France's war on the hijab drives Muslim women into the shadows

France's war on the hijab drives Muslim women into the shadows
Comment: The French state is pushing Muslim women into the home and out of active political and social life, writes Malia Bouatttia.
6 min read
24 May, 2019
The first ban on the veil in French schools was introduced in 2004 [Getty]
The news this week, that the French senate has passed a law banning mothers from accompanying their children on school trips while wearing a headscarf, reminded many that mercy - even during the most sacred of Islamic months dedicated to just that - is not something often afforded to Muslims these days.

We are only half way into the fasting month and Ramadhan has already been soured with daily headlines of growing state and street-level Islamophobia. The right, it seems, views each day as a new opportunity to target some of the most oppressed sections of European society: Muslim women.

The Republicans party in France demonstrated just that by proposing an extension to the existing restrictions on religious clothing. The party explicitly stated that this law "prohibits the wearing of the veil during school trips". Leaving no wiggle-room for those who may have used the now tired excuse that it will impact all faith and non-faith groups since the text refers to, "conspicuous religious symbols".

The vote passed through the upper house of the national assembly with 186 votes in favour, 100 against and 156 abstentions.

This development in the increasing marginalisation of Muslim women at the hands of the French state may be of little surprise to many - especially the targeted community itself. Both the right and left of the country, from political parties, to writers, journalists, public figures and even artists, have not ceased to wage war on the hijab and burqa for the last 15 years.

The first ban on the veil was introduced in 2004 by then president, Jacques Chirac and applied to all schools and colleges in France. The law which was said to have been sparked by 9/11, was voted in through the national assembly with an overwhelming 494-36.

It is clear that the French political establishment is hell-bent on continuing its long racist history of targeting Muslims

Although passed by a right wing government, the controversy was in fact sparked by two teachers, both members of radical socialists organisations, who campaigned to exclude two hijab-wearing students from their school.

The years that followed were dominated by a discourse laid out by former French president Nicholas Sarkozy, that "France is a country in which the Burqa does not belong", so it came as no surprise when a ban on face veils (ie. the burqa) in all public spaces, was introduced in 2011.

Any violation of this law would lead to a fine of $168 and possibly the need to undergo a form of citizenship re-education programme. Because in the eyes of the French government, having any desire to wear the burqa is in direct contradiction with the aggressively secular (read racist) collective national identity that must be upheld and internalised, in order to access any basic rights in France.

Then it 2016, it was the burkini that the state went after. Prime Minister Manuel Valls stated that they were an "affirmation of political Islam in the public space".

In other words, Muslim women live openly among us and they must be driven back into the shadows. So for example, when the 2011 ban was enforced, and Muslim women protested outside of Notre Dame de Paris cathedral, over 60 of the demonstrators were arrested. By 2015 alone, over 1,600 police stops related to the ban had been made, and 1,546 fines issued.

Indeed, what is strikingly recurrent in all these laws has been the organised desire, from all corners of the political spectrum, to drive Muslim women out of the public sphere.

Schools, universities, public services, and even beaches or swimming pools have all become battle grounds over access to and control over public space. In the name of "liberating" women from their so-called patriarchal religious oppression, the state is pushing Muslim women into the home and out of active political and social life.

In reality, the anti-Muslim hatred enshrined in the political practices of the republic have existed since its colonisation of Muslim-majority lands - and Algeria in particular.

Muslim women's choice of outward religious expression was both used to reinforce the otherness of the former colonies, and as an excuse to strip them of any freedoms.

Muslim women were imagined as in need of saving by the Republic, which then served as a useful justification for colonisation and its "civilising mission". Public veil burnings became one of the potent symbols of exactly that process of violent oppression masquerading as liberation.

Read more: Daring to be a visibly Muslim woman in France

It is clear that the French political establishment is hell-bent on continuing its long racist history of targeting Muslims, particularly those who are visibly so, because they remind them that the reality of the country is a fast-changing, racially diverse one. The empire is coming home to roost.

While the France may have pioneered institutionalising gendered Islamophobia by being the first country to implement a ban on the face veil, it is not the only country enforcing such policies.

Austria already has had the Anti-Face-Covering Act - aka burqa ban - in place since 2017 when the coalition of the country's Social Democrats and conservative Austrian People's Party sought to outdo the far-right Freedom Party after their almost victorious presidential campaign.

Our cheap labour remains welcome, but it should remain hidden from sight

The burqa, which was worn by around 150 women in a country of around 8.7 million, was said to have been a hindrance to an "open society". The government introduced a law forbidding the hijab in schools altogether, just last week. Similar laws on face veils and burqas exist in Denmark, regions in Italy as well as Spain, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.

The current struggle is thus one over the outcome of 70 years of post-colonial migration as well as women's rights. Just as colonialism fought its war on the bodies of women in the Global South - an ongoing theme in contemporary western interventions in the Middle East - the same is true of the state's assault on people of colour at home.

It is through the policing of women's places in the public sphere that the broader exclusion of black and brown populations is being organised. Our cheap labour remains welcome, but it should remain hidden from sight. A battle which, judging by our central role in social movements, sports, popular culture, or intellectual production, has already been truly lost.

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.