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Every right defended is the rights discourse extended; every right not defended is allowing tyranny to spread — Amina S.

“No one seems to understand that forcing a woman into a veil is no different than forcing her out of one.”


IN 2011, the veil in general, and the face covering niqab and burqa in particular, were banned in France under a law known as the ‘Loi interdisant la dissimulation du visage dans l’espace public’ (Law prohibiting the concealment of the face in public space).

The ban came hot on the heels of a report of a parliamentary commission in January 2010 stating that the issue of the veil was an ‘emergency’ for France, though it has been reported that less than 2,000 women in the country wear the niqab. Subsequently, a resolution was passed in the French Parliament underlining the need to restore ‘republican values’ and the respect for them, which were purportedly threatened by certain ‘radical practices’ such as face-covering veils.

François Fillon, who was the Prime Minister at that time, requested the Conseil d’État (‘The Council of State’, the highest French court for administrative disputes, or disputes involving the government) to release a report in which it expressed its opposition to a total ban on full-face coverings. The council opined that even if all the possible legal grounds for creating a law banning veils were considered together, it would still not be enough to legitimise a blanket ban. Such a ban would not hold against France’s commitments under international law and indeed its own anti-discrimination legislation, the council feared. Eventually, the bill banning the veil came before a Constitutional Council, where it was upheld.

Some argued that face-covering veils prevent individuals from being able to fully interact with others and can create security risks by obstructing identification. Others argued that face-covering veils are oppressive to women and represent a rejection of the French value of gender equality.

When the bill was finally presented in the Parliament, it passed with a substantial majority. The reasons given for the implementation of the ban included concerns over public safety, gender equality and laïcité (French secularism). Some argued that face-covering veils prevent individuals from being able to fully interact with others and can create security risks by obstructing identification. Others argued that face-covering veils are a sign of oppression of women and represent a rejection of the French value of equality between genders.

An interesting development was that the legislation passed by the French Parliament used a notion of human dignity which could — at best — be termed vague and ambiguous, as a fundamental component of public order. This argument was used to justify the ban, ignoring the serious concerns expressed by the Council of State about the logic of such an argument.

The ban has been controversial. Critics have argued that it violates freedom of religion and individual rights. When the ‘Loi interdisant la dissimulation du visage dans l’espace public’ was challenged before the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in a case which came to be known as S.A.S vs France (after an individual litigant who only wanted to be identified with those three letters), it was upheld as a reasonable limitation on individual rights for the sake of public safety and social cohesion.

This decision of ECtHR opened the door to other European countries to follow the French in creating their own versions of ‘burqa bans’.

Also read: Decoding the Supreme Court’s split verdict on hijab ban

This was not the first time that the veil, and Muslim practices broadly, had come under intense scrutiny in a country that is struggling to create space for Islam within its tall pillars (and claims) of liberalism and democracy. The ‘Creil veil affair’ refers to a series of events that took place in 1989 in the French town of Creil, located about 60 km north of Paris. The events involved three Muslim schoolgirls who were attending Collège Gabriel-Havez, a public secondary school in Creil.

In September 1989, the three girls arrived at the school wearing headscarves. The school principal, who was also a member of the French Communist Party, ordered the girls to remove their headscarves, citing a French law from 1905 that prohibits the display of religious symbols in public schools.

The girls refused to comply, arguing that wearing the headscarf was a fundamental part of their religious practice and that the law should not apply to them. The school authorities suspended the girls for not following the school’s dress code, and their case soon became a national controversy, with politicians, religious leaders and the media weighing in on the issue.

On a plea from the government, the Council of State intervened. In what came as a surprise to many, it released an opinion that presented a fairly liberal interpretation of laïcité. The council opined that the principles of secularism were not automatically compromised if Muslim schoolgirls wore headscarves, unless it was shown that there was a direct danger to public order.

However, the opinion was non-binding and State officials immediately got to work to undermine the liberal opinion of the council. They passed a series of ministerial directives that gave sweeping powers to teachers to take decisions regarding headscarf bans in individual schools. But the Council of the State kept overturning any disputed bans that were brought before it.

In 2003, the issue gained traction again, and the government appointed the unfortunately-named Stasi Commission, after its chairperson, the then ombudsman of the French Republic Bernard Stasi, to review the application of laïcité in France.

The basic problem is that France, as a republic and as a society, has not been able to make peace with Islam yet. Well-founded principles of equality, fraternity and respectful co-existence have been upturned or stretched so much as to mangle and damage them.

One of the recommendations contained in the report of the Stasi Commission was to outlaw religious symbols and adornments in public schools. Consequently, on March 15, 2004, the French Parliament created a new legislation that banned wearing of religious symbols and garments — like the hijab, kippa for Jews, turbans for Sikhs and large, ostentatious crosses — in public schools. Before this law was enforced, such stringent requirements of religious neutrality were only applicable to civil servants in France. Now they had been extended to students in public schools.

Legal scholars and human rights activists have condemned the law for not providing enough proof of how those wearing religious signs constitute a threat to public order and for failing to engage with those who were going to be affected by the ban, as well as for not being able to show the positive effects of the ban.

The law is also vaguely worded in its definition of what constitutes a religious sign. This ambiguity has enabled situations where the expulsion of a female Muslim student wearing a bandana has been upheld by the Council of State, or where the council has validated the banning of a Muslim schoolgirl from the classroom because school authorities deemed her long skirt  ‘too religious’.

Interestingly, one of the reasons given by the Stasi Commission report for its recommendation to ban the veil is that the veil represents an ‘essential practice’ under Islam.

Also read: Interpreting hijab: why only through ‘essential practices’ doctrine?

The saga continues. In July 2016, a bylaw was passed in Cannes — the famous resort town on the fabled French Riviera where an international film festival is held every year — that banned “access to beaches and for swimming to anyone not wearing appropriate clothing, respectful of moral standards and laïcité.” Thirty-one municipalities followed suit in what came to be known as the burkini ban.

Initially, the ban on what the head of Cannes municipal services Thierry Migoule described as “ostentatious clothing which refers to an allegiance to terrorist movements which are at war with us”, was upheld by a local administrative court of Nice. The matter was brought before the Council of State. There, it was held that the prohibition was illegal. The council ruled that the State had been unable to show that there had been a disturbance of public order. It also ruled that there had been an infringement of religious freedom of citizens.

To discuss the intersection of secularism, democracy, cultural nationalism and individual liberty, The Leaflet spoke with Amina S., a French entrepreneur and activist who had to leave the country because of the discrimination she faced for wearing the hijab. She chose not to reveal her full name for fear of being  branded ‘Fiche S’ (an indicator used by French law enforcement agencies to flag individuals who are considered to be a serious threat to national security. The ‘S’, in her name and the indicator, stands for Sûreté de l’État (‘state security’).

We hope this conversation resonates strongly with developments in India.

Q: Why are the clothes of Muslim women an issue in France?

A: I think the basic problem is that France, as a republic and as a society, has not been able to make peace with Islam yet. This has created a lot of imbalance in French political life, and its legal and policy frameworks, as well-founded principles of equality, fraternity and respectful co-existence have been upturned or stretched so much as to mangle and damage them.

Muslim women are a prime target of this ugly metamorphosis because any kind of dress — it could be a scarf, niqab, hijab, burqa or whatever — immediately identifies the woman wearing it as a Muslim. Beards on men do not have the same effect because more and more non-Muslim men in the West have begun to grow long beards as a fashion.

And this problem has been growing bigger and becoming more ridiculous. In the beginning, women wearing burqas were a target. Then they decided to go after the niqab. Now, schools have regulations on even the length of skirts and girls are not allowed to wear skirts longer than the prescribed length.

The principles of laïcité, which are meant to keep religion in the private sphere, have increasingly been weaponised against Islam and Islam alone.

What really scares me, and I think people in general, is that this attack on Muslims and Islam in the garb of regulation is never going to stop. It does not have a defined goal.

What if the roles were reversed, and I argued that my classmates were making the decision to go to a party because the French culture and peer pressure was forcing them to?

Take [leader of the nationalist political party Reconquête, French far-right politician, writer and former political journalist] Éric Zemmour, for example. He fought the presidential elections last year and came in fourth, getting around seven per cent of the votes. And his public campaign was totally focused on Islam. He says France is a Judeo-Christian nation that is threatened by Islam. He is so right-wing that [leader of the far-right political party Rassemblement National, French lawyer and politician] Marine le Pen appears a centrist in comparison. He even talks of introducing a law that will forbid people from giving their children names like Mohammed or Amina.

Conversations about Islam and Muslims, in electoral politics and the public sphere, have become so widespread that there are videos of reporters asking people in the streets to guess the percentage of Muslim population in France, and the answer is 40 percent, or 50 percent or even 70 percent, when the fact is that Muslims constitute less than 5 percent of the French population. This dominating focus on Islam and Muslims comes only at the cost of real issues that affect all French people.

And they keep creating new issues. Last year, it was about the chemise. TV shows were showing photographs of chemises and abayas, and saying that Islam is the new epidemic (after the COVID-19 epidemic).

So it may start with the scarf, but it never ends.

Also read: Hijab, skirts and a woman’s quest for choice

Q: You mentioned the public sphere. Who owns the public sphere in France? I ask this in the context of a ban  through legislation  on wearing certain kinds of dresses in public spaces in France.

A: I think that is a tricky question to answer. The obvious answer would be that the French public own the public sphere in France, as it is a republic. But democracies are increasingly becoming a numbers game, and powerful interests are pitting people against each other. Thus, minorities become a target, first through these campaigns that are aimed to malign them or make the majority afraid of them.

Once the public opinion has shifted decisively, the authorities step in, whether in the private sphere, in the public sphere or at the level of the government. Armed with the new ideas that have been popularised in the public discourse, they introduce regulations and laws against a minority and there is no reaction from the vast majority of people, who have come to hate that minority.

This is what happened with the clothes Muslim women wear in France. As per government estimates, only about 2,000 women in France wear the veil covering their face. Yet it has been made an issue of national identity and the erosion of French culture. And once the public opinion had shifted enough against it, it was easier to populate the gap with laws and regulations banning it in public places.

Also read: The art of inflaming religious passions: the hijab controversy and the communal dividend

Q: Why has the hijab been banned in educational institutions in France?

A: The official reason is that children cannot decide on whether to wear hijab or not, and so if a woman who is less than 18 years of age wears a hijab, she must have been forced to do so. Of course, these are just excuses. They don’t want children in schools to wear niqab or hijab because they want to influence them in a certain way and want to take them out of the influence of their families, thus breaking cultural and religious traditions.

They were even contemplating a law that women accompanying their children to, say movies with their school friends, should also be forced to remove the veil because it is considered a public space.

The belief that Muslim women do not have any agency is so deep-rooted and pervasive in French society that one can only wonder what it tells us about France, because it definitely does not tell us an awful lot about Muslim women. The examples of Afghanistan and Iran are brought up so often, but no one seems to understand that forcing a woman into a veil is no different than forcing her out of one. This public hounding of women for what they wear, these regulations and laws, and then this complete blindness to what unites oppressive regimes all over the world would be funny if it was not so tragic.

Q: How does the French doctrine of secularism (laïcité) apply? In particular, does it require every citizen to be secular in the public sphere or only those who are holding public offices?

A: The law says that people who hold public offices must not exhibit visible symbols of religion. In recent years, many regulations have also been passed to ban the veil in public spaces and, as we discussed earlier, in educational institutions.

You must always fight for your rights. If you give up one, they will attack another, but if you fight for one and gain it, you may create space for yourself or others to gain even more rights.

I do not know if the law requires everyone to be secular in the public domain or if that is even possible to ensure. But yes, visible symbols of religion are banned. This is particularly true of visible symbols of Islam.

But the discrimination we discussed earlier ensures that some of the prejudices against Muslim women in particular expand to the private sphere.

Q: Clothes worn by Muslim women can be seen as both religious as well as cultural symbols  the headscarves worn by women in Pakistan, for example, differ from the ones worn by women in Morocco. How does France make a distinction between the two? Are overt cultural symbols also banned under laïcité?

A: I think the answer to this question provides a clear indication of the journey laïcité has made. Obviously, religious symbols in the public sphere are a problem as per laïcité, but how do you make the distinction between religious symbols and cultural ones? Would you prevent a Korean or Bolivian woman from wearing a hat in the street?

I think it is easier for the government to not make this distinction and ban everything that appears religious to them, without thinking of the cultural dimensions. Of course, this is particularly pronounced with respect to clothing and headgear that seem ‘Islamic’.

Also read: Support to ban on Hijab stems from lack of empathy with minorities

Q: Have you ever faced discrimination for wearing a hijab? How have you dealt with it? 

A: Yes, and that is one of the reasons I have chosen to move from the country.

The short story is that I decided to wear my hijab when I was 16, and since you have to remove the hijab in most French schools, I had to do so as well.

After that, when I was doing an internship, I used to remove my hijab at work. When I finished my master’s degree, I got a new job where there were possibilities of career advancement. I used to remove my hijab at the office and kept the fact of my wearing a hijab a secret, but they found out that I wear hijab when they saw me putting it on in my car on my way back home. They had promised me a permanent position with a good salary, but they gave it to a French lady named Carol instead.

For me, that act of discrimination was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I rued my naïve attempts to remove my hijab and keep it a secret when it was part of my identity, and decided that from then onwards, I was going to keep it on and find a job.

Then a month passes, two months, six months, a year…and after two-and-a-half years I still cannot find a job with my hijab, so I decided to move to London. I had no job here, no money, no accommodation, no family, no friends, but I just wanted to be me, and to be accepted for who I am. And alhamdulillah (praise be to God), it has been good so far.

Another story I want to tell is about the general understanding in France about the agency of Muslim women. I remember, when I was a student, everyone would go to parties. I never went because I did not want to. My classmates would always ask: is it because your father has forbidden you? I would answer in the negative. Then they would ask: if it is because your brothers have forbidden you? I would say I am the eldest.

The point being that they were of the same age as I, yet they did not think that I could have the agency to make my own decisions. What if the roles were reversed, and I argued that they were making the decision to go to a party because the French culture and peer pressure was forcing them to?

Another story, and this is also related to how educational institutions function in France and about the religious versus cultural symbols question. I have always been a good student. One day, I was surprised that the director of the school asked me to come to his office because he wanted to talk to me. By that time, I had started wearing the hijab, but a very thin strip, like a band, at the front of my head.

He said that he had received complaints about my dress and that some people in the school were not happy with what I was wearing. I did not understand why what I was wearing was offensive to other people. But I was 16 and did not have the confidence to confront him. Then he asked me: is this thing that you are wearing for a religious purpose or for fashion? I told him that it is for fashion, because I was scared. He still asked me to remove it because both of us knew what I was saying was not true.

Also read: Stripping as impunity in law and governance

Q: Since, like France, India claims to be a secular republic, what lessons do you think can be drawn from the French experience as hijab becomes a matter of legislation rather than choice in India as well?

A: The lesson is that you must always fight for your rights. If you give up one, they will attack another, but if you fight for one and gain it, you may create space for yourself or others to gain even more rights. Every right defended is the rights discourse extended; every right not defended is allowing tyranny to spread.

As in France, the fight in India is not for the right to wear hijab. It is just the tip of the iceberg. Next, they will come for your names, the way you pray, the food you eat.

Hijab is an easy target because it can be clothed in the language of feminism, and create a wedge between Muslim men and women. The purpose is to target Islam. This is what the French government did during its propaganda in Algeria during the colonisation: ‘N’ëtes-vous donne pas jolie? Dévoilez-vous’ (Aren’t you pretty? Unveil yourself!).

So the lesson would be that men and women must stand in solidarity, and Indian Muslim women must remember that women in other places have, unfortunately, fought the same fight and will continue to fight the same fight. They are not alone. We are watching and praying, and will be in solidarity.

As they say, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, but a spark of light anywhere is a threat to darkness everywhere too.

The Leaflet