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France thinks it’s ‘liberating’ Muslim women, but it’s pushing them out of public life

French attempts to 'free' Muslim women from their own choices threaten to remove them from public participation altogether.

14 Apr 2021

Earlier this month, the French Senate made a series of rulings that have the potential to alter the lives of Muslim women in the country forever. If the proposed legislation – part of a new “anti-separatism” bill – passes, it will forbid women under the age of 18 from wearing the hijab in public spaces, ban women in hijabs from accompanying school trips, and forbid meetings that are not ‘mixed’ (e.g. associations exclusive to women).

If ratified by parliament, the bill would be the most direct restriction of Muslim women’s freedoms yet, which have already been severely impeded by several similarly Islamophobic and misogynistic policies over the last few decades (burqas, for example, have been banned since 2010). What ideology fuels this political and media-crazed onslaught on Muslim women? And what is France’s obsession with the hijab?

The problematic notion of laïcité

To understand the flawed thinking of French lawmakers, we need to look to a central, essential republican anti-clerical principle, called laïcité

Laïcités primary interpretation is ‘state secularism’— neutrality of the state in regards to religious affairs associated with individuals’ freedom to worship. It was sanctioned by a 1905 law outlining the separation of the state and the church, seen as a triumph of the ‘republican model’ at the time. Laïcité evolved into the relegation of religion into the private sphere and a gradually increasing secularisation of the public sphere.

The notion of laïcité has, however, always been problematic. In 1865, Emperor Napoleon III supported a senatus-consulte on the status of the colonised people of Algeria, in that they’d be given French citizenship on the basis that they stopped being Muslim. Western saviour fantasies were already in place and this measure was an attempt at controlling Algerian people’s faith, especially in the colonial and imperialist context. 

A colonial mindset of ‘civilisation’

Unveiling women has become a French obsession, particularly as post-colonial migration has seen an increase in the French Muslim population over the course of the 20th and 21st century. Under the guise of ‘liberating’ Muslim women, the aim of ‘unveiling’ is to police women’s bodies. It is feminism via the male gaze, and prohibition on the hijab in the manner the French Senate is proposing is akin to legislating hijabi women out of public life.

A mixture of the ‘orientalists’ exoticising North African women’s bodies and a desire for dominance over the colonised population has led to a stigmatising narrative associated with hijabs. This harmful narrative runs along two roads. 

“It is feminism via the male gaze”

The first one follows the patriarchal highway, picturing North African women as challenges to the male imagination. In that regard, the French governor of Algeria, Marshal Bugeaud, said in 1840: “Arabs eluded us, because they cover their women to our gaze.” That statement marked the beginning of the explicit integration of women into the imperialist process.

The second one takes the messianic path of ‘civilising’ an uncultured, undereducated people. ‘Liberating’ women from the hijab, as started to happen as early as the beginning of the 20th century, was meant to help with ‘integrating’ them into French society, and later on, ‘protect‘ children from being discriminated against by people who could tell their faith from their clothing.

French colonialist propaganda poster in Algeria, 1960. The text translates  as "Are you not pretty? Unveil… | Vintage french posters, Propaganda  posters, Male sketch
[propaganda image plastered in colonised Algeria, reading “Aren’t you pretty? Unveil!”]

An attack on women’s bodily autonomy

Besides rewriting colonialist scenarios and reducing the feminist struggle to a humiliating experience, forcefully unveiling girls under 18 via French law, also carries tremendous psychological impact. For someone in the heart of the puberty process to have their body openly discussed, their autonomy over it stripped away, and their choices deemed wrong has to have lasting consequences. Not just on their confidence but also on the awareness of the place society has assigned them.

For many Muslim women, the hijab is a tool of empowerment. It’s a way to feel a closer connection to God, but it’s also a tool that allows them to be in control of their sexuality since they’re able to choose who has a right to their body (i.e. their creator, the people of their choosing). This isn’t inherently limited to hijabis, but to all women who choose to dress a certain way.

“For someone in the heart of the puberty process to have their body openly discussed, their autonomy over it stripped away, and their choices deemed wrong has to have lasting consequences”

But instead, it’s been weaponised against them, represented in every media conversation as a tool of oppression and suppression. What this leads to is harmful stereotypes that they find themselves strained to dispel, and an even harder path to reconnect with a faith so stigmatised by the public opinion that it has to be relearned entirely in the Western context. How could anyone feel welcome in a country that so violently rejects their identity? Or develop any sense of agency, when others will rather define it for them?

It’s deeply troubling to think that Muslim women’s bodies have come to be a part of a field of public discussion invaded by white male politicians, white women with skewed understandings of feminism and undereducated television debate guests. All of it is entrenched in misogyny and an attack on women’s bodily autonomy. 

An array of contradicting laws

As of late, the hijab has come under particularly virulent fire; after being “shocked” at seeing Maryam Pougetoux, a hijabi representative for the UNEF (French Student Union) on TV, former minister Gérard Collomb stated in 2018, that the hijab “should not be a visible sign of an identity that shows one is different from French society”. In the same year, fellow politician, Anne-Christine Lang expressed a desire to exclude hijab wearers from political life, announcing that she could not accept “the idea that a woman wearing a hijab would be accepted into the National Assembly in front of an inquiry commission”. This amounts to a plain rejection of Muslim women from places of power.

But this most recent attack on hijabs isn’t without precedent. In 2004, a law was passed forbidding “ostentatious religious signs [i.e. hijab] in schools”. It was publicly criticised by the United Nations Organisation for being discriminatory but is still in place to this day. In practice, it prevents hijabis from attending schools and some university classes. In 2021, the government’s latest bill is intended to further push hijabis to the sidelines of society – or force them to surrender sacred aspects of their religious practice. At a time when Black and North African young men already are the police’s prime targets for racial profiling and harassment in France, it seems the government wants to add young Muslim girls to the list of potential targets. Already, reports show that almost 75% of Islamophobic aggressions in France target hijab-wearing women.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the extent of France’s institutional Islamophobia has been proven. While not wearing a mask in public spaces was forbidden and fined (135€), religious face coverings continued to be banned and fined (up to 150€). These restrictions seem to not apply to nuns, making them half-measures especially targeting Muslim women.

A human rights issue

The banning of the hijab is a human rights issue. These latest measures contradict the French national motto of “liberté, égalité, fraternité” (freedom, equality, fraternity). Article 18 of The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789 (the human civil rights document from the French Revolution) establishes “the freedom to practise any religion”, and is complemented by Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees “the freedom to manifest one’s religion or belief individually or within a community, as much in the public space as the private space, through education, practices, cult, and the accomplishment of rites”. The first article of the current Constitution of France establishes equality in the eyes of the law “without distinction of origins, race, or religion.” 

Does the hijab ban, by erasing visible signs of religious identity, contribute to creating better relationships between equal citizens? Does it make the population feel closer thanks to the smoothing out of their differences? Or, on the contrary, does it erect new barriers to the exercise of fraternity by restricting the rights of expression, political existence, and the opportunities of a group of people?

“Muslim women should not have to change for this system, but the system should, and has to change for them”

A society will remain fundamentally flawed so long as its citizens’ rights are so readily violated. If the laws of this state will not allow some citizens to live with the same set of liberties it affords others, then the laws should be fixed. Muslim women should not have to change for this system, but the system should, and has to change for them.

The longest word in the French lexicon is anticonstitutionnellement (anti-constitutionally). It’s a word that applies to the plight of hijabis. Preventing people from taking part in public life based solely on their religious beliefs is anti-constitutional and anti-democratic.

With no hope of conversations happening within republican, parliamentary institutions, as well as constant attacks in the media, French hijabis find themselves isolated and ostracised. As long as hijabis are denied access to the sites of public life, like education and politics, others will keep making up laws to regulate their lives for them. How is that for a democracy? Hijabis deserve to take part in the government of the people by the people, too. They deserve to be given a place in public life.