‘I felt violated by the demand to undress’: three Muslim women on France’s hostility to the hijab

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.

Hier, 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 [the Algerian resistance movement] – but I’m Moroccan.

“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.

“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.”

Die university researcher and mother of three is from a middle-class neighbourhood in Paris.

“In 2019, when my son was eight, I was a regular volunteer at his school and I put myself forward to accompany a school outing. The teacher agreed, and I was really looking forward to it. But when I arrived the next morning, I could see the headteacher was livid and talking to the teacher about me. The teacher came over and sheepishly asked me to leave, making up an excuse about there being no room on the bus. I challenged her, asking why I was the parent being asked to leave – had I drawn the short straw?

“The headteacher came over, sê: ‘You need to understand, we are in a republic here, there is a principle of secularism, en, if you don’t like it, go home.’ I thanked her for the information about France being a republic, given that I’m an academic researcher at one of France’s top universities, this wasn’t exactly news to me.

“Since I knew the law didn’t forbid me from being there, I requested a written letter outlining why I was being asked to leave. That’s when she called the police. She must have said I was threatening her because they arrived immediately and in front of the school bus, full of parents, all the students, and my son – two officers began lecturing me: ‘This is a secular country, you have to leave.’

“I was so humiliated by this point, I began crying, in front of everyone; my son witnessed the whole scene. I told them what they were doing was institutional racism and that they were wrong about the law. They themselves seemed confused.

“One of the mothers came down and asked me to stop making a scene, handing me a hat to put on instead of my headscarf. She asked me to stop traumatising the children further. To appease the situation, I put on the hat.

“After that day, my son didn’t want to go to school any more. I couldn’t reassure him. I decided to make a formal complaint to several human rights groups, they refused to defend me, and to the educational ombudsman. The head refused to apologise. I decided not to sue because it was so emotionally draining for me and my son. Your whole life becomes a fight.

“With this new law, I’m extremely pessimistic about the future in this country – I no longer see a future here. We are the undesirables, the unwanted and there are serious psychological wounds to this symbolic violence we experience. We often hear there is an integration problem in France, but what there is, is a racism problem.”

The 22-year-old general secretary and vice-president of Femyso, the Forum of European Muslim Youth and Student Organisations, and a law student from Strasbourg. She and several other Muslim women established the “Don’t touch my hijab” campaign, which went viral and received support from high-profile Muslim women such as the Olympic athlete Ibtihaj Muhammad en die Somali-born model Rawdah Mohamed.

“We launched the campaign after the senate voted the bill in, in the hope that our voices would be heard. We are French women and girls who want to stop the policing of our bodies and beliefs. In France, we are often completely isolated in decrying the attacks on our freedoms, there is often such a dissonance, so we knew we needed international support to show that what we are asking for isn’t unreasonable.

“There is this paternalistic approach – as if we don’t understand secularism – but they have shown us that the real problem in their eyes is Islam. As a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf, I already experience Islamophobia in the public arena – instead of our legislators protecting us, they are actually making it legal, strengthening it institutionally and making it more systemic. The bill will make life harder for visibly Muslim women, regardless of whether specific amendments pass. How is it acceptable to debate whether girls under 18 should get arrested for wearing a headscarf, or be banned from playing sports; or whether we should be prevented from being part of our children’s school lives?

“They even tabled an amendment to stop a Muslim woman in a headscarf from running for office. We can hardly find jobs as it is, and now they will restrict the pool of jobs we can do even further. We aren’t just scared for our safety as individuals, we are fearful of our institutions. People are desensitised to what we are going through in France. But this is also a wider European issue – look at similar trends in Belgium, Germany and Switzerland. We have been forced into an enclave and the only way we can challenge things domestically is through international support. In France, anyone who speaks up for Muslim rights is labelled an ‘islamo-leftist’ and undermined. Even the government commission on laïcité [secularism] was dismantled because it objected to the way laïcité was being wielded. We are told we don’t integrate, but we are gradually being pushed out of public life completely.”

Some names have been changed

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