Full Title: Threats of the Hijab: How France’s Colonial Fabrication of the Islamic Headscarf Affects its Muslim Women
ARTSSCI 1C03: Inquiry - Global Challenges
In the late 1980s, when headscarves on Muslim girls became a fairly common sight in French public schools, several people in France expressed their worries. Girls who wore the headscarf would be told by school administrators to remove their head coverings at school, and arguments ignited when they refused (Abdelgadir & Fouka, 2020). In 1989, when three Muslim girls from Paris took their case to the French Supreme Court—after being expelled for failing to remove their headscarf—bitter debate in the nation began (Das & Shirvani, 2013, p. 259). Eyes turned to the 5 million Muslims living in France, and discourse surrounding the place of the Islamic headscarf in French society reached a peak (Abdelgadir & Fouka, 2020). From debates on TV to news articles, people questioned whether it was acceptable to allow this religious headscarf to be worn in the educational system France uses to create citizens (Abdelgadir & Fouka, 2020). The frenzy surrounding the headscarf proved to be so great that in the fall of 2004, the French government passed a law banning what it called “ostentatious religious symbols” from public schools (Abdelgadir & Fouka, 2020). This law entailed the banning of the Islamic headscarf.
Discourse in France on the Islamic headscarf is still omnipresent, even if its presence in schools is not. There are polarizing views in the literature on whether Muslim women can truly integrate into French society if their religiosity and headscarf appear to go against the republic’s principles of equality, liberty, and fraternity (Rahsaan & Erik, 2014, p. 157). Yet, while this inquiry may be prevalent, there has been little interdisciplinary discussion on what invokes such negative reactions from the majority of the French population towards the Islamic headscarf. There has been even less discussion on the impact of this reaction on Muslim women in France. This paper seeks to contribute to those apertures in the scholarly literature. Using the French ban of 2004 as a case study, I explore how France’s colonial fabrication of the Islamic headscarf is pervasive and impacts the identity and livelihood of Muslim women in France. The term ‘hijab’ in this paper refers to the Islamic headscarf Muslim women wear to meet religious requirements. I will start by analyzing France’s colonial history with Algeria and its depiction of the hijab during that period. Then, I will illustrate its importance in French understandings of the headscarf by highlighting parallels between arguments used for the ban on headscarves and France’s historical repackaging of the Muslim headdress. Concluding illustrations will reveal the impact of the hijab ban on the rights, identity, education, and socioeconomic class of Muslim women in France.
France’s colonization of Algeria between 1840 and 1860 marks the period where it significantly began to spread the narrative that Muslim women were oppressed. When France first conquered Algeria, the French government justified their colonization to the Western community by portraying it as a “civilizing mission”: an operation where Algerian people were given “superior,” French republican, secular, and universalist values (Scott, 2007, p. 46). This colonial rule was further validated through France’s racist representations of Arabs, Muslims, and North Africans, where these three different groups were frequently portrayed as the same, and the men were illustrated as savage, uncivilized peoples who oppressed women (Delcroix, 2009, p. 88; Scott, 2007, p. 46). After 1871, when France’s political regime changed and a republic was established, the French government incorporated Algeria as part of France itself. All Algerians were granted French citizenship except for those who were Muslim; if Muslim Algerians wanted to attain a similar status, they had to denounce Islam (Delcroix, 2009, p. 88). However, this form of discrimination went against the French republic’s principles of equality, liberty, and fraternity for all (Delcroix, 2009, p. 88). To justify this discrepancy, the French employed a similar discourse to their justification for imposition in Algeria: they claimed that Muslim men were regressive and oppressed women (Delcroix, 2009, p. 88). Ideas of Muslim women as being subjugated under male dominance had already begun to entrench itself into the national French community, which impacted their perception of Muslim women.
These images were revived during the 1954-1962 Algerian War of Independence, as France employed a politically driven ‘emancipation’ movement for Muslim women by pressuring them into removing their hijab. The need for this began when the National Liberation Front, a popular political party in Algeria, ignited conflict with the French government to become independent (Scott, 2007, p. 61). France was put in a sticky situation: it had to prove to observers that its presence was necessary and thereby gain international support (Scott, 2007, p. 61). French officials decided to achieve this by focusing on the liberation of Muslims from “traditionalism” and backwardness, which they had already begun portraying when they first colonized Algeria (Macmaster, 2020, p. 15). They hoped that establishing a gendered campaign that sought to emancipate and modernize these women from the perceived thresholds of Islamic “patriarchy and seclusion” would gather support from people who saw the futility of holding onto Algeria—both nationally and internationally (Macmaster, 2020, p. 5; Scott, 2007, p. 61).
France wanted to show that it was capable of advancing Algerian Muslim women to modernization and “the model of European womanhood,” so officials reconfigured how Muslim women, and the French government itself, were viewed by foreign observers in order to illustrate their success in the modernizing mission (Macmaster, 2020, p. 5; Scott, 2007, p. 61-62). To achieve this, France targeted the hijab. An example of this is a report from the Association of Muslim Girl Scouts, a group created by French officials to supposedly fix mannerisms of Muslim women and save them with intervention from the French state (Perego, 2015, p. 352). The report published by the group stressed that the advancement of Muslim women was occurring as a result of exposure to French culture, and the authors stated that the hijab was contradictory to Muslim women’s ability to practice “modern activities such as making a phone call” (Perego, 2015, p. 352). To further this idea, the French government employed propagandists and produced a film for international observers called The Falling Veil (Scott, 2007, p. 62). In this movie, the Algerian Muslim woman has to hide behind her headscarf and is confined to “prison-like homes” by Algerian men with no independence (Scott, 2007, p. 62). With documentaries that also showed French women supposedly assisting Algerian Muslim women through removing their headscarves, France was reframing the hijab to be a symbol of an uncivilized Islamic society where regressive gender relations required French intervention to save Algerian Muslim women (Perego, 2015, p. 352). These examples illustrate how the hijab was equipped to be an emblem of otherness and the oppression submissive Muslim women faced in the Islamic society.
Though Algerian Muslim women faced independence issues, France inaccurately conveyed that this was the essence of Islamic society and Muslim gender relations, which they illustrated through the hijab. Rather than focusing on how issues in Algerian tradition and culture were shaping the negative experiences of Muslim women, France portrayed the hijab, a general Islamic requirement, to be reflective of the traditional and cultural values Algerian people possibly held. Whether or not the values of Algerian people were shaped by interpretations of the Quran, the holy book for Muslims, does not significantly matter in this context. There are Muslim communities who strongly condemn any form of male dominance over women and call for all women to be independent and have equal rights. These are values that have been motivated by their understanding of “Islamic law.” The headscarf was worn by many women around the world to meet religious requirements, and thus the traditions of Algerian people—which France connoted the hijab was indicative of—were not reflective of the religious values all Muslim women and men were accustomed to. It was certainly not reflective of all interpretations of Islamic law, nor was it the case for every single Muslim woman around the world.
Despite this issue, France continued to associate the advancement of Algerian Muslim women with the removal of the hijab to illustrate its necessary colonial presence. French officials would frequently stage and create falsified events, images, and texts of Algerian women being oppressed, but upon the removal of the headscarf, they would transform into twentieth-century, European women (Perego, 2015, p. 357). A striking example of this is evident in the case of Monique Améziane. During France’s attempt to justify its modernizing mission, French officials established “feminine solidarity” centres all over Algeria (Scott, 2007, p. 63). These centres were dedicated to Algerian women's emancipation with an end goal of attaining their loyalty to the French cause (Scott, 2007, p. 63). To quicken this process, the wives of French military officers, who had sponsored these centres, took part in a pro-France rally on May 16, 1958 (Scott, 2007, p. 63). During this rally in the city of Constantine, Monique Améziane—an Algerian woman—made a speech. Elizabeth Perego remarks in The Veil or a Brother’s Life that in this speech, “[Monique] expressed her desire to become ‘emancipated’ and then ripped off her veil” (349). Monique tried to show hijabi Algerian women that to become ‘modern’ and liberated from the constraints of oppression, Muslim women needed to be exposed to the light through discarding their hijabs. What was not shown on that stage, however, was how French officials struggled for days to find a Muslim woman willing to show loyalty to France by removing the veil in public (Perego, 2015, p. 350). Monique Améziane, who had never worn a hijab, only got on the stage after French officials threatened to kill her brother (Perego, 2015, p. 350). France sought to show that once these women got rid of the veil and began looking more like their hegemonic, European counterparts, they would be ‘liberated’ from patriarchal oppression and moving to modern ways of life.
Though these images were fabricated, they were distributed to international and national media by the French government, which proved to be so impactful that “between 50% and 75% of global media images of the war hailed from the [French] army’s cameras” (Perego, 2015, p. 350). Observers were shown through the photos that Muslim women were being ‘saved’ from their ignorance by the French people, one of the biggest tactics the French government employed to illustrate the success of the modernizing mission. The hijab was a sign that was easily recognizable for international observers, and by using it as a symbol of female subservience and its removal a step towards emancipation from male dominance in popular media, this narrative became pervasive in France. The impact of this perception on the Islamic headscarf in France can be analyzed through the details leading up to France’s 2004 law, which codified the ban on headscarves in school.
During the 1970s-1980s, after the Algerian War of Independence had ended and the French were defeated, Islam went through a religious resurgence in France (Abdelgadir & Fouka, 2020). After the independence war, a secret agreement had been formed between the new government of Algeria and France, which allowed for Algerians to emigrate and work for French employers (Delcroix, 2009, p. 88). Thus, the population of Muslims in France grew and Islamic headscarves became a common sight in French public schools; according to French officials, there were a total of 1256 headscarves in schools during the years 2003-2004 (Thomas, 2006, p. 239). This, however, stirred anxiety for the non-Muslim, French population (Bowen, 2008, p. 68).
Public schools were thought to be a means through which the French republic transmitted a “common culture,” homogenizing their ways of knowing, perceiving, and being (Keaton, 2006, p. 91). It was a system aimed at creating citizens, and so with the government’s colonial framing of the hijab, the French population grew concerned when Muslim girls became more visible in schools (Abdelgadir & Fouka, 2020). This issue came into view in 1989, when three girls who had been expelled from Gabriel-Havez middle school filed a lawsuit after refusing to remove their hijab. People had become increasingly concerned about scarves—which had meanings pushed onto them by the government during their emancipation movement—entering the public sphere and infiltrating the “common culture” France was trying to provide; Muslim immigrants were visible representations of the growing threat to Western values (Keaton, 2006, p. 91). Yvette Roudy, who was a member of the Socialist Party and a prominent feminist politician, highlights this (Bowen, 2008, p. 209). In an article, she claimed that “the foulard [hijab] is the sign of subservience, whether consensual or imposed, in fundamentalist Muslim society. . . To accept wearing the veil is tantamount to saying ‘yes’ to women’s inequality in French Muslim society” (Bowen, 2008, p. 209). Influential people were highlighting their discontent towards the hijab and used the argument fabricated by French officials in their 132-year colonial reign over Algeria: the hijab is a symbol of female oppression and violates the dignity of women. Newspapers like Le Monde illustrated the hijab using caricatures and feminist movements in France focused on how the removal of headscarves from schools was necessary to ensure gender equality (El Hamel, 2002, p. 299; Bowen, 2008, p. 210). Media at this time was extremely influential; people were being shown, once again, of the perceived oppressive nature of the hijab (Bowen, 2008, p. 244). It is evident that the colonial narratives pushed onto the French population during France’s ‘emancipation’ movement and rule over Algeria had succeeded to some extent; people were citing concerns that paralleled what the government had tried to portray during their colonial regime. Thus, a popular, but fallacy-riddled, question arose: if girls wore symbols of perceived female subservience and male domination in public schools, then could they truly be part of a system dedicated to making them French citizens? Growing dissent against the hijab led to the creation of the Stasi Commission in 2003 by the French government, which was composed of politicians and public intellectuals to reflect on the concerns about headscarves in schools (Thomas, 2006, p. 238). On December 11, 2003, the widely publicized Stasi Report was published by the commission, which called for government intervention, and amongst other proposals, a ban on the headscarf (Thomas, 2006, p. 240).
France’s colonial repackaging of the hijab’s meaning is a narrative that parallels arguments made for the enactment of the French ban on headscarves in 2004. Many who ended up advocating for the law against Islamic headscarves said they did so because they hoped it would protect women. An example of this is when a member of the Stasi commission, Jean Bauberot, argued that advocates for the hijab ban were so successful in framing it as way of protecting women, that he would be seen as a terrible person who tolerated the submission of women if he opposed it (Bowen, 2008, p. 208). In his book Why the French Don’t Like Headscarves, Bowen says, “A vote against headscarves would, we
heard, support women battling for freedom in Afghanistan, schoolteachers trying to teach history in Lyon, and all those who wished to reinforce the principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity” (1). Thus, during the Stasi Commission hearing, the biggest argument was this: the hijab represents the oppression of women and acts as a means for their continued subjugation in France (Bowen, 2008, p. 209). Islamists are forcing girls into thinking they must wear the hijab, and by banning it from schools, Muslim girls will be emancipated and the values which the hijab reflects—of submission and lack of independence—will not be forced upon non-Muslim students. There was now a shift from the colonial era; there was the fear of an Islamist threat from within the West itself and not just from an external enemy, highlighting how influential France was when it depicted hijabs to be symbols of otherness and oppression during their Algerian reign (Macmaster, 2020, p. 16). Consequently, in the fall of 2004, France passed its law banning headscarves from elementary to secondary public schools.
The hijab for a majority of Muslim women is not interpreted as, or even remotely close to, a form of submission to men. Chouki El Hamel, in his work on Muslim Diaspora in Western Europe, notes how Muslim women do not agree with the positions of secular feminists who claim the hijab to be a symbol of “male domination and female subservience” (303). The hijab is a form of religiosity; like going to church every Sunday, it is a tradition and religious duty to carry. Connotations and meanings imposed on the hijab during French colonial rule, such as its reflection of the oppressive traditions Algerian men invoked, were thus inaccurate and extremely harmful. When debates raged on about whether or not hijabs could be truly accepted in French public schools, it just showed how pervasive France’s depiction of the headscarf was during its colonization. The 8% of the French Muslim population was, perhaps, not heard.
If the Muslim population was not heard, it is evident that Muslim women were impacted by it; the ban of 2004 infringed upon their rights, identity, education, and socioeconomic class. When the ban was first passed, The Human Rights Watch put out an article expressing concern over limiting the freedoms of Muslim women, and validly so. The ban violates the rights of French Muslim women to freedom of religion under the International Human Rights Law and the European Convention of Human Rights, to which France is a signatory. Prohibiting girls from wearing headscarves in public schools seems to
have an ironic dichotomous effect: while it seeks to emancipate girls from oppression, it undermines the autonomy of girls who actively chose to wear the hijab as they cannot freely engage with their religion.
Alongside their rights, the ban and its frenzy impacted the identities of Muslim women in France. As discourse surrounding the headscarf became popular and reinforced colonial depictions, Muslims were seen—and still are—as the hardest group to integrate into France; they did not seem to agree with the fundamental values of equality and liberty that the French population held (Rahsaan & Erik, 2014, p. 155). Public opinions on Muslim women, their identity, and their ability to be French and Muslim at the same time seem to have made an impact; a study found that after the ban was passed, religious identity increased more for devout Muslim women, and French identity increased more for Muslim women who, by specific metrics of psychological and language assimilation, were initially more integrated into French society (Abdelgadir & Fouka, 2020). The study suggests that psychological integration could interact with popular, colonial perceptions of the hijab and Muslim women’s values. If language assimilation was also a metric, that means that they could have been exposed to French narratives for quite some time, where media and politicians portrayed a French identity to be superior and separate from the draconian, Muslim identity in their modernizing mission. The symbolic meaning of the veil, a perceived form of female subjugation and oppression, has led people to continue to debate their presence in other public spaces and wonder if the Muslim identity goes against French republican principles (Abdelgadir & Fouka, 2020). These results show how women may have almost been coerced into choosing which community to identify more with; they felt they had to be either more French or Muslim in the wake of the debates. This can be linked to how studies have found that France still views French citizenship and identity as disassociated with Islam (Adnan & Naseem, 2019, p. 91). Consequently, it seems, Muslims who also have stronger religious attachments, like wearing the hijab, are associated with less social contact outside of their community than other religious minorities, highlighting possible feelings of inferiority and being othered (Laxer et. al, 2020).
While arguments behind the ban reproduced identity differences between Muslim women and the rest of the population, the ban also impacted Muslim women’s educational trajectory. Abdelgadir and Fouka’s report on Assessing the Effects of the Headscarf Ban found that there was an escalation in secondary school dropout rates for Muslim girls who were 17 and older. Muslim girls who had previously veiled in France’s public secondary schools, and now could not, were found more likely to have had to repeat classes and took more time in completing high school (Abdelgadir & Fouka, 2020). This can be connected to how discrimination increased in schools after the passing of the ban—French officials reported “a newly aggressive climate” towards Muslim girls in schools to remove the headscarf (Abdelgadir & Fouka, 2020). Since Muslim girls who wore the hijab previously experienced more racism in school, it could have been a factor in their educational journey. However, it is also relevant to know that this persists today: Muslim girls are more likely to drop out of secondary education or they take longer to complete it (Abdelgadir & Fouka, 2020; Adnan & Naseem, 2019, p. 91). This is where one can turn to the debate these girls may constantly face: entering a system that makes them ‘French citizens’ or choosing to fulfill religious requirements. When the ban was about to pass, Bowen, the author of Why the French Don’t Like Headscarves, said that, “One member of the [Stasi] Commission told me that ‘if even one girl were protected from pressure to wear the voile, the law would be worth it’ (208). However, the statistics show an opposite result, where more Muslim girls are dropping out of school. Some of these Muslim students may face pressure from their families to choose the veil over education, which contradicts the aim of the law—to liberate these women.
With the education of veiled Muslim girls impacted, their socioeconomic class faced detrimental effects as well. As discourse surrounding the hijab in France continues to grow, Muslim women are increasingly becoming victims of discrimination. According to statistics, the 2004 ban increased the employment gap from the initial 10.9% between non-Muslim and hijabi Muslim women by a third (Abdelgadir & Fouka, 2020). Another report found that visibly Muslim women “were the least likely to gain employment, worked the least number of hours and earned the lowest salaries” (Adnan & Naseem, 2019, p. 79). Their appearance, due to the hijab, makes them seen as “others” in the eyes of employers, and this is facilitated through the colonial fabrication of the veil; hijabi Muslim women are perceived to not share the same values as the French republic. Thus, they are excluded from civic and professional jobs that require them to interact with clients (Adnan & Naseem, 2019, p. 79). Even when they attain jobs, they are faced with the challenges of being unable to get promotions because of their visible Muslim identity, which has been made to seem incompatible with French identity starting from France’s colonization of Algeria (Adnan & Naseem, 2019, p. 90). In short, they face detrimental economic marginalization, which also translates to their social circumstances: they are not able to pursue higher education, and are faced with lower quality housing, schooling, and social capital (Adnan & Naseem, 2019, p. 91). The colonial repackaging of the hijab continues to reproduce social and economic differences between Muslim women who wear the headscarf and those who do not, contributing to creating distance in integration.
European Muslims continue to report feelings of being excluded from social, cultural, and economic life (Rahsaan & Erik, 2014, p. 156). Even after the hijab ban of 2004, anti-Islam narratives in France continue to flourish: when President Emmanuel Macron was interviewed on the hijab in 2018, he said, “[the hijab] is not in accordance with the civility of our country” (Helleyer, 2020). Colonial, fabricated narratives of the hijab circulate to this day in France, and Muslim women continue to be disproportionately affected and marginalized. As questions about burkinis, niqabs, and the hijab continue to proliferate in France and beyond, a majority of the French and international community must wonder: what shapes their perceptions of Muslim women and Islam?
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