Earlier this year, the French passed a new anti-separatism bill, which prohibits women under the age of 18 from wearing the hijab in public spaces, forbids women to wear the hijab at university and bans hijabi mothers from accompanying their children on school trips, amongst other bans. Unsurprisingly, this sparked uproar as this is the most explicit violation of Muslim women’s rights to date in France, but is not the first Islamophobic or misogynistic policy to be established. So where does France get its obsession to control religion? Why are Muslim women particular targets? Is the French secular state truly neutral?
What exactly is la laïcité?
When it comes to religion, France is a diverse nation with just over half its population identifying as Christian, a third with no religious affiliation, and the largest Musim and Jewish communities in Europe. Seemingly, all of these communities have been able to coexist partly thanks to ‘la laïcité’ - secularism. Passed into law in 1905, to separate the French Republic from the Catholic Church after centuries of power struggles, la laïcité is a good concept in itself, as it ensures that the state as well as its civil servants remain neutral. It protects the public’s religious freedoms; whether it is the freedom to believe or not to believe.
Over the years, the French government has enforced many policies and laws in order to keep religion out of public life, like the law in 2004 that banned religious symbols such as crucifixes, hijabs, turbans and kippahs in public schools. But the constant creation of policies aiming to conceal religious identity seems more common and targets certain religions, leading to some accusing the French state of attacking religion, in particular Islam. Over the last century we have seen la laïcité go from a legal tool used to protect religious freedom, to a tool that targets religious visibility.
A history of Islamophobia: Its colonial roots
“France has had a hostile attitude towards Muslims and Islam since the first headscarf cases started in 1989,” Abdelaziz Chaambi, President and Founder of Coordination against Racism and Islamophobia (CRI) in France, told TRT World. In fact, history shows that this hostile attitude was present even over a hundred years ago, during the height of the French colonial empire. France’s past colonies included many Muslim nations such as Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Palestine, Lebanon and Syria. Unlike other colonies, Algeria was considered an official part of France, allowing Algerians to freely move to France, only after having denounced Islam. Once in France, they would face harsh systematic and social repression. In 1830 “French Algeria”, as a last attempt to gain Algerian support the French monarchy launched a military campaign that ended in genocide, where over a third of the Algerian population was brutally killed. The strategies used in this military campaign were mainly based on religious differences, a common strategy in many French colonial campaigns. Islam was seen as a “belligerent religion” that needed to be either crushed or “francified” in order to create a “French Islam” that answered to colonial administration.
To ensure full control and “francisation” of the Muslim-majority colonies, French colonial powers urged a detachment from symbols of Islamic culture and religion, which entailed sometimes forcible campaigns urging women to unveil, and the relegation of the Arabic language to the private sphere. When la laïcité was established in 1905, why didn’t secularism reach French overseas territories? Because Muslims were seen as too attached to their religion and unqualified to participate in the French secular state. It also meant that French government’s involvement in Islamic institutions had to come to an end, which was the most effective way to control their majority-Muslim colonies.
Since then, the same colonial rhetoric seems to be recycled. President Macron identifies Islam as a threat to the Republican values, and assumes that Islamic teachings and anti-French sentiments are the only reasons that push people to extremism and terrorism. This led him to propose the recent bill as a way to fight “Islamist separatism”, as he puts it.
A rise in hate crimes
The consequences of the hateful rhetoric is clear. Media, public opinion and politics have an impact on the general mindset of the French people. With the narrative that Islam poses a threat to France’s secularist government, hate crimes have gradually increased. For example, in 1961 at least one hundred Algerians were massacred by Paris police after they protested the curfew orders that had been placed on them. More recently, a report showed that Black people and Arabs are 20 times more likely to be the subject of police checks, a figure that continues to increase. According to the head of the National Observatory of Islamophobia, Abdallah Zekri, there were 235 attacks on Muslims in France in 2020, a 53% jump from 2019.
The constant discriminatory laws and hateful actions of the state and citizens reinforce the alienation felt by the French Muslim community. A shocking 74% of French citizens thought that Islam was inherently incompatible with France's secular values. Those values leave the Muslim community largely estranged from the rest of France, rendering many to feel that they are just not French enough, despite being born and raised in France. They feel they are instantly labelled as Muslim and cannot be both French and Muslim. Isn’t la laïcité supposed to separate religion and state, and not religion and people? The only way for the Muslim community, the majority of which is part of the North African diaspora, to be French is to entirely shed their cultural heritage. Macron made this clear in a speech in October last year: France is “not the sum of multiple communities but one single community.”
La haine attire la haine : hatred breeds hatred
As a result of the alienation of the Muslim community, there has also been a large increase in attacks on the French community, notably by extremists involved with or influenced by terrorist groups such as Daesh and AL-Qaeda. In 2015, 2 French Muslims entered the offices of the satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, and shot and killed 12 people and injured 11. This attack was said to be in retaliation to Charlie Hebdo’s controversial publication of the Prophet Mohammed, whose depiction is forbidden in Islam. The newspaper republished similar images of the Prophet in September 2020, in response to which 2 people were stabbed outside the offices. The next month, a teacher, Samuel Paty, showed these caricatures of the Prophet in class during a lesson on freedom of expression. He was then tracked down and beheaded in broad daylight.
France passed this new bill in attempt to combat rising “islamist separatism”. Macron states that “islam is a religion that is in crisis today around the world”, which sparked uproar amongst leaders of Muslim-majority countries. Macron also assures that the driving force of these hate crimes is Islamic teachings and anti-republican, therefore anti-French ideologies.
An important question that the French government needs to consider is why there is an increase in hate crimes, and why are people turning to extreme and violent methods? Could this be a cry for help? Discussion on extremism centres around the communities living in the banlieues or suburbs. The banlieues are deprived areas, home to mostly first and second-generation immigrants from the former colonies. The communities have suffered constant social and economic exclusion and repression, and constantly struggle with extreme poverty. So, is this new bill really the best way to fight “islamist separatism”? Or is it another way in which to oppress a targeted religion’s visibility?
“Aren’t you pretty? Unveil yourself!”
Given that Black and North African young men are already a key target for police profiling and harassment, this new bill seems to add Muslim women and girls to the list of targets. Before the new policies, reports showed that almost 75% of Islamophobic aggressions targeted “visibly” Muslim women. For instance, in a striking display of French secularism, on a beach in Cannes in 2016 a Muslim woman was forced by police to remove her burkini and given a citation for “wearing an outfit that disrespects good morals and secularism”. In October 2020, two Muslim women were stabbed under the Eiffel Tower by white women who were shouting “dirty Arabs”.
“Aren’t you pretty? Unveil yourself!” were the slogans used in 1950s Algeria to promote Algerian women to denounce Islam. During this time, many would be forced into “unveiling” ceremonies where French police burned women’s veils. So France’s obsession with unveiling Muslim women is definitley not new. Many critics of the new hijab-ban claim it stems from the sexist fetishising of “oriental” women’s bodies, as well as the elitist colonial ideology of “civilising” an “uncivilised” culture. The French state assure that this new bill is also a form of “liberation” for oppressed Muslim women, a facade of feminism through the patriarchal male gaze.
The French government has weaponised the hijab and deems it a tool of oppression - which of course it can be. However, for a huge majority of Muslim women, the hijab is a tool of empowerment that allows for closer connection to God, as well as a tool of liberation, enabling women to control their sexuality and who has a right to their body. The real oppression begins when you deprive someone of the choice to wear the hijab.
The hijab ban goes against the French motto liberté, égalité, fraternité and is a violation of Muslim women’s rights. The human civil rights document from the French Revolution (Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789) ensures “the freedom to practise any religion”. The prohibition of citizens being a part of public life based on their religious beliefs, or religious visibility is anti-constitutional, anti-democratic and unsecular. Last month, Amnesty International warned that the proposed law posed a “serious attack on rights and freedoms in France” and called for “many problematic provisions” of the bill to be scrapped or amended.
Where Macron promised even tougher action on radical islam, is the hijab ban the best he could come up with? With elections in 2022, Macron has been accused of chasing after the vote of the far-right and of the far-left, a large proportion of which are strict about secularism. La laïcité seems to be at the centre of the issue. The state accuses Muslims of promoting separatism, however history suggests otherwise. A divide and conquer mentality was one of the main pillars of colonial administration and Macron recognises that France has created its own separatism and cultivated “economic and educational difficulties” for the Muslim community, despite still incessantly looking to combat “islamist separatism”.
As Hanna Bechiche concisely writes: “Decades of overt silence on the everlasting trauma of colonial violence, economic and social marginalisation, rampant discrimination and insidious Islamophobia have created France’s own bogeyman.”
So what is the real driving force behind this new bill, given that there have already been many laws and policies established prohibiting the visible traits of religion? Do these proposed laws now go against the very principles the government claims they are aiming to defend? Well, there appears to be a clear narrow targeting of Islam, so the answer must be Islamophobia. In order to truly combat radical Islam the French state must begin to analyse the societal factors that push people to extremist ideologies, instead of alienating them further.
Denia is our Lifestyle & Travel Editor and a third year student studying BA French & Arabic at the University of Leeds. She is pursuing a career in international relations and diplomacy and is interested in foreign languages and cultures and filmmaking. Her Instagram handle is @denia_beidaoui.