The state-sanctioned disenfranchisement of minorities, especially Muslims, is a byproduct of a colonial doctrine that was aimed at Algerian women in the 1930s.
It is not just the French state, but also a significant section of French society, mainly far-right voters, who frown upon clothing that is seen as “too long” or “Muslim-coloured.”
The rot has set in deep. A vice-principal of a French school once told an assembly of 30 teachers, “I’ll tell you how you tell whether it’s an abaya or a simple long dress. You look at the individual and you know whether they’re Muslim or not.”
That anti-Islamic gaze mainly falls on black or North African female students who are perceived as Muslim. They are the ones who bear the brunt of this witch-hunt. A white student can wear a long dress without hindrance, while her black or brown classmate would be reprimanded for doing so.
The apathy of right-wing politicians and their allies towards minorities, especially Muslims, has reached a point where disenfranchising a woman in a veil or long robe is being celebrated.
Knowing that there is political gain to be had, the French government has passed a number of measures aimed at controlling Muslim women’s attire. The most recent one came from French Minister of Education Gabriel Attal, who announced that abayas will be banned in schools across the country.
Any long, colourful dress or coat that is perceived as “modest” is a problem in the eyes of the French state, as long as it is worn by women who are presumed to be Muslim, even if they are not wearing a hijab.
While Muslim organisations in France have repeatedly disassociated long robes from Islamic faith, arguing that such clothing is more cultural than religious since it originated in the Middle East, the education minister still used the word “abaya” to tacitly justify the ban as a measure against Muslim community. This ban will inadvertently pave the way for racial profiling, with students from Arab, Turkish, Asian and African backgrounds becoming the primary targets.
All these divisive moves have a legal cover. In 2004, France enacted a law on “Secularity and Visible Religious Symbols in Schools,” which prohibited the display of religious symbols such as Islamic headscarves, Jewish skullcaps, and Christian crosses in public schools.
The French state justified passing that law by invoking laicite, a guiding principle of the French Republic which advocates for the separation of religion and state, promoting freedom of conscience for all citizens, regardless of their beliefs.
While the cornerstone of French laicite is freedom and equality, France has turned hostile toward its minorities under the guise of upholding laicite. This is contradictory. It is a question of interpretation: an act to protect laicite from one perspective becomes an act of subjugation in another view.
The institutionalisation of anti-Islam sentiment in France goes back to France’s colonial conquests.
For instance in 1935, when the French army’s infamous “5th division” unleashed a psychological warfare in Algeria, targeting Algerian women was an essential part of a broader strategy designed to dominate the occupied population and quell their quest for independence.
The French colonial administration established a women-centred political doctrine, which asserted: “If we want to hit Algerian society in its context, in its ability to resist, we must first conquer the women; we must go and find them behind the veil where they hide and in the houses where men hide them”.
The veil was targeted because it symbolised resistance in the eyes of French occupiers.
Eight decades later, some byproducts of these tactics are being imposed on French Muslim citizens today.
The French government’s efforts to regulate religious attire, from hijabs in schools to niqabs and burkinis, reflect a relentless impulse to control Muslim women. Though motivations may have evolved, the methods remain consistent, raising concerns about the ongoing influence of the colonial era strategies.
Sociologist Hanane Karimi highlights this troubling aspect in her book “Are Muslim Women Not Women?”, arguing that the French state sees women who wear headscarves as undesirables who need to be disciplined and converted.
“If they resist, they become dangerous and are stigmatised as such: they are now Muslim enemies,” writes Karimi.
“The aim is to prevent them in a ‘civilised’ way from evolving in society by defining rules of religious neutrality incompatible with the wearing of headscarves in certain areas and functions. In the minds of their detractors, laws and regulations, speeches and attacks have turned them into women stripped of their humanity and femininity”.
An incident involving a headmaster’s threat to exclude a student due to clothing that was considered too large and not revealing enough of her “curves” is just one example of this deep-seated desire for dominance and control over Muslim women, perpetuating a dehumanising cycle.
Interior Minister Gerard Darmanin is preparing to run for president in the next elections. Similarly, French Minister of Education Gabriel Attal has dropped hints to join the presidential race. Both are preparing the ground for wooing centre-to-right and far-right voters.
Similar to the old saying “divide et impera” – divide to conquer – there’s a political game at play in the French political and media spheres. Splitting the French population along religious and ideological lines and creating a sense of fear are one of the main political ploys at work.
In last year’s presidential elections, centrist President Emmanuel Macron managed to defeat his far-right political rival Marine Le Pen with a difference of five percentage points – a close race compared to the 2017 polls when he defeated Le Pen by more than 30 percentage points. The race was however charged with rabid anti-Islam rhetoric.
Amidst this climate, the feeling of uncertainty and insecurity has been bothering the Muslim community.
Moves like the clothing ban centred on French Muslim students are having a devastating impact on the ground. It translates as headmasters stalking female students in school corridors, teachers waiting for them at the gates to inspect their attire and negotiating their access to class if they decrease the length of their skirts or gowns.
Akin to the nightmare of French colonial forces cracking down on the subjects and objectifying them, the French schools are fast turning into theatres of moral policing where straightjacketing Muslim students has become the utmost concern while no heed is paid toward their mental health.
As a French Muslim woman, it’s getting harder and harder to navigate institutions that have declared a silent war against you. The harassment we face on a daily basis has left a deep scar on our minds. Though many years have passed, I still haven’t forgotten the humiliation of removing my headscarf for the sake of attending secondary school. There are so many young girls I know who see themselves becoming an ideological battleground for the French state.
Perhaps it is time to start correcting course and reviewing the 2004 law that banned any clothing in schools that reflected a student’s religious identity. The law has disproportionately impacted Muslim students, especially women.
Perhaps the progress lies in the ability to look back and rediscover the very essence of French laicite as defined by the 1905 law, which lays a strong emphasis on the state’s impartiality towards religions and safeguarding freedom of worship. It’s a fundamental value to which France could return to, embracing the universal principles of liberty and equality.