By Julie Ngalle 

A well-known concept that is central to French politics and society is the concept of “secularism” (in French: laïcité). Secularism is a principle that seeks to separate private and public matters – specifically, religion and politics – with the goal being to promote tolerance and equality. As it is explained in the French Penal Code, the state is expected to remain neutral and treat all religions equally. Religion, whichever one it may be, therefore never interacts with politics; it is rather a private matter that is dealt with within households. This is a concept that was first introduced around the French revolution as a way to separate the Catholic Church from the State, and later from education. 

Under this principle, France has a set of laws and rules that seek to separate both circles. One of the most notable ones stating that no ostentatious sign of religion can be worn in public spaces. It should be noted, and this has been lost in translation within a lot of international pieces and social media, that when French law refers to “public spaces” what is meant is public institutions that link back to the State. So places such as public schools or town halls for example. These involve hijabs and burkas yes, but also kippahs, crucifixes, etc. These are both details that the vast majority of mainstream and social media forget to note, and this is a distinction that has its importance, especially when we look at the history and initial goal behind the secularism principle. 

Having said this howver, in recent years, we have seen politicians and governments from all parties across the board use this idea of secularism to pass Islamophobic laws and oppress France’s Muslim community. For one, in France, Muslim women are not allowed to wear niqabs, which are headscarfs accompanied by an additional veil for the face, leaving only your eyes clear. These are banned in France as the law states that all people should be easily identifiable. In 2021, one year into the global COVID-19 pandemic and mandatory mask wearing this sure raises an embarrassing sense of irony. 

Alongwith the legal oppression that Muslim communities, especially women, face, these same women have also been the target of verbal, physical and sexual assault in France for centuries. 

In October 2020, two hijabi women were stabbed in Paris, and my mind is still haunted by a clip of a far-right ‘Rassemblement National’ party member attacking a Muslim woman accompanying her son to school trip at a regional council meeting. The government official demanded the woman take off her hijab,  forcing her to leave with her crying and traumatised son as she refused to do so.

The issue is many French people view hijabs and burkas as a provocation to French values, as a threat and as a sign of oppression or worse, Islamist extremism. When a terrorist attack takes place, hijabi women are shamed, viewed as disrespecting the victims and opposing French values just because they are following their faith. So whether at work, in the streets or in the media, Muslim women are constantly scrutinised, harrassed and their rights violated. 

And the latest manifestation of the crippling Islamophobia that runs through our veins is the set separatist laws that are currently being passed through Parliament. The initial goal of the bill was to tackle the issue of separatism, notably “Islamic separatism” as President Emmanuel Macron stated himself, by taking measures further reinforcing this notion of secularism. 

The debates rose following secondary-school teacher Samuel Paty’s assassination by a Muslim extremist in October, an attack that most of the Muslim community shinnefd and condemned. Debates surrounded home-schooling, the delivery of “virginity certificates” and fight against polygamy, as well as questions surrounding online hate or transparency when it comes to finances and regualtions within places of worship. 

Unfortunately, things took a rather Islamophobic turn, and a set of laws directly attacking the freedom of belief and expression of the Muslim community, again, especially women emerged. 

Currently, it has been voted that under this bill, mothers accompanying children on school trips would be forbidden from wearing any religious symbols, women wearing burkinis could legally be refused entry to public swimming pools, prayers would be forbidden in university facilities whether that be in private rooms, toilets or corridors. The most shocking one to date, however, was the amendment making it potentially illegal for women and girls under 18 to wear a hijab or burka. These are some isolated laws of a much wider set of course, which have more or less an impact on Muslim communities, but the ones stated above were some of the most shocking to much of the French public due to the explicit discriminatory and Islamophobic tone and ideas behind them. 

This bill, it is important to say, has yet to be approved by the National Assembly before it is added to the Penal Code. Indeed, the legislative process in France is thorough. To summarise it simply, a bill can be submitted through the Lower (National Assembly) or Higher Chambers (Senate) of Parliament. It will then be examined by both chambers one after the other who debate, vote on and draft the bill. Both chambers can agree, or not. In the case that they don’t, a careful rereading and further debate takes place. If still no agreement is reached, then the National Assembly gets the final say. This separatist bill stated above is therefore not final, but whether these laws are adopted or not, the message all these debates send is the same, and it is frankly quite worrying. 

In a country such as France, which has one of the biggest Muslim communities in Europe and yet Muslim men, women and children are feared, discriminated against and opprersed daily, the government has chosen to validate the oppresser rather than the oppressed. The government is becoming the oppressor, as they choose recognise and embrace this absurd discomfort that French society has with Islam in general. Knowing our colonial history in several North African and Sub-Saharan countries, and the contributions that immigration from these countries bring to our economy, this is disgusting, enraging and heartbreaking. 

Frankly, in the debates surrounding hijabs and niqabs, the people who should be forced to change their ways and opinions are not the women who choose to wear these, but the people who fear or resent them for that very reason. When we try to liberate women and what they wear, this should include women who want to add layers, not just women who want to remove some. So yes, if you are going to support the idea that women should be able to wear what they want, that should also entail hijabis. Calling yourself a feminist, liberal or proggressive does not work if you only support women’s rights one way. 

Far-right politicians act devastated when reading about some Muslim countries imposing the hijab, burqa or niqab but impose the opposite form of oppression are ridiculous hypocrites. 

The hypocrisy continues when these same politicians justify these bills and ideologies by stating they are “saving and trying to liberate oppressed women” when they invite no Muslim women, hijabi or not, to the conversation, is embarrassing and infuriating. I’ve said it many times and will continue to say it, we cannot fight oppression by oppressing. That parties and governments that continue to oppress and ignore marginalised communities refer to principles such as secularism, liberation or equality are simply trying to disguise their discriminative ideologies.

The problem in France is that governments seem to be seeking to homogenise a deeply heterogeneous society as they mistake being equal with being identical. Another problem is that we have people making decisions about issues that do not concern them. White  non-Muslim men and women should not be deciding how Muslim women practice their faiths, especially when this does not disrupt public peace and order, and that’s what the secularism principle really states.

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