LIn October, French President Emmanuel Macron laid out the vision behind a deeply controversial new bill. The government claimed that a minority of the estimated 6 million Muslims in France were at risk of forming a “counter-society” and the bill was designed to address the dangers of this “Islamist separatism.”
It is intended to safeguard Republican values, but critics, including Amnesty International, have expressed serious concerns that it may inhibit freedom of association and expression and increase discrimination. The new law, critics say, will severely affect mosque construction and give local authorities more discretion to shut down local associations deemed in conflict with “republican principles,” a term often used specifically against Muslims. But one of the most controversial points is the extension of the ban on veiling women in public sector positions, to private organizations that provide a public service. Other amendments were tabled banning long bathing suits (“burkinis”), girls under the age of 18 from wearing the hijab in public and mothers wearing the hijab on their children’s school trips. These were later revoked, but the stigma they legitimize lives on.
This month, the EU court of law said that EU companies can, under certain conditions, prohibit employees from wearing a headscarf. While the Macron government has gone to great lengths to insist that the new law is not directed at any particular religion, many Muslims fear exactly that.
“We are seeing a justification for a violation of freedom and fundamental rights in the name of security: an armament of secularism,” says French jurist Rim-Sarah Alouane. “It is a warped legal monster, which aims not only to contain Muslims but to erase them from the public sphere.”
On Friday, the bill was approved by the National Assembly, the lower house of the French parliament. Its effects have already been felt by a harassed minority, fearful that its existence is being reformulated as a danger to the Republic, just as the far right prepares for a second presidential round.
Here, three French women talk about their experiences of institutional Islamophobia and their fears for the future.
Mother of five I grew up in Mantis-The pretty, a working class neighborhood outside paris, And it is looking for a job. In 1994, when I was 14 years old, a government edict advised schools to ban the use of “ostentatious religious symbols”, 10 years before this became law.
“I was a model student to the point where I refused to remove my headscarf (full attendance, never late) and yet I found myself in front of a disciplinary committee. I remember they tried to intimidate us, they told us we were not in Iran. I had no idea what that meant. They accused us of being part of the FIS [the Algerian resistance movement] – but I’m Moroccan.
“They forced us to go to school, but they forbade us to attend classes, they basically detained us, and they didn’t allow us to go out onto the playground to mingle with the other students. We only had five minutes to rest. This went on for months.
“Then they sent me to a disciplinary council because school must be compulsory until the age of 16. They permanently excluded me. The local Muslim groups and the mosque told me to take off my scarf, but I refused. For me, it was like asking me to undress. I felt violated by the demand to undress. Anyway, I am naturally a very modest person. I was 14 years old and I had to educate myself at home through distance learning. I ended up very isolated. My parents couldn’t help me, they were barely making ends meet. I didn’t get support and ended up meeting some bad people who convinced me that there was no point in continuing to study as I would never be able to get a job with my headscarf anyway, which is not exactly a lie.
“I was very isolated and at the mercy of uneducated people who told me that marriage was the only route worth taking. The government talks about the dangers of segregated identities [repli identitaire], but they imposed it on me. My friends at school were shocked: I was the last person they expected to end up isolated like this. He was very athletic and ambitious, he wanted to travel the world.
“This was not even a law; it was simply a guide from the government, and it broke more than one of us. It ruined my education. It made me take refuge in a single dimension of my identity, my religion, when I was always interested in many things along with my faith. It broke my trust and made me feel like I didn’t belong. I got lost and married very young, since marriage and children seemed the only success to which I could aspire. My husband insisted that I wear a facial veil, but I refused. We got divorced when I was 20 years old.
“The new separatism bill wants girls under 18 to not wear a scarf, but I can tell you that it will make them want to wear it more. I am afraid for all those girls who may go through what I went through and are going to find themselves very vulnerable. This law is meant to protect secularism, but it is a deep invasion. I think the worst is yet to come. What happened to me happened even before there was a law to back it up; these laws are legitimizing even worse behavior because they justify the underlying narrative that we are a problem. “
The A university researcher and mother of three, she is from a middle-class neighborhood in Paris.
“In 2019, when my son was eight years old, I was a regular volunteer at his school and I decided to go on a school trip. The teacher agreed and I was eager to do so. But when I arrived the next morning, I could see that the principal was livid and was talking to the teacher about me. The teacher came over and shyly asked me to leave, making up an excuse that there was no room on the bus. I challenged her, asking her why they were asking me to leave the father, had she pulled out the short straw?
“The director approached and said: ‘You have to understand, here we are in a republic, there is a principle of secularism and, if you don’t like it, go home.’ I thanked him for the information that France is a republic, since I am an academic researcher at one of the best universities in France, this was not exactly news to me.
“Knowing that the law did not prohibit me from being there, I requested a letter in writing explaining why they were asking me to leave. It was then that he called the police. She must have said that I was threatening her because they arrived immediately and in front of the school bus, full of parents, all the students and my son, two officers began to lecture me: ‘This is a secular country, you have to go.’ ‘
“I was so humiliated at this point that I started crying, in front of everyone; my son witnessed the whole scene. I told them that what they were doing was institutional racism and that they were wrong with the law. They themselves seemed confused.
“One of the mothers came down and asked me to stop making a scene, handing me a hat to wear instead of my headscarf. He asked me to stop traumatizing the children further. To defuse the situation, I put on my hat.
“After that day, my son didn’t want to go to school anymore. I couldn’t reassure him. I decided to make a formal complaint to various human rights groups, they refused to defend me and the educational ombudsman. The boss refused to apologize. I decided not to sue because it was very exhausting for me and my son. Your whole life becomes a fight.
“With this new law, I am extremely pessimistic about the future of this country, I no longer see a future here. We are the undesirables, the unwanted and there are serious psychological wounds in this symbolic violence that we live. We often hear that there is a problem of integration in France, but what there is is a problem of racism. “
The 22-year-old general secretary and vice president of Femyso, the Forum of European Muslim Youth and Student Organizations, and a law student from Strasbourg. She and several others Muslim women established the “Don’t Touch My Hijab” campaign, which went viral and was supported by high-profile Muslim women such as Olympic athlete Ibtihaj Muhammad and the Rawdah Mohamed, model born in Somalia.
“We launched the campaign after the Senate voted on the bill, hoping that our voices would be heard. We are French women and girls who want to stop the surveillance of our bodies and beliefs. In France, we are often completely isolated when denouncing attacks on our freedoms, there is often such dissonance, so we knew that we needed international support to show that what we are asking for is not unreasonable.
“There is this paternalistic approach, as if we don’t understand secularism, but they have shown us that the real problem in their eyes is Islam. As a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf, I already experience Islamophobia in the public arena; Instead of our legislators protecting us, they are actually legalizing it, strengthening it institutionally, and making it more systemic. The bill will make life more difficult for visibly Muslim women, regardless of whether specific amendments are passed. How is it acceptable to debate whether girls under 18 should be arrested for wearing a headscarf or prohibited from playing sports? Or if we should be prevented from being part of our children’s school life?
“They even introduced an amendment to prevent a Muslim woman in a headscarf from running for office. We can hardly find jobs as they are, and now they will further restrict the pool of jobs we can do. We not only fear for our safety as individuals, we fear our institutions. People are insensitive to what we are going through in France. But this is also a broader European problem – look at similar trends in Belgium, Germany, and Switzerland. We have been forced into an enclave and the only way we can challenge things at the national level is through international support. In France, anyone who defends the rights of Muslims is labeled a “left Islamist” and undermined. Even the government commission on secularism [secularism] was dismantled because he objected to the way secularism it was being brandished. We are told that we do not integrate, but gradually we are being completely expelled from public life. “
Some names have been changed
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism