Last week, France’s Senate voted in favour of the “anti-separatism” bill, which claims to support France’s much-discussed republican values. France is home to Europe’s largest Muslim population, and tensions between Republican secularism and the Muslim community have long been simmering. Moreover, Macron faces a mounting challenge from the Islamophobic far-right in the upcoming elections, with Marine Le Pen ramping up her incendiary rhetoric. The bill has many controversial aspects, but one that sparked an immediate backlash on social media was the banning of the headscarf or hijab for all women under 18, as well as for mothers accompanying their children on field trips.
French laïcité (secularism) is a peculiar beast. While most Western countries pride themselves in championing freedom of religion, laïcité is more like freedom from religion. Religious symbols, such as headscarves, turbans, and yarmulkes are banned in schools, for example. But for all the neutrality that such policies claim to champion, they are arguably more akin to religion-blindness than true equality, and they disproportionately target Muslims, especially Muslim girls and women.
A popular justification for hijab legislation is that banning veiling ought to protect women. Veiling is, in the West, largely perceived as an oppressive practice rooted in noxious gender norms that dictate that women ought to cover up and stay away from the public sphere. However, this is an over-simplistic view, and one that is not free of the pernicious influence of colonialism and racism. The French colonisation of North Africa and the Middle East was characterised by a fascination with unveiling Muslim women – often by force, and without consideration of Muslim women’s own views on their religious attire and what it might mean to them.
More worryingly, the French ban on religious symbols has been studied to particularly disadvantage Muslim women and girls. For schoolgirls, the ban has been related to increased academic difficulties as they face a more hostile environment at school, leading to them being less likely to complete their secondary education. This translates to increased difficulty entering the labour force and therefore in becoming financially independent.
Out of school, life is unlikely to get easier for them, with Muslim women being the main target of Islamophobic hate crimes, some of which end up with long stints in the hospital for the victims. And the victims of these disadvantages and harms outnumber the Muslim women who choose to veil, meaning that such policies harm French Muslim women regardless of whether they would have chosen to wear a hijab. Instead of protecting them, bans on their religious attire feed into existing Islamophobic tendencies in society.
The bill has been heavily criticised by Amnesty International, not so much because of the hijab ban portion of it, but because of its implications for freedom of association. The bill stipulates that, to receive funding from the state or local authorities, an organisation must sign a contract supporting “republican values” and “the public order”. As the charity points out, France already has sanctions for organisations that fail to follow the law.
This is a step beyond requiring obeying the rule of law, towards requiring support for authorities’ beliefs. While this portion of the bill does not explicitly refer to Islam, it is important to contextualise it within the wider crackdown on Muslim associations that has taken place over the last year. Moreover, the overall justification for the bill argues that it is needed to protect France from “radical Islam”, which it fails to define.
How can the French government aim simultaneously to protect its citizens’ rights, liberties, and safety and at the same time add fuel to the growing Islamophobia in France? Approaches such as this, instead of promoting religious tolerance, teach Muslims that they must choose between their Muslim identity and their French one, and that their protection is an afterthought.
Additionally, it teaches non-Muslims that Islam is a threat first and foremost, and that liberalism and justice are primarily Western. The targeting of mothers helping out on field trips ensures that these messages are transmitted from a young age – what are children supposed to think about Muslim women if they are taught that the only way for a Muslim woman to coexist with Western values is to deny a key outward expression of her faith?
While the Senate vote does not mean the bill will become law, the Muslim community is right to be concerned. The most feminist and anti-racist response would be to support these concerns and voice how unacceptable these measures are.
Photograph: kilarov zaneit via Unsplash