The politics of the veil in France – a reflection on the shortcomings of western feminism

A recent interview with French women’s rights minister Laurence Rossignol, in which she compared Muslim women wearing the veil to ‘American negroes who were in favour of slavery’ provoked widespread anger in France; a petition demanding that she face sanctions for her words highlights the irony in the fact that her government has just launched an antiracist campaign (Tous Unis Contre la Haine). Even disregarding Rossignol’s use of the word nègre, for which she later apologised, calling it a ‘slip of the tongue’ (arguably, an especially scandalous one coming from the founder of the NGO SOS Racisme), her main statement concerning Muslim women still remains problematic. Harshly condemning those of them who choose cover up does not only reflect the way in which France’s secularist tradition turned into a weapon against Muslim identity but also highlights the issues and false presumptions of western feminism about women in Islam, leading to severe social consequences.

Image courtesy of Parti Socialiste,  © 2011, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Parti Socialiste, © 2011, some rights reserved.

The French tradition of secularism (known as laïcité) is designed to keep religion out of public life. Although the concept originated from the French Revolution and became entrenched by law in 1905 after anti-clerical struggles with the Catholic Church, Islam has recently become its main focus in response to the growing Muslim population in the country (made up of approximately 5 million people, based on data from 2015). In 2004, a law was passed that banned wearing conspicuous religious symbols (including the Muslim headscarf) in French public schools and in 2010, another act banned all face-covering headgear in public, aiming to target women wearing religious face veils (such as the niqab). At the time, former president Nicolas Sarkozy stated that the ruling served to protect women from being forced to cover their faces and was necessary to uphold France’s secular values. Rossignol followed the same line of thinking in her infamous interview, asserting that the scarf is a symbol of oppression that needs to be eliminated through the ‘universal fight’ of feminism. However, it is questionable how ‘universal’ her type of feminism can really be.

There is no doubt that women around the world face discrimination in the name of religion and contrary to what is often stated in public discourse, Islam is far from being the sole reason for that. For example, despite the fact that a woman dies from the complications of unsafe abortion every two hours, the Catholic church continues to oppose legislation that would reduce the number of such procedures. While it is necessary to acknowledge that women also face forms of oppression in Muslim communities, including being forced into getting married and even being told how to dress, banning the veil is in no way a solution to these issues. It fails to tackle the root causes of subjugation, such as unequal access to services, unequal economic opportunities, prevailing gender stereotypes and discrimination. It does not only distract attention from the manifestations of physical, psychological, social and economic violence suffered by Muslim women, but also takes away the freedom of self-expression from those who are not forced to wear a veil, but see it as a vehicle of their empowerment. As stated in a study by Bronwyn Winter, some women don the veil in reaction to racism, as a visible identity politic, to express their piety, or as a reaction to the western objectification of women. Rossignol’s remark about how ‘it is not a coincidence that at the end of the ‘60s, when women gained more rights, skirts became shorter’ is a prime example of the flawed logic equating emancipation with western clothes, which serves as a justification to undermine a group of women’s rights to freedom of religion and expression.

Apart from the inability of the laws banning the veil to improve the situation of Muslim women, their social and political consequences are also worrying. According to sociologist Agnès de Féo, the 2010 law has encouraged Islamophobia and given Muslim extremists more cause to rise up against the French state. Women’s motivations to wear the niqab have also changed since 2010. As de Féo explains, before the ban, most women had worn it for religious reasons, but since then, it has become ‘an act of resistance against the state’ for many new converts. A woman using the pseudonym Leila confirmed this statement in an article in Le Monde, claiming that ‘it is my way of fighting and saying no to the government that takes away my freedom’. Laws are not the only way in which French governments have reinforced discrimination. While there is no legislation banning mothers in headscarves from school trips, Sarkozy’s education minister Luc Chatel issued a memo in 2012 recommending schools to ‘uphold the neutrality of public service’ on these occasions. Schools could thus decide to exclude hijab-wearing mothers from trips, arguing that they were aiming to protect children from being influenced by religious symbols. The new minister of education, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem expressed her disagreement with the memo; this marks a small victory for mothers whose children had reportedly struggled with psychological difficulties because of the way their mothers had been treated, but does not change the fact that teachers and pupils in public schools are still subject to the same veil ban.

The problems related to banning the veil are manifold and can have far-reaching consequences. Anti-veil measures are not able to improve the situation of Muslim women who are forced to cover up and create further problems for those who choose to do so for personal reasons. As Marjane Satrapi stated, ‘forcing women to put a piece of material on their head is an act of violence… but to forbid girls from wearing the veil […] is to be every bit as repressive’. Ironically, while Rossignol and other politicians aim to fight the symbolic appropriation of women in the name of religion, they introduce another form of control over their choices and behaviour based on their own interpretation of feminism; the principle of secularism in France is increasingly being exploited as a weapon against pluralism in society, reinforcing Islamophobia.