The TNR review of Why the French Don't Like Headscarves: Islam, the State, and Public Space has excellent analysis and some interesting facts I hadn't known:
The ongoing controversy has had more than a touch of the absurd to it. As left-wing critics of the ban have pointed out, it is curious indeed to expel girls from public schools in the name of "integrating" them more fully into French society. The wording of the ban also left comically unclear just what constitutes an "ostentatious" sign of religion. Does a small cross or star of David on a necklace count? What about a small crucifix? After the law passed, some Muslim girls substituted colorful bandannas for the traditional black scarves, while journalists asked mischievously if schools would ban elegant silk carrés from Hermès. School officials found to their consternation that the most blatant infringement of the law came not from Muslim girls but from turban-wearing Sikh boys, although no one had ever previously detected a threat to laïcité from France's small Sikh minority. In a ham-handed attempt to cover up this particular embarrassment, Education Ministry officials allegedly offered to pay full tuition for the Sikhs at Catholic private schools! In the oddest twist of all, two of the Muslim girls who became famous for defying the ban -- after their expulsion they wrote a book about it and appeared frequently on television -- had a Jewish father and were named Lévy.
This last absurdity reveals something important. Casual observers have usually assumed that the controversy pits "modern" secular Republicans against "traditional" pious Muslims wrenched out of their North African villages into metropolitan France. Yet as Bowen demonstrates, the girls who took part most actively in the controversy do not fit this mold. Most were French-born, and many came from relatively nonobservant Muslim families. Far from succumbing to family pressure to cover their heads, they made their own independent decisions to do so, often as part of individual quests to find a more meaningful form of religion than they knew at home. Bowen cites the case of a girl in Grenoble named Schérazade, who read the Koran in her final year of high school -- in French, since she did not speak Arabic -- and only then decided to risk expulsion by donning the headscarf. Once expelled, she staged a twenty-two-day hunger strike in an RV parked in front of the school, and gave numerous interviews to the French and foreign press. Those are not exactly the actions of a "traditional" Muslim schoolgirl.
Though I think reviewer David A. Bell is on to something with his idea that much of the French alarm is due to such deliberate defiance of authority -- Posner's belief that the Brandt plaintiffs were not punished too disproportionately seems to be grounded in a similar concept of needing students to defer to principals in order for schools to function -- I wish he had done a better job of distinguishing just what various French women wear to signify their religious commitments. The traditional Catholic garb for a nun, for example, encases a woman from head to toe in loose black and white cloth, and observant Muslim women vary tremendously: some cover only their hair, while others cover their faces as well and allow only their eyes to be visible.
To object to the hair covering seems to me intensely stupid, whereas the face covering presents genuine problems for identification and communication and therefore should be treated differently on a practical level. Headscarves, whether they are colored Hermes silk or black cotton, strike me as essentially a style choice. I've seen African American women who did not seem to be observant Muslims wrap their hair entirely in cloth (Lauryn Hill, for example, sometimes follows this fashion), and I don't think the same action should be banned if done for a religious reason and permitted if done for a secular one.
In any case, French politicians who are truly worried about coercion and integration should shift their focus from the students to their parents. A girl who stays veiled throughout her education, but does well in school and goes to university, has a much better chance of being a contributing French citizen than one who is in school unveiled until high school, then disappears to be married. A French policy that says, "Wear whatever you want as long as you are educated like the rest of us" allows moderate French Muslims to pressure their brethren into keeping their daughters in school. It also gives French authorities the standing to prosecute parents for their daughters' truancy if they try to take them out of school before the girls have finished. Armed with an education and job opportunities, these women will not be dependent on their fathers and therefore can make their own choices as adults whether to be veiled, wear scarves, join a nunnery, whatever.
Expelling them embodies a policy that says, "Wear whatever you want as long as you stay hidden from public view" -- precisely what we don't want. Muslim women in public, though they may be uncomfortable for other French people to see, are actually a good sign; every woman who is out teaching school, getting a doctorate or running for office is a woman who is not being locked up at home. It may be unpleasant for a Muslim girl who would like to dress like her peers to have to stay covered in accordance with her parents' demands, but it is much worse to have such a girl forced out of school entirely.
UPDATE: And rock that burqini!