In France, a new law could seriously restrict women’s rights to wear headscarves in public, and there are fears that it will entrench Islamophobia
Source: The Guardian
By Myriam François, who is a journalist and research associate at the Centre of Islamic Studies, Soas University of London. She is the founder of We Need To Talk About Whiteness website and podcast
Last October, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, laid out the vision behind a new, deeply controversial bill. The government claimed a minority of France’s estimated 6 million Muslims were at risk of forming a “counter-society” and the bill was designed to tackle the dangers of this “Islamist separatism”.
It is meant to safeguard republican values, but critics, including Amnesty International, have raised serious concerns that it may inhibit freedom of association and expression, and increase discrimination. The new law, say critics, will severely affect the construction of mosques, and give more discretion to local authorities to close local associations deemed in conflict with “Republican principles”, a term often wielded against Muslims specifically. But one of the most controversial points is extending the ban on women wearing headscarves in public sector roles, to private organisations that provide a public service. Further amendments were tabled prohibiting full-length swimsuits (“burkinis”), girls under 18 from wearing the hijab in public, and mothers from wearing hijabs on their children’s school trips. These were subsequently overturned, but the stigma they legitimise lives on
This month, the EU court of justice said that EU companies can, under certain conditions, ban employees from wearing a headscarf. While Macron’s government has been at pains to insist the new law isn’t aimed at any particular religion, many Muslims fear exactly that.
“We are seeing a justification of a breach of freedom and fundamental rights in the name of security – a weaponisation of secularism,” says the French legal scholar Rim-Sarah Alouane. “It’s a deformed legal monster, which aims not only to contain Muslims but to erase them from the public sphere.”
On Friday the bill was passed by the National Assembly, the lower house of the French parliament. Its effects have already been felt by an embattled minority fearful that their existence is being recast as a danger to the Republic, just as the far right are preparing for a presidential runoff.
Here, three Frenchwomen talk about their experiences of institutional Islamophobia, and their fears for the future.
The mother of five grew up in Mantes-la-Jolie, a working-class neighbourhood outside Paris, and is seeking work. In 1994, when she was 14, a government edict advised schools to prohibit the wearing of “ostentatious religious symbols”, 10 years before this became law.
“I was a model student until the point I refused to remove my headscarf – full attendance, never late – and yet I found myself in front of a disciplinary committee. I remember that they tried to intimidate us, they told us we weren’t in Iran. I had no idea what that meant. They accused us of being part of the FIS [Algeria’s banned Islamic Salvation Front] – but I’m Moroccan.Advertisement
“We were forced to come to school, but forbidden from attending lessons, basically detained, and we weren’t allowed to go out into the playground to mix with the other students. We only had five minutes for break time. This went on for months.
“I was then sent to a disciplinary council because school is meant to be mandatory until you’re 16. They permanently excluded me. The local Muslim groups and the mosque told me to remove my scarf, but I refused. To me, it felt like asking me to strip. I felt violated by the demand to undress. I’m naturally a very modest person anyway. I was 14 years old and had to educate myself at home through remote learning. I ended up very isolated. My parents couldn’t help me, they were barely making ends meet. I got no support and ended up falling in with a bad crowd who persuaded me there was no point in studying further as I could never get a job with my headscarf anyway – which isn’t exactly a lie.
“I was very cut off, and was at the mercy of uneducated people who told me marriage was the only route worth pursuing. The government talks about the dangers of segregated identities [repli identitaire], but they forced that on me. My friends from school were shocked – I was the last person they would have expected to end up isolated in this way. I was very sporty and ambitious, I wanted to travel the world.
“This wasn’t even a law; it was simply government guidance, and it broke more than one of us. It ruined my education. It made me retreat into a single dimension of my identity – my religion – when I’ve always been interested in many things alongside my faith. It broke my confidence and made me feel as if I didn’t belong. I lost myself and got married very young, as marriage and children seemed like the only success I could aspire to. My husband insisted I wear a face veil, but I refused. We divorced when I was 20.Advertisement
“The new separatism bill wants to stop girls under 18 wearing a scarf, but I can tell you it will just make them want to wear it more. I’m scared for all those girls who may go through what I lived through and are going to find themselves very vulnerable. This law is meant to protect secularism, but it’s a deep encroachment. I believe the worst is to come. What happened to me happened before there was even a law to back it up – these laws are legitimising even worse behaviours because they justify the underlying narrative that we are a problem.”
Suggested reading and viewing