In 2004, the French National Assembly voted to ban all overt symbols of religion in public school and government buildings. Many considered the move—which became colloquially known as the "headscarf ban"—a covert attack on the hijab and Muslim women specifically. In the years since, France has effectively banned the burka and niqab (Islamic headscarves that cover the face and head), and just last year attempted to ban the burkini, a bathing suit that allows hijabi women to swim. In last week's STATES OF UNDRESS, host Hailey Gates travels to France to speak to two high school girls, Amina Moulay and Wissem Djaiz, about how the ban results in much more than just a clothing restriction for them.
Everyday, Djaiz and Moulay are forced to compromise their faith in order to obtain an education; they must take off their headscarves before they're allowed inside their school. The administration put up a mirror on the outside of the building for hijabi girls to use to take off and put on their scarves before and after school—doing so in the school's bathroom before heading out for the day would be a violation of the law.
"I chose to [wear the hijab] because of my own convictions," says Djaiz.
Both young women are disappointed that the French government, one which prides themselves on "liberty, equality, and fraternity," has taken away this freedom of choice. After the ban was passed, "a lot of girls stopped going to school, some stopped working because they want to practice their religion," says Moulay. Last year, neither of the girls were able to attend their school dance because it required them to remove their scarves.
Being prevented from attending a high school dance is not ideal, but both young women are aware that as they get older the ban will prevent them from accomplishing far more important goals. Women are prohibited from wearing headscarves in jobs that require them to be in government buildings, meaning occupations for hijabi women in law and politics are out of the question. This past March, the European Court of Justice also ruled that French companies are within their rights to instill headscarf bans, be they government owned or not.
Both Moulay and Djaiz hope to pursue medicine: for Moulay, gynecology or obstetrics, for Djaiz, heart or neurosurgery. Most hospitals in France are state-owned, meaning the hijab is banned (though they are more lenient with visitors than staff). "We want to do things but we can't because they prohibit the headscarf," says Moulay. "Do we have to take off our headscarf to become a doctor?"
The law effectively ensures that Muslim hijabi women cannot fulfill an array of positions. "I can show you dozens of women wearing the hijab who graduated with honors in law, in medicine, in chemistry, in engineering, and they can't find jobs— not because they are not good, but because they wear a piece of cloth on their head," says Human Rights Activist Yasser Louati.
The ban has also sparked a conflict of identity for many French Muslim women who no longer feel welcome in the country they were born in. "A lot of us start thinking about leaving France… to other countries where we will be able to practice our religion peacefully," says Moulay, "but it breaks our hearts."
Moulay and Djaiz's families are both from Algeria— a country with a long history of French colonization. Moulay describes the irony of the entire situation: "Over there they call us French. Here they call us Arabs. So what are we?"
STATES OF UNDRESS is on Tuesdays at 10pm on VICELAND