also do not take into account the impact of Brexit. It's a stab in the dark.

The SLC notes that "every student who applies for their student finance online must navigate a page of key repayment information that outlines six points". Student loans are inherently complicated by design, but as Amatey Doku, NUS vice president (higher education), makes clear, this has consequences for fair access to higher education. “We know that BME and poorer students are more worried about high levels of debt than any other group, but the current system does not provide adequate support for those about to enter it.”

Students seeking advice from an independent body will be hard-pressed to find one. The independent Student Finance Taskforce set up by the coalition government in 2011, which sought “to reassure potential students about what they can expect when applying for university and beyond”, was quietly discontinued and never replaced. 

Read more: Jeremy Corbyn's opponents are going down a blind alley on tuition fees

Further confusion surrounds the government’s framing of student finance to sixth formers. Beyond the debate surrounding tuition fees, there is the assumption that has never been made explicit by either political party, which is that students who have a household income of more than £25,000 are expected to have some form of financial support from their families for living costs.

Are parents made aware of this before their children apply to university? Unlike in America, where parents are encouraged to put money away into a “college fund”, the British government never openly encourages parents to save specifically to send their children to university. 

Although there is “no specific date” for its publishing, the Department for Education's report is is believed to argue that, much like the NUS’s debt report did in 2015, that the current system results in poorer students having to take excessive part-time work during the university term. Some also have to take on commercial loans. The stress of both can have an adverse effect on students' mental health.

All this, and not even the organisation responsible for collecting repayments can tell students how much they will be paying back.