Near the end of her first year of medical school in Marseille in 2017, Nadia went in for a routine check-up before starting rotations at the hospital. The nurse examining her stared openly, her face twisted into a scowl. When she jotted down Nadia’s weight, she deducted two kilos from the reading on the scale, “because of the heavy clothes”. Nadia peered down at her outfit: a blazer and skirt. But she knew what she really meant. It was the hijab, an ivory pashmina wrapped intricately around her face, that was an affront.
It was only the start of a slew of abuse. The nurse gestured to her voile, French for veil or scarf, and said: “Let your hair breath, it will fall out from wearing that all the time”. She tutted at Nadia, a frequent blood donor, about a vitamin D deficiency she did not have and told to “get out of the house more, I know that in your culture women stay locked in all day long”. When she left, Nadia barely resisted the urge to cry.
“Being a Muslim woman in France is being judged every day, everywhere. When we go to grocery shops, people stare at us and feel bothered by our presence. Our children can’t talk about their faith for fear of being called terrorists,” Nadia, who is only able to reveal her first name for fear of further harassment, says. “We feel very unsafe, it’s becoming suffocating. We are not treated as true French citizens who work here, pay taxes and take care of the sick, but as animals that don’t have any rights.”
France is home to the largest Muslim community in the Western world, with just over 4 million people, amounting to an estimated 8 percent of the nation’s total population. A third of France’s winning 2018 World Cup team were Muslim. It is disconcerting, then, that 44.6 per cent of French people perceive Islam as a threat to national identity. The staunchly secular nation has long been at war with itself over its Muslims citizens, especially veiled women, who face increasingly blatant instances of Islamophobia.
On the 30th of March, the French senate voted in favour of a “separatism bill”, legislation which – if passed by France’s National Assembly – would ban girls under 18 from wearing the hijab in public. The controversial amendment triggered the viral hashtag #HandsOffMyHijab and has drawn condemnation from critics accusing the bid of targeting France’s Muslim minority. Amnesty International has called for the “many problematic provisions” of the bill to be scrapped or amended.
This is the newest development in France’s decades-long feud over the headscarf. In 2011, France became the first country to ban women from wearing a niqab, or veil, outside their homes. Before that, French law banned “ostentatious” religious symbols in schools including the hijab, oversized crosses and kippahs. The 2016 “burkini ban” imposed by several coastal towns prompted criticism from the United Nations for “fuelling religious intolerance and the stigmatisation of Muslims in France, especially women”. According to the Collective against Islamophobia in France, a non-profit group that sought to combat discrimination against French Muslims and was forcibly dissolved in December last year, 70 percent of Islamophobic acts and hate speeches are directed at women. For many, the recent bid is another step towards diminishing the autonomy and agency of French Muslim women.
Lamya, a 23-year-old business student in Champigny-sur-Marne, a Paris suburb, knows many women who stopped wearing a headscarf for fear of ostracism or unemployment. For those who hold on to their hijabs, she says, the alternative has been to drop out of university entirely.
“It is no secret that wearing a hijab in France will give you a hard time finding a job. A lot of companies still refuse to accept women wearing a hijab, Muslims lose their jobs for praying at work,” says Lamya, who asked to use her first name only. “At my first internship, the manager who hired me told the general director that I had a disease which made my hair fall, so that I could wear the hijab without getting any remarks about it at work.”
It is impossible to untangle the prominence of modern Islamophobia from France’s imperial legacy. French occupation of Muslim-majority countries in Africa and the Middle East involved limiting the use of Arabic to the private sphere, and in Algeria, ceremonially forcing women to take off their veils and burning them in a so-called demonstration of liberation from the patriarchy. A colonial poster from the 1960s depicts a smiling, unveiled woman among her veiled peers, with a caption aimed to tempt and ridicule: “Aren’t you beautiful? Remove your veils!”
“Muslim women are always presented by the media, movies or politicians as oppressed women without any free will, and who must be saved. This conception is a Eurocentric point of view and a racist, sexist and Islamophobic definition of liberation,” Fatima Bent, head of intersectional feminist and anti-racist organisation Lallab, based in Paris, tells VICE World News. “The argument of banning hijabs has nothing to do with liberation and helping Muslim women, it is a continuation of a European colonial power that asserts dominance over a religious minority, one that fosters racism and strengthens stereotypes.”
Laila, who also asked not to share her full name, moved from Meaux, a city in the metropolitan area of Paris, to the UK six months ago, after enduring decades of anti-Muslim abuse in the country her family called home for generations.
“Here, I see veiled bus drivers, veiled cashiers, veiled teachers. It seemed unreal to me. I can go to swimming pools in a burkini, I haven’t swum in 12 years,” Laila says. “On this side of the Channel, I see even clearer the straitjacket that bound us, how we were not entitled to banal things like swimming, working and studying in all fields.”
Much of the rhetoric around hijabs in France is shrouded in feminist language. It dismisses veils as a symbol of female subjugation, a notion that has been propagated by white and Muslim women alike. The European Network Against Racism has found Muslim women to be forgotten, ignored and often belittled by mainstream feminist structures. Many have pointed out the gaps in the argument: if feminism, reduced to its core, is the right for women to choose, how can institutions cite feminism as reason for legislation which ultimately limits those choices?
“The laws are infantilising. I think it’s a desire of domination. Since when do you free someone by telling them what to wear or not to wear?” Laila says. “This has no logic: we feel both the victim of a paternalism that wants to set us free from a pseudo-paternalism, and at the same time demonised as if the sight of our veils could radicalise anyone who looks at us. They want to make us invisible. In fact, that's the word: we feel invisible.”
Bent believes the French still regard being Muslim and feminist as contradictory stances. She says: “French narratives are still talking about ‘the Muslim woman’, as if we were a monolithic block. We are constantly denied in our plurality and this is utterly dehumanising. Muslim women must constantly negotiate their place in society and their humanity,”
“Our voices, our experiences, our realities and our struggles as Muslim women living in France have too often been silenced,” Bent continues. “Represented as a homogeneous block and reduced to a paradoxical silence: we never stop talking about them, but never give them a voice.”