Is it French Muslim women who are losing out or is it France, which is failing to tap into a potential gold mine of human talent and intelligence?
The French president’s proposed ‘charter of republican values’ is being billed as the antidote in the fight against ‘Islamist’ separatism. A special commission in the French National Assembly approved the charter, and the wider assembly will be submitted during February. Many domestically and internationally have lambasted the draft law as it grants draconian powers to closely scrutinise almost every aspect of the lives of country’s nearly 6 million-strong Muslim community.
TRT World spoke to three religiously observant French Muslim women of North African origins- Tesnim, Nadia and Ines - who wear hijab, to see how existing and proposed legislation is impacting their personal and professional lives.
Every time Tesnim steps through the glass door to her prestigious government ministry job, she has to leave her hijab at the door. Since 2004, France has banned women from wearing hijabs, the headscarf worn by observant Muslim women, at schools and other government institutions. After a year she has become inured to the daily, enforced shedding of religious identity, which at first gnawed away at her conscience.
“I felt horrible everytime I used to take off my headscarf at work, now I am used to it. I would take off my hijab at work, but put it back on once out of the building, on public transport and at home," Tesnim tells TRT World.
"The pressure to maintain these conflicting realities became too great , as my fellow Muslim colleagues began to find out I was a hijabi outside work. It was as if I could feel them judging me for living a double life”.
She feels that this situation normalises a state of affairs in which France’s anticlerical, secular establishment punishes individuality and religious difference, today especially that of Muslims.
“I have become accustomed to not being respected for who I am,” she adds.
Faith or career?
Nadia, another young French North African Muslim woman takes a different approach, insisting that her headscarf stays on at work. As a result, she has been denied and openly refused job opportunities, even unpaid ones. In one interview with a well-respected NGO, Nadia had impressed the interviewer over the phone with her academic and career credentials. When she candidly asked the interviewer if wearing the headscarf would be a problem, the interviewer replied it would, saying she would have liked to hire Nadia but since the NGO was government-funded, the hijab would make it impossible as it would contravene the secular ideals of the state.
Several years on, Nadia tells TRT World: “I am still struggling to find a job appropriate to my qualifications. It is hard to find a good job in my field where they will accept me for who I am, let alone the skills I have to offer."
"It is no longer fair that society makes my identity such a barrier that I cannot even get a voluntary job, I should not have to offer to work for free,” she adds.
Similarly, in one interview with a potential recruiter, Ines appeared to be successful sans-hijab, and the company even offered her the job role. When Ines mentioned she wanted to be allowed to wear her hijab when working, immediately the interviewer’s friendly tone turned and his line of questioning became more hostile and he ended the interview abruptly without getting her to sign the contract. Thereafter despite her attempts to follow up, the company never responded any further.
“Whilst I have become used to poor treatment as a hijabi when I job search, the interviewer’s change in demeanour shocked me, to this day I feel betrayed as up to that point I was confident I would secure the job," Ines says.
"Before my hijab was mentioned, he saw the full extent of my capabilities, when I brought it up, suddenly my skills became irrelevant as he could not see beyond his prejudice. I feel this is an apt metaphor for how French society treats us, the sight of our veils blinds many from seeing us as human beings with talents and skills to offer".
At her business school, a private institution, where she was allowed to wear hijab, one male teacher made it his mission to pressure her to remove it during his class.
Private institutions are not just vulnerable to the caprices of individual staff such as this, they can also be subject to the overreach of the state. The French authorities arbitrarily closed down the predominantly Muslim-populated (90 percent) MHS College and High School in early December 2020.
Who's the loser in the end?
This was one of the only institutions where Muslim girls did not have to sacrifice an integral part of their faith to receive an education. Tesnim is proud to have volunteered there on numerous occasions previously.
The proposed anti-separatism legislation gives individuals like Ines’ teacher carte blanche to act on their personal prejudices. And the dragnet spreads further as parents will be prevented from giving their children a home education.
Ines has previously worked in the UK, where her lived experience as a practising Muslim was much less than problematic than in her own country as her hijab and Arabic skills were considered an asset in a retail shop environment in central London that many wealthy Arab customers frequent. Like many others with a similar background, Ines is planning to take her skills out of France, to countries her faith is not seen as a barrier and for now she has set her sights on returning to the UK.
Tesnim similarly hopes to use her experiences in the health sector to work in low-income countries. “I no longer want to spend my life fighting for basic rights in an unfair system that will always punish the Muslim and Arab parts of my identity, no matter how hard I try to ‘integrate’. Whilst I respect those that fight back, I see it an opportunity to go elsewhere where my skills are needed and who I am and my religious values are not made a problem”, she says.
Nadia is determined to fight on despite the seemingly insurmountable challenges. She is currently writing a book and expanding her social media presence to share her story with others.
She tells TRT World that she hopes her story of the struggles she faces in France will help her "create a community of women who have lived through discrimination" and cultivate male allies who would support her cause .
"We need to work as a team to build inclusive, co-operative communities where we create entrepreneurship opportunities for one another beyond the limitations society and state impose on us daily. And I want my book to reach my non-Muslim fellow French countrymen and women so they get a personal insight of what it is like to live in my shoes, so I hope it is a starting point of dialogue and empathy and diffusing the antagonism between different communities.”
Is it these women who are losing out or is it France, who, due to its intransigence to see beyond a piece of cloth, is failing to tap into a potential gold mine of human talent and intelligence? Or are both parties losing out? These measures against the hijab are intended to bar participation in society.
Elizabeth Levy, the right-wing editor-in-chief of the French online journal Causeur, captures the nation’s uncompromising hostility towards the headscarf when she says “the veil offends against a certain way of living in France” and that “often the veil goes hand-in-hand with hatred of France”. France’s education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer on several occasions has made clear that “the headscarf is not welcome” in France.
France's so-called 'secular' model
This expectation for French Muslims to cast aside their religious identity is rooted in the history of French colonial and immigration policies. France’s immigration model is based on assimilation rather than integration, the latter the predominant model in other secular, multicultural environments like the US and the UK. Major waves of immigration arrived during the 19th century and after the Second World War, comprising Italians, Spaniards and then immigrants from the colonies to fill labour shortages to build France’s industries.
Each wave of immigrants were expected to subordinate cultural and religious values and identity markers to the values of French state secularism and those from other European countries, with similar cultural and religious mores, easily acquiesced. However the Muslims’ refusal to discard religious and cultural practices such as the hijab and to a much lesser degree, the niqab, are seen by French politicians across the spectrum as an existential threat.
Moreover, the French state’s current attitude to hijabis has echoes in French rule in Algeria. The country was ruled not as a colony or protectorate, but as any other province of Metropolitan France (i.e. a “departement”). The French, hostile to the Haik, a traditional white Algerian veil, staged mass public ‘unveiling’ ceremonies in which local women would have their veils removed, both voluntarily and by force. These women and others who chose to discard their Islamic culture were conferred by the French with citizenship and the chance to participate in French society.
The French state then, as now, framed this state-enforced unveiling of Muslim women as liberation from the supposed shackles of Islam and patriarchal Maghreb culture. Naturally, as a legacy of this putative “mission civilisatrice”, France was the first European nation to enforce a niqab/face veil ban back in 2011. This idea of saving Muslim women from the clutches of Muslim men is not only patronising, it has the opposite effect of emancipation, placing obstacles in their participation from society, employment and debate. It forces the likes of Nadia, Ines and Tesnim to often make agonising choices between careers and faith.
All three of my interviewees see no contradiction between being French citizens and Muslims, despite the hostility of the State to their beliefs. Nadia especially believes her Islamic values encourage her to positively contribute towards society. Her means of doing that would be by working in a mainstream NGO, but despite her qualifications, her hijab bars her from delivering on those intentions. Many attempts at inclusion and integration have been repeatedly made, but each time the French state and society suppress them because they do not fit France’s secular model.
In 2019 French sportswear brand Decathlon announced a hijab for runners, but fury from politicians from across the spectrum and a campaign of physical and verbal threats to staff compelled the company to remove the product from its French stores. Even those hostile to it acknowledged it was not against the law, but protested against it vehemently in any case.
In September 2020, Maryam Pougetoux, the spokesperson of the French National Union of Students (UNEF) was addressing the French parliament on the effects COVID-19 had on young French people. A senior member from the ruling party La Republique En Marche led a walkout to protest Pougetoux’s hijab in the National Assembly indicating strong antagonism to the Muslim headscarf at highest level of politics. This attitude goes right up to Macron himself when he declared in 2018 that the hijab is “not in accordance with the civility of our country”.
This enshrined attitude was merely a dress rehearsal for today’s proposed anti-separatism laws. The parliamentary example of exclusion cited, ironically perhaps fuels the very separatism France wants to eradicate by delegitimising normative Islamic practices. It would deal a coup de grace to any hopes of the State of fostering a visible and viable Muslim identity within the national framework.
The exclusion all my interviewees feel could intensify in the light of France’s far-right leader Marine Le Pen’s proposal to ban headscarves in all public spaces under the Constitution, labelling it an ‘Islamist item of clothing’. Current polls show Le Pen is neck-and-neck with President Macron which suggests she may have a chance of winning France’s 2022 presidential elections. Le Pen is capitalising on lingering popular anti-Muslim sentiment from the murder of Samuel Paty in October 2020 and is riding a wave of discontent over the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Even if she does not win next year’s elections, prospects are bleak for Muslims as Macron has a track record of imposing tougher policies targeting the Muslim community to stave off the electoral threat of the far-right. As we pass yet another World Hijab Day, it is important to recognise how the headscarf my interviewees wear has become a symbol of the battle for the country's soul, held hostage by an increasingly negative national discourse.
Whilst it is important to acknowledge the history of French suspicion of religion vis-a-vis the violence of the 1789 revolution, it is important that the country directs itself away from a cycle of self-harm. Psychologists often say that a sign of insanity is to do the same thing repeatedly and expect a different result, a cycle in which France is trapped all the more so with these new separatism laws.
France has always maintained a deep attachment to the long-cherished societal value of laicite, the anticlerical secularism it cherishes, so naturally Macron needed to portray himself to the public as a champion of those national values amidst recent crises. But this blind adherence to an intrusive state secularism also blinds the country morally, and stunts its progress as recently seen in Macron’s refusal to apologise for the crimes and atrocities committed during the colonial rule of Algeria.
Macron’s most recent endeavour has been to create a French Islam subservient to the direction of the State via the Charter of Republican Values signed by the French Council of Faith (CFCM), to which all religious authorities in the country must agree. The Charter subordinates religious convictions to the duties required upon each citizen by the secular state. It gives the State leverage to interfere in mosques and control the finances of mosque administrations and organisations run by Muslims.
Tesnim and some of her peers are not convinced anything will change anytime soon. In fact she feels things may get worse. She and many others have felt besieged, especially since the 2015 Charlie Hebdo shooting. They have felt an erosion of their fundamental rights and civil liberties and constraints on voicing their opinions for fear of being labelled ‘separatist’. Under the charter, dissenting views could be suppressed under the pretext of “posts that incite hatred”.
This new legislation could effectively silence legitimate criticism of well-documented institutional racism by equating it to “anti-France hatred” (Article 9). It is not just Muslims protesting against the Charter. Other religious groups such as The National Council of Evangelicals of France have contested this ‘republican authoritarianism’ and ‘intrusive secularism’.
Whilst Tesnim suspects that the anti-Muslim prejudice may never reach Holocaust-era persecution of Jews in France, it is frightening enough for her that the 1942 Vél d'Hiv round-up of Parisian Jews for deportation to concentration camps is within national living memory, and that a French far-right politician 3implied that Muslims considered ‘radical’ by the State be held within internment camps .
Whilst this is a very fringe view in France, with the President pandering to the growing far-right national presence, these comments unsurprisingly provoke alarm and fear amongst the marginalised and frankly weary French Muslim community. And considering we have just commemorated another International Holocaust Remembrance Day, it serves as an enduring lesson as to what can happen whenever state-sponsored targeting of minorities is taken to its logical extremes.