How France is politicising Muslim women

How France is politicising Muslim women

As students in France return to school, President Emmanuel Macron has made clear that those wearing an abaya will not be allowed in, stating that authorities would be “uncompromising” in enforcing the new rule. The announcement comes after education minister Gabriel Attal stated last week that the long, loose-fitting dresses worn by some Muslim women would be banned in state-run schools as, according to him, it goes against the principles of secularism.

The move has been criticised by many, sparking accusations of Islamophobia and rows over women’s clothing. In a tweet, MP Clementine Autain said: “How far will clothing policing go?. Attal’s proposal is unconstitutional. Contrary to the principles of secularism, characteristic of an obsessional rejection of Muslims”.

Targeting and policing Muslim women

Knouz Al Ins is a young Muslim graduate in anthropology. “It’s not in the interest of many men to see this garment being democratised in France,” she says. “They don’t want to lose their access to women’s bodies – like Robert Ménard said on TV.” Ménard, a French far-right politician and co-founder of the international non-governmental organisation Reporters Without Borders, sparked anger for his comments about Algerian girls wearing veils not being “sexy”. Speaking to French news channel LCI in 2021, he said: “People have changed a lot. I never saw, when I was 18, a veiled girl in my neighbourhood. There were many Algerians, and we used to find Algerian girls rather sexy. Today they are not anymore, to say the least: they are veiled.”

Al Ins explains: “That’s why, as a muslim woman, I don’t agree with this false idea that covering clothing like the abaya is an authoritarian control of men over women’s bodies. In reality, it’s in the interest of men who want to take advantage of and objectify women to see their bodies. And France, as a country, does worse: they want to uncover women on a national scale, by force – and particularly, in this instance, young girls in high school.”

The ban on the abaya is the latest in a series of controversial restrictions on religious symbols introduced in France over the last few decades, arguing that they violate secular laws. Despite covering all religions, they unevenly target Muslim individuals – particularly women. In 2004, headscarves and other religious symbols were banned in state-run schools and government buildings, followed, six years later, by a ban on full face veils worn in public.

More recently, a collective of Muslim female football players called “Les Hijabeuses” launched legal action in 2022 against the French Football Federation (FFF) for banning the hijab during competitive football games. The ban was upheld by France’s top administrative court last June. The same year, France’s top administrative court ruled against allowing burkini swimwear in public pools. The ruling was the first under a controversial law championed by President Emmanuel Macron, aimed at protecting “republican values” and to combat terrorism. 

Institutionalised discrimination

According to the European Network Against Racism (ENAR), Islamophobia in France is a predominantly institutionalised form of discrimination. In 2014, 71.6% of Islamophobic acts were perpetrated by French institutions as opposed to private institutions or individuals – one quarter of which occurred in the field of education. Muslim women, and especially Muslim veiled women, because of their great visibility, accounted for almost 100% of victims of physical aggressions.

Islamophobia has been growing in France and throughout Europe alongside the rise of the far right over the years, but it peaked in 2022 during the French presidential elections.

In their 2022 annual report, the Collective Against Islamophobia in Europe (CCIE) explains that the incompatibility of Islam with France was at the heart of the electoral debates, and islamophobic statements were “so repeated and unchallenged that they have come to sound like banalities.” 

The wearing of the veil, in particular, was the subject of increasingly radical declarations, the CCIE states. The candidate Valérie Pécresse announced that she would “ban the wearing of the forced veil, the wearing of the veil for school chaperones, and the wearing of the burkini in all swimming areas.” Far right politician Marine Le Pen declared that the wearing of the veil would be “the worst thing that could be done in 2022 to a woman in terms of freedom”, which she said would justify banning it on the streets. 

The “Muslim issue” in the media

Since the beginning of the 2000s, Muslim women have been at the centre of many public debates with journalists, feminists and intellectuals discussing whether Muslim veiled women are a threat to French society and safety. According to ENAR, newspapers and weekly magazines such as Le Point, L’Express, or Valeurs Actuelles have been under fire for participating in the “business of Islamophobia”, as they often use racist stereotypes when referring to the Muslim community immigration to stigmatise these groups and fuel fear in society.

When war broke out in Ukraine in 2022, the media coverage of refugees highlighted the obvious difference in treatment given to Ukrainian refugees and refugees fleeing wars in Africa and the Middle East. The opposition between the “good” Western, deserving and civilised refugees, and the others, has been a recurring theme. 

“Paradoxically, I feel there is a dual movement happening: a growing and openly displayed Islamophobia, and a greater acceptance of Muslim women in the workplace – especially in the region of Île-de-France,” Al Ins says. “In my opinion, we are at a pivotal time: the obsession with Muslim women by deceitful and money-driven media reveals their corruption. But French people are becoming less and less fooled: mainstream media openly lies today on all subjects, and Muslims serve as a great distraction, one that many have already managed to see through. The more scandals are created around Muslims, the more significant issues and injustices in France are being buried.”

Secularism in France

France is a secular country in that it claims it is officially neutral in matters of religion, guaranteeing the free exercise of worship, but also freedom from religion. 

“France, with its secular and anti-religious history – especially among the elites who still uphold their anti-clerical revolutionary tradition in power circles – views religious practice with great disapproval, especially when it is visible and with a growing rate of conversions among the population,” Al Ins says. “The act of ‘muzzling’ religious practice to the individual and private sphere only serves to stifle it, and perpetuate injustices in the name of adhering to each person’s desires.”

“The French government asks for the respect of “secularism”, a term that sounds classy and serious, as it comes from the legal realm, while creating restrictions on the Muslim community, through selected political representatives, to make many injustices seem fair,” she says. “Consequently, they interfere in the life of the religious community and of Muslim women, with the aim to also weaken Muslim men in the process.”

“There is also another reason why Muslim people are targeted,” she explains. “In the French imagination, Muslims refer to North and West Africa: the former colonies. Colonised people must remain dominated by colonisers, who always have to be one step ahead.”

“It is the French government that does not respect secularism at all,” Al Ins concludes. “It goes beyond the principle of secularism to interfere in religious affairs, which it normally does not recognise.”

Alia Chebbab

Featured image: Photo provided by Freepik


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