A single piece of fabric is enough to spark controversy in France: the hijab ( the so-called headscarf in Western newspapers). For decades, the hijab (Islamic veil) has been the subject of many national debates – one-way debates – which defend the French identity and the values of the ‘French Republic’ against everything related to Islam. These values, such as freedom and gender equality, are considered to be fundamental to French society, but incompatible with Islam. And so, Islam is an ‘evil’ to French society, impeding national cohesion and threatens Frenchness at its very core. Thread by thread, we can see this deeply entrenched anti-hijab sentiment weave together and makes it harder the wearing of the hijab. But how did it all begin?
The roots of anti-hijab sentiment: the colonial period
The unveiling of Muslim women and the anti-hijab sentiment begins with French colonial history. Colonialism was motivated by the exploitation of wealth and a so-called ‘civilising’ mission. The collective imagination of Arab cultures in France has been built over time, by the stories of well-known French writers such as Montesquieu with his Persian Letters, Voltaire with Zadig, or Guy de Maupassant in ‘Marocca’: this is the romanticised, mystical, wild image of Arab countries constructed by white men. The exoticisation of Arab cultures funnels into this ‘civilising’ mission – an effort to ‘tame the savages’ and bring the glory of French civilisation to them, and with it a desire to unveil Algerian women, in the name of a universal feminism.
In fact, many unveiling ceremonies were organised in Algiers in the May of 1958. They were conducted in a highly theatrical manner: groups of women wearing the haik (traditional garment worn by Muslim women in Algeria) walked to places traditionally dedicated to official ceremonies (town halls, monuments to the dead). There, a group of young Muslim women wearing the haik, would share the stage with generals and dignitaries, and deliver long speeches in support of women’s empowerment before launching their hijab into the crowd or burning them.
The beginnings of politicising the hijab in France
Unveiling Muslim women has since become an obsession in France’s political and social history. In the autumn of 1989, Leila Ahaboun, Fatima Ahaboun and Samira Saïdani – three students from a middle school in Creil, a northern French town – were expelled when they refused to remove their hijab. The country’s main political parties agreed with the expulsion, adopting a hostile attitude against the wearing of the hijab, claiming that it threatens the principle of secularism. This hostile attitude and anti-hijab sentiment came from believing that the hijab is a sign of communitarianism, of the rejection of the French values, or even of radicalisation.
In 1994, school directors were allowed to refuse students wearing religious symbols, but this exclusively targeted the wearing of the Islamic scarf. Subsequently, when the left came into power in 1997, the hijab became less politicised; however, the wearing of the hijab came back to the forefront when the right returned to power in 2002.
The results of the 2002 elections, with Jean-Marie Le Pen’s shock emergence in the second round, clearly reflected a strong attachment to Frenchness and a singular sense of national identity in the face of ever-increasing globalisation. In order to avoid neglecting right and far-right voters, the wearing of the hijab became a disproportionately covered topic, but with only anti-hijab voices being heard.
The following year, Nicolas Sarkozy announced that the hijab would be prohibited in passport photos. From that point onwards there was huge media hype around the issue – provoking countless articles, television programmes, and radio broadcasts. Indeed, in 2003, more than 1248 articles on the wearing of the hijab were published (according to the article, ‘La loi sur le voile: un entreprise politique’).
An increased politicisation of the wearing of hijab and the 2004 law
Propaganda against the hijab has since become even more extreme and raised the anti-hijab resentment. In 2003, the five-week Ni Putes Ni Soumises march ended with a major demonstration in Paris. Well known right-wing politicians were there: Alain Juppé, the then president of the Republican Party (formerly UMP) and Jean-Louis Debré, president of the National Assembly.
This media uproar goaded general opposition to the wearing of the hijab. As a result, the 2004 law on banning religious symbols in French public schools was adopted, applying to both students and staff. However, it should be noted that the law does not forbid the wearing of discreet religious symbols, meaning that many Christian symbols are beneath the radar.
The consequences of the stigmatisation of the hijab
The approval of this law came with serious consequences and downsides. At all costs, the aim was – and is – to erase any signs that might signify the Islamic faith. Students are expelled from their schools or denied entry to class because they wear skirts considered to be ‘too long’; mothers wearing the hijab are denied participation in school activities; women are fined for wearing the hijab on the beach; and the media lynch veiled women when they appear on television, as was the case for Maryam Pougetoux.
The everyday impact of this law cannot be overstated. Two Stanford University researchers recently conducted a study: ‘Political Secularism and Muslim Integration in the West: Assessing the Effects of the French Headscarf Ban’. In their findings, they noticed a higher drop-out rate among Muslim girls than non-Muslim girls. This drop-out rate – which is as high as 60% among young Muslim women – is either because they do not continue their studies into higher education or they drop out at the end of high school. But there’s more beneath the surface.
In these ‘debates’ the very people concerned – Muslim women wearing the hijab – are not given the floor at all. They are spoken for; they are identified as a homogenous group subjected to a patriarchal and sexist culture; they are presumed to need help in order to emancipate themselves. The headscarf is seen as violating equality and, therefore, a modern and Western right; so to tolerate it would be to betray ‘Western modernity.’ Elle magazine highlighted this exact issue in their piece, ‘Droits des femmes et voile islamique’: ‘in this theory, the question of the emancipation of women as the embodiment of Western modernity is redeployed into a double neo-colonial equation: the identification between modernity and women’s autonomy on the one hand, and between modernity and the West on the other.’
This February, Décathlon pulled their plans to sell the hijab for sports practice.
More recently still, a woman wearing the hijab attended the Regional Council of Bourgogne Franche-Comté, where a National Rally representative asked her to remove her hijab.
Clearly, this single piece of fabric is still hugely controversial in France today. But, beneath it all, the same problem stands: decisions are made about what would be ‘best’ for Muslim women, all in the name of so-called empowerment. Yet, it is in the name of ‘Frenchness’ that they remain stigmatised and oppressed. It is in the name of ‘Frenchness’ anti-hijab sentiment and islamophobia is justified.
Lorcerie Francois, La « loi sur le voile » : une entreprise politique, Droit et société, 2008, /1 (n° 68), pgs 53 à 74.
Sanna Maria Eleonara, Ces corps qui ne comptent pas : les musulmanes voilées en France et au Royaume-Uni, Cahiers du genre, 2011, 1 (n° 50), pgs 111 à 132.
Fouad Bahri, La France et le voile : trois décennies de dissensions, Mizane Info, 25/05/2018
Aala Abdelgadir and Vasiliki Fouka, Political Secularism and Muslim Integration in the West: Assessing the Effects of the French Headscarf Ban∗, January 2019
Zhor Firar, Le « dévoilement » des femmes, une longue histoire française, 16/03/2016