Race Matters

Liberté Égalité Fraternité: But not for Muslim Women

As the French state and citizens' targeting of Muslim women shows little signs of decline, our (French) Research and Policy Assistant Nick Treloar examines the thinking behind linking this form of islamophobia to a cornerstone of French democracy - 'laïcité' (secularism).

As a French citizen, I struggle to reconcile my understanding of Liberté Égalité Fraternité with the racialised undertones used to weaponise these notions.

This week is no different. Reports over the weekend summarise how a French woman was targeted for abuse and intimidation while accompanying her child’s class on a school trip to a regional council assembly in Dijon. She was there to chaperone young children as they learned about the democracy they live in, and instead was left to comfort her crying son, who had to listen to aggressive insults and chants directed at his mother because she was wearing a headscarf. This example of anti-Muslim racism comes only a few weeks after French Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer said he wanted to avoid having mothers wearing hijabs as volunteers on school trips.

France prides itself on its long-lasting motto, which expunges religious symbols in favour of much beloved laïcité (secularisation). However, this idea of ‘secularisation’ is used to harass Muslim women, in particular, as they go about their everyday lives.

France has banned the wearing of headscarves in public spaces; meanwhile children can be told ‘it is pork or nothing’ for school dinners. By defining so specifically what is ‘un-French,’ I am left confused as to what defines my Frenchness; surely it isn't pork lunches and the absence of a headscarf?

Laïcité was born of a movement to separate church and state, which was meant to guarantee state neutrality on religion, and crystallise rights for all. Instead, it has been co-opted by those with anti-Muslim, right-wing agendas to increase state intervention. If we understand laïcité correctly, state intervention in religious matters should only ever be forthcoming where there is a threat to public order.

A 2004 law underwritten by the Stasi Commission which sparked particular outrage forbids students at state schools from wearing any conspicuous religious sign. This was following tensions relating to the Islamic headscarf, despite official figures that only 1,256 young women wore one. Anti-Muslim laws are not unique to France. In 2009 Switzerland voted, through a referendum, to ban the construction of minarets on Mosques, despite only four being erected across the entire country.

Laïcité and the targeting of Muslim women

Laïcité is the lens through which many commenters speak about all France’s social ills. But, nowhere in French secularism does it state that people must eat the same or dress the same. So why is it Muslim women have often been held up as the antithesis to laïcité? Not only the far-right but centre-left and far-left political groups have called out the loss of ‘Frenchness’ as a result of the Islamisation of France, the obvious image for which is a woman wearing a hijab.

It is the French state that has placed Muslim women at the forefront of this struggle to maintain national identity. From banning the headscarf in schools in 2004; banning the niqab from all forms of public life in 2010; to French towns and cities banning the burkini, Muslim women must constantly face down accusations of supposed incompatibility with the values of France. In shocking images from 2016, French armed police confronted a Muslim woman on a beach and made her remove her clothing, which was covering her head.

Of course, these bans have all taken place in the context of 9/11 and the French terrorist attacks on Charlie Hebdo, the Bataclan and the Promonede Des Anglais. The French state and indeed former Prime Minister Manuel Valls, have seen fit to make an example of Muslim women, as symbols of Islam, to highlight its incompatibility with French laïcité and the links to Islamist extremism.

Little has been done to combat the surge of far-right violence in France spearheaded by the Front National and Marine Le Pen who has called for ‘Pork or nothing’ rules and has compared Muslim women praying in the street to the Nazi invasion of France. Surely the rise of such hatred plays a greater role in destabilising the French state? Apparently the perceived dangers of religious domination over the political realm are only threatening when emanating from Muslim groups.

Debates about the headscarf in France also centre on an insistence that it is the issue of equality between men and women that some find offensive. Which begs the question, what else are the right-wing activists who insulted a young mother in front of her child doing to support gender equality?

If, instead, the motive is simply islamophobia, it is indeed unfortunate that laïcité has afforded some state-sanctioned protection for such oppressive views, and behaviour. The aftermath of terrorist attacks appear to have legitimised more coercive forms of Government in relation to Muslim populations, such as increased monitoring, suspicion and state control. Targeting French Muslim women has been the vehicle through which to frame this Islamophobia.

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