France and the veil – the dark side of the law

French anti-veil laws are steeped in racism and have opened the door to abuse against Muslims, argues Valeria Costa-Kostritsky .

In 2004, France introduced the law on “secularity and conspicious religious symbols in schools” which banned wearing conspicuous religious symbols in French public primary and secondary schools. Its supporters argued that this was keeping with the long-established principle of laïcité – the separation of Church and State – but it was clear to all that Muslim girls were the principal target of the law. How did this happen and what does it tell us about contemporary France? A story in five parts.

Leaving school

“When the headmistress saw that I was wearing a veil outside school she told me that I couldn't wear my long skirt. She said I was to dress properly, with jeans and a top, or to leave school. So I left.” Nineteen year-old Aurélie, from Paris, knew that there were no grounds to expel her from school – the 2004 law that bans wearing “conspicuous religious symbols” in French schools only applies to headscarves, it doesn't extend to long skirts – but she couldn't face the confrontation. “She [the headmistress] was telling me all sort of things, that I wouldn't find work, that God wouldn't feed me. A counsellor told me she was saying nasty things about Muslims in the staff room. I thought it was unfair”, she says, “Why could I not be free to practise my religion and go to school?”

Since then, Aurélie has taken up a paid correspondance course and is training to be a child minder. She managed to pay for it by finding work and minds two little girls for a (non Muslim) family. Of her employers, she says: “They don't care that I'm wearing a veil and never asked any questions. They're just very open. A few times, one of the little girls has told me: Aurélie, you've got beautiful hair, why do you hide it? –  but I won't go into it with her. I don't want to put her into my religion – everyone has to choose freely.”

Aurélie, whose Catholic family comes from Ivory Coast, converted to Islam when she was 16, as did two of her siblings.  Many members of her family object to her wearing a veil. “It took me a long time to decide to do it,” she says, “I used to be really into boys – a boys' girl – but then I thought, if I am to meet a man, it doesn't have to be in a nightclub.” The teenager objects to laws banning the veil. “Forbidding religious symbols doesn't make sense. Of course, France is a secular country, but when nuns are wearing a veil in the street, everybody smiles at them, and when it's Muslim women, it's another story.”

Photo: Grégoire Bernardi

The media storm

Pierre Tevanian teaches philosophy in high school. He is a writer, a member of collective Les Mots sont importants (“Words are important”) and has been one of the leading figures of the secular opposition to the veil ban in France. When I meet him in his Belleville apartment, he tells me how a series of isolated cases opposing headscarf-wearing girls and their teachers in the 90's became a national debate in France after 9/11. In a climate of economic crisis and growing islamophobia, it led to a quasi-unanimous national consensus.

In April 2003, Nicolas Sarkozy, then Interior Minister, attended the biggest Muslim annual meeting in France (the “UOIF”) and declared that women had to unveil themselves for identity photos. He was booed by the audience, which made the headlines – and was deemed outrageous. From then, media attention grew. “There were constant debates about the veil, the veil, the veil, the veil”, recalls Tevanian. In July 2003, president Chirac set up a Parliamentary Commission to reflect upon the application of laïcité (the separation of Church and State, a principle that has been enshrined in French law since 1905). Named after its chair, Bernard Stasi, the commission consisted of 20 members.

But the more people talked, be it in talk-shows or in front of the Commission, the less they seemed to talk about what the problem really was: a girl, wearing a headscarf, in a classroom. “There was a high level of generalisation, a lot of discussion about Iran or Afghanistan”, says Tevanian. In this general conversation, the veil was depicted as a unequivocal symbol of oppression, and the main argument against it appeared to be a feminist one. When I speak to her on the phone, Marie-Pierre Martinet, general secretary of Planning Familial, a leading feminist organisation in France, which has worked for decades to enable women to have access to sex education, contraceptives and abortion, tells me that “all religions impose a domination of men over women” and that “the veil is a symbol of this domination”. In practice, of course, she puts her views on the veil aside when she welcomes hijab-wearing women who need help in one of the Planning centers – but on a theoretical level, her unease remains. For most French feminists, a veiled feminism just can't be.

Racist stereotypes

Karima Ramdani, a 31 year-old sociology researcher currently completing a PhD on the history of indigenous women during colonisation, remembers her reaction to the 2003 debate: “When I saw the image of submissive veiled women that was pushed by the press, I was startled. It didn't correspond to the veiled women I knew, some of them from my family, some of them my friends. So I started researching the image of the veiled woman and found out that during Algerian colonisation, the veil had been used as an argument by the French to justify the civilising merits of colonisation – the image of a meek submissive veiled woman seemed to date from that time. During the Algerian war, a ceremony where women took off their veils was even staged by the French occupier to show they were liberating Algerian women.” The veil, Ramdani adds, wasn't considered a problem when women – some of them veiled – joined their husbands who had emigrated to France to work in the 1960's and the 70's. “This generation was a silent one,” she says. “They would work and keep their mouth shut. It was only after the descendants of immigrants marched against racism and stood up for their rights in the 1980's, that problems appeared.” Among the new generation that had grown up in France but was still not perceived as French, many started questioning what being Arab meant – and some of them looked for answers in religion, says Ramdani.

For Ramdani, a new stereotype arose thanks to people like Fadela Amara, a long time member of the Parti Socialiste, who created the Ni Putes Ni Soumises feminist organisation (“Neither Whores Nor Submissive”) in 2003, to oppose violence against women in the suburbs, contributed to creating new clichés. “She contrasted the image of the beurette, the young French Arab woman who wears mini-skirts and wants to be freed, with the image of an oppressed veiled woman.” Laïcité and the ban of headscarves in school would be the magical solution to the problems facing French suburbs and French schools. “Fadela Amara racialised violence against women,” says Tevanian, “just after the first extensive national study on violences against women came out – a report that showed that this violence was well-spread in all society. And, to people watching tv, she gave the impression that the ban on the veil was what the suburbs wanted.”

Most feminist associations failed to defend the rights of veiled girls, says Ramdani, because they saw the veil only as a symbol of oppression. “Feminists did not rise to a challenge that would have shown they were interested in what happens to all French women”, she says. “ We were in a country that was to pass a law establishing positive values of colonialim, yet it was as if they could envision only one feminism, and only one way for women to be emancipated.” But new feminist groups sprang up during the fight against the 2004 law, such as Une Ecole Pour Tous Et Toutes (“A school for all”), where young and old, veiled and non veiled women, experienced feminists and newcomers took part. More recently, in her book Libérez le féminisme ! (“Liberate feminism”), Morgane Merteuil, representative of the Strass (a trade union for sex workers) argued for a feminism that would be open to all, and accept veiled women, as well as prostitutes in its ranks.

Laïcité?

Jean Baubérot, a historian and an expert in the sociology of religion, is the only member of the Commission Stasi who abstained from the vote recommending a ban. He remembers the isolated case that sparked the scarf controversy in 1989, when three girls were suspended for refusing to remove their scarves in class in Creil. “Then,” he says, “the Conseil d'Etat issued a judgment ruling that proselytism didn't lie in someone's clothing but in someone's behaviour. I didn't agree with the shift It essentialises religion and prevents thinking. Based on the way a person dresses we peremptorily imagine the way she lives. To me, this seemed naïve and even obscurantist.”

For Tevanian, the 2004 law marks a reactionary departure from the concept of laïcité, a conservative revolution. “People kept saying that we had to go back to laïcité, go back to the French politician Jules Ferry, which was a fallacious rhetoric,” he says,”the fact that a new law had to be created showed that we weren't going back to anything, but revising something.” According to him, laïcité, as it was applied in France since the separation of Church and State in 1905, “guarantees the neutrality of the agents of the State, but not of the users of a public service. Like in a football match – it's the pitch that needs to be neutral, not the players, who need to be free to elaborate their game.” For Tevanian, shifting the obligation of neutrality to the users breaches the first article of the 1905 law, which guarantees freedom of conscience and freedom of worship. It also denies the right to education for all. “Proselytism,” he adds, “that is to say, trying to convince the other, is, as long as you don't try to intimidate the person in front of you, fundamental in a democracy.”

A decade of abuse

Following the 2004 law forbidding religious “conspicuous religious signs at school” (of which 3 Sikh boys were the collateral victims during the first year of application), Tevanian and others decided to make their own assessment of the law. They counted the girls who had been expelled for wearing the veil but also those who had resigned or failed to show up at the start of the school year and interviewed those who had agreed to take their veil off. Very quickly, they found numerous abuses of the law: cases where veiled girls had been denied the right to sit at an exam or to enrol at university, cases where veiled mothers had been barred access to a school when they had come  to pick up their child's end of term report – or barred from accompanying a school outing. And also cases where banks and gyms had refused access to veiled women. Actions against the veil had multiplied in higher education, in the workplace and in in public spaces

Anti veil sentiment was not confined to the right. When the far-left Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste stood the headscarf-wearing Ilham Moussaid as a candidate in a local election in 2010, indignation rose from inside and outside her party. In an interview with Marianne magazine, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the Front de Gauche, condemned Moussaid candidacy: “Political debate mustn't take place on religious ground. Someone who takes part in an election must represent everybody and not only those whose religious convictions she shares.” France seemed to have forgotten having had a few cassock-wearing MPs, among which the famous abbé Pierre. At the end of 2010, Moussaid left the NPA and has retired from public life. She politely declined to be interviewed for this piece.

The 2004 ban also opened the door to other restrictions. The project of a law banning full-face veils from French streets arose during Sarkozy's presidency – Baubérot, the historian, tells me why he opposed it. “There was something dishonest about this law. All legal experts agreed that it would be impossible to argue on the grounds of laïcité, since we were talking about public space, so instead 'security' was used as an excuse. When I gave evidence to the Parliamentary Commission set up to reflect on the law, I said I didn't think people should have to constantly give proof of who they are.”  The scholar mischieviously points out that Eric Raoult, responsible of the Commission and author of a report defining the full-face veil as a rejection of the values of the Republic is currently being investigated by the police for domestic violence against his wife, allegedly sparked by an argument about the way she dressed - too revealingly, apparently.“To me this is symptomatic of the level of hypocrisy surrounding this law,” says Baubérot. “It was never intended to defend the freedom of these women.

Successive veil bans have resulted in a rise of abuse directed at veiled women. Lila Charef, legal officer at the Collectif contre l'Islamophobie, who runs a hotline helping victims of islamophobic acts, notes that the attackers generally refer to the  existence of a law and to the concept of laïcité. I spoke on the phone to Nina, who was assaulted while she was in a fun fair in Nantes with her kids, in September 2010, and she told me: “I felt a big blow and thought the merry-go-round had stopped. It was only when I saw this man saying: Now you're respecting the law that I realised what had happened – he had pulled my veil violently.” On that day, Nina called the police, immediately stating that she was wearing a full-face veil and therefore breaking the law, but was calling because she had been the victim of an assault. She is currently waiting for her attacker to be prosecuted. For her, the ban has done the opposite of what it said it would do: “It was meant to liberate women but it has forced us to stay home. In the past, the fact that I was a wearing a face-covering veil never dictated where I would go. I'd go to the movies, to the bowling, to the ice-skating rink, on holidays to India... Now I have nightmares at night about what happened and I stay at home a lot more.” To university-educated Nina, who's been a convert for 10 years, there is a difference between women who are forced to wear the veil and women who, like her, choose to do it (her husband told her that he would rather she wore cute beige skirts and a veil that leaves her face exposed). “If you're forced to wear the veil,” she says, “it loses all meaning. I am for every gothic kid to wear whatever he pleases, and for every woman to be free to do whatever she wants.”

About the author

Valeria Costa-Kostritsky is a French journalist based in London. She writes about politics, women's rights and society for French and English publications including the New Statesman, The Independent, Vice Magazine and L'Express Styles.