Just a few blocks from the Grand Mosque of Paris, two young women sit on a bench, chatting over their lunch break. One wears the Islamic veil known as the hijab, while the other does not. However, as the two return to their jobs, neither will be wearing a veil, the young Muslim removing hers just as she does each time she goes to work.
“I remove my veil for work, and put it back on as I leave,” the woman, who wishes to remain anonymous, said. “But doing so does not affect my liberty—I am used to it.”
This woman’s choice represents a voluntary one, as Muslim veils are not illegal in French workplaces. However, some wonder if the increasing frequency with which young French Muslims make this choice may be a byproduct of societal pressure, including France’s 2004 ban of any ostentatious religious symbol in public schools (excluding universities).
More than a decade after the passing of this law, many French people still question why young women are choosing to remove their veils in aspects of their everyday life, and whether or not they should have to. Debated further is whether Muslim women have been included in the conversation at all—a conversation which has taken every turn from "freeing Muslim women from oppression" to "protecting school children from religious influence."
“What happened in France was that other women and other men confiscated the speech of Muslim women, and spoke in their place,” says Muslim and women’s rights activist Noura Jaballah. “By consequence, it was not because of the veil that women were excluded, that they were shut in their houses; it was because of a larger political agenda and the will of people who wanted to liberate women. Instead of liberating them, they enclosed them.”
The law is designed to protect laïcité, the French constitutional element which ensures separation of Church and State. Thus, many proponents of the law did not originally support it under a feminist agenda.
However, over the course of the 11 years since the law has passed, the discourse surrounding it has become increasingly centered on the hijab, the Muslim veil representing religion and womanhood which covers the head and neck. Suggestions arose that the hijab is imposed upon Muslim women by their male family members, and that these women required liberation.
For some, including Wake Forest professor of Arab and Islamic studies Michaelle Browers, the mere suggestion that Muslim women need freeing limits their freedom.
“Any time you suggest that women who are veiled are in need of liberation you make it very hard for a women in a veil to speak freely, because you’ve already put her free speech into this suspect category that is not free in some way,” said Browers.
For Sarah Adel, a young woman who volunteers through the organization Coexister to promote religious inclusion in her area of Argenteuil, the 2004 law does not limit women’s right to choose, but rather gives them time to make an informed choice.
“With regard to primary and secondary schools, I personally think that adolescence is a very sensitive time of your life, when you (try to) shape your identity and you are not necessarily strong enough to make sensible decisions which may influence others,” said Adel. “So at that age it's understandable to try to put some legal frame [around the issue]. On the other hand, in universities you're an adult and I find it irrelevant to want to prohibit [the wearing of the veil].”
Some argue the question of whether headscarves should be allowed in France is not a feminist question at all, but a metaphoric questioning of whether Islam itself is compatible with France. For those who follow this logic, the headscarf represents one of the most visible representations of Islam.
“There is a problem, a phenomenon, of discrimination, of Islamophobia, which Europe is not currently taking into enough consideration,” said Jaballah. “So to combat this rise in intolerance, discrimination, and racism, against Muslims…we are in the process of working for society in general, not just the Muslim population. Because a society which loses its values, values of tolerance, values of liberty, values of openness, is a society which loses its roots.”
This begs the question of whether the ban of the hijab represents institutionalized intolerance of a Muslim tradition. For those who say yes, this Islamophobic political discourse was legalized by the 2013 "Baby Loup" court case, in which courts upheld a woman being fired from the private nursery where she worked for refusing to remove her headscarf.
Such a decision sparks fear among many Muslims, particularly following the release of a study by Stanford University which found Muslims 2.5 times less likely to receive a job than an identical Christian applicant. Some question whether that fear motivates young women to make the same choice made by the woman on her lunch break near the Grand Mosque of Paris—the choice to represent oneself according to society’s demands for secularity.
Workplace pressures aside, some believe any ban on dress promotes an anti-feminist agenda, in this case preventing Muslim women from participating in society in the same way as Muslim men. In addition, some feel that it forces Muslim women to choose between their personal and religious identity and their ability to participate fully in society and the workplace.
“Any ban that’s focused on one particular group will impact that group,” said Browers. “It has an impact, it becomes harder for them to negotiate their education, and it becomes much more difficult for them to practice their religion if their belief is that their religion requires certain things [like the wearing of a veil].”
However, the majority of French citizens do not feel that the 2004 law brings Islam’s place in France into question. Rather, they see the law’s equal application to all religions as the opposite, and a mere requirement that Muslims in France uphold laïcité as a precursor to inclusion.
The question then arises, if French laïcité prevents some Muslim women from practicing their religion as they would like, does laïcité protect religious freedom? Or does it, in its protection of political secularism, go so far as to prohibit religion?
For many women, Muslim veils do not represent submission, oppression, or male dominance. On the contrary, prohibiting women from determining their own self-expression represents oppression.
“Whether or not women are wearing a veil while they [get their PhD’s] seems so insignificant compared to whether or not they’re actually doing those things and able to access those places…,” said Browers. “I suspect it’s not genuinely often the way it’s described, as an attempt to liberate women. It’s quite often an attempt to shame, and blame, and isolate and marginalize Muslim people more generally,” said Browers.
But for other Muslim women today, the 2004 ban on ostentatious religious symbols in schools marks the norm of their last decade of public life. In many instances, this has translated into an acceptance of the law—as well as the confidence that it need not alter their lifestyle.