France is a country that is often praised for its forward thinking ways, it’s unafraid delve into the future and the liberation that it offers its citizens. It is a place of legendary romance and art, rich in culture and beauty, but finds itself at the heart of an ugly debate.
In 2004, President Jacques Chirac signed into law the ban of conspicuous religious symbols in state schools. Although there is no specific symbol made explicit by this law, the Muslim community in France felt as though it was a direct and underhanded attack on their religious beliefs and practices.
Some would dispute the uproar and perhaps make the legitimate point that France has been a secular state since the beginning of the twentieth century and that therefore, such a law is simply an overdue addition to the political norms of the country. The separation of church and state in France having been a long-established thing, (since 1905) one would be hard pressed to argue that such a law was completely unexpected.
The French Revolution in 1789 sought to overthrow not only the monarchy, but also the church and although somewhat unsuccessful in the second endeavour, it did succeed in drastically reducing the power and influence of the church over its citizens. Stripping it of all its possessions to contribute to paying off the debts accumulated throughout the revolution, Napoleon further antagonised the church by naming three other religions as being officially recognised by the state. This meant that there was no religion of the state and it was a point of pride that the country viewed religion as a private and individual matter, not to be influenced by the government.
Such a thing, of course, is in direct conflict with the law passed in 2004. However, some would disagree and claim that France’s law to ban the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols in schools is in fact a re-establishment of the freedom and liberty owed to all of its citizens.
Alice Schwazer, a prominent feminist, is all for the ban and according to her, “This issue is about constitution, the division between state and religion…” and not an attack on religion or Islam in particular. The oppression experienced by some women in Germany is the driving force behind her argument as she criticizes the passive nature of her government. France has been a secular state for a long time and the personal objections of a minority should not interfere with the political growth of a country, particularly when it involves what is clearly a feminist dream in the banning of the headscarf.
Speaking from personal experience, Rochida Ziouche, an Algerian journalist living in France in exile, she shares similar views to that of Alice Schwazer, citing her own observation of the oppression of women in her homeland as evidence to support her case. According to her, it also exists quite extensively in France and “girls and young women are intimidated by Muslim men who oblige them to wear the scarf”. She makes a fair point, but her feeble argument is shot down by the number of young women who have openly challenged the law and risked expulsion in the fight for their right to practise their religious beliefs publicly.
“My classmates liked me just the way I was. They didn’t ask me to show my hair before electing me class delegate last year.”
These are the sobering words of a 12-year-old girl in France who left her school after the ban was implemented. Contrary to the claims of supporters of the law that it would serve to ease further integration of Muslims in French society, it is clearly doing the opposite. This bright young girl has not tossed her scarf away in celebration and proceeded to dive headfirst into the so-called ‘liberal’ society of the country, but has chosen a voluntary isolation in a brave rebellion against the state.
As though things in France were not controversial enough, Belgian politician Alain Destexhe unashamedly jumped on the bandwagon and proposed a similar bill in Belgium. He claims that they are “certainly not trying to stamp out multi-culturalism” then he goes into a tirade about the bland and overused reasons for such a law.
It would seem that the esteemed senator has the uncanny ability to literally be a fly on the walls of Muslim homes in Belgium as he confidently declares that “there is certainly an issue that young Muslim women are often forced into wearing the headscarf by those around them.” It makes one wonder if the magical observational skills of the senator extend to palm-reading and if so, then perhaps he could tell us if the whole world is damned to a secular fate. He speaks of wanting Muslim women “to be viewed and treated as equals” but refuses to extend this courtesy to the whole Islamic community. Surely their equality lies within their individual and basic human right to self-expression.
The original perpetrators, namely the French government, went on to take the issue beyond state schools and quite literally into the streets. In April 2011, the burqa or niqab, a face veil used by some Muslim women, was banned in public and the possible consequences of disobeying or openly defying this law were a fine or lessons in French citizenship.
The latter consequence is of particular significance as it brings me to my next vital and mocking point. The secularism law implemented in France in 1905 not only outlines the lack of involvement from religion in state affairs, but also the reverse. The flipside of the law states that the government will have no involvement in religious affairs and yet here we are, debating a law that does exactly that. In claiming to reinforce the basic values of the state, they challenge a fundamental element of the law that was passed in 1905 and consequently started this. How ironic that the punishment for failing to comply is a lesson in citizenship of a state whose basic laws support the apparent disobedience.
I am a young Muslim woman, born and raised in what is arguably the most westernised society in the world and to me, a woman wearing a scarf if neither here nor there. It disturbs me however, when a false layer of liberation is used to coat a cowardly attack on one particular religion, or all of them for that matter.
Such laws have supposedly been put in place in order to protect the freedoms of citizens, but actually serve in doing the binary opposite. Stifling people’s abilities to express themselves, religiously or otherwise, is a crime against the most basic human rights and how a government can get away with it by simply claiming that it strives to further integration of all its citizens is beyond my comprehension.
France’s laws are in direct conflict with one another, but that appears to be inconsequential to the state. What I would like to know is when liberty got so confused with a shy form of tyranny and how a government boasting of its own modern politics can be so backward. Let us snatch the scarves off the heads of Muslim women and slowly but surely force them into skimpy, provocative attire to be ogled at our leisure. These patriarchal and primitive views surely overshadow something as insignificant as freedom of expression or the right to practise one’s religion fully with no state interference.
To some it is merely a piece of material or perhaps even a tool of oppression, but to the young women who fight for their right to wear it, the headscarf is a lifeline. It is a symbol of freedom in the midst of a society that seeks to deprive them of it, while arguing that is in fact reinforcing it.
Words By Ayaan Omar
The UK's first Career & Lifestyle Magazine for women in the Creative and Media industries.