The proposed French hijab legislation corrodes women’s autonomy

In the wake of the French senates recent vote, Caoilfhinn Hegarty questions the motivations and consequences of a ban on minors wearing the hijab in public

The French Republic does not hold records on the religious affiliations of her inhabitants, in accordance with the secular ideal of “laïcité” which delegates religion squarely to the private domain and decrees that it be absolutely separate from the state. You will find no hint of it on a French census form. In spite of this, that France is home to one of Europe’s largest Islamic communities is well known, not least due to the passionate and public struggle being waged over the right for French Muslim women to wear the hijab publically.

This is not a fresh battleground. As early as 1989 a pair of sisters, along with one of their schoolmates, were expelled from collége Gabriel-Havez for wearing the “Islamic scarf”. In 1994, a government memorandum specified the hijab as one of the ostentatious displays of personal faith which were to be banned from public establishments such as schools. Since the harrowing events of the 2015 Bataclan terror attack, the spotlight trained on public displays of Islamic identity has only burned brighter, accelerating the path to the French senate’s vote on the March 13th in favour of outlawing minors from wearing the hijab in public spaces. In order to come into effect, it will need to be confirmed by the National Assembly, leaving a gap of opportunity for opponents that they are loudly filling.

Owing to its proclivity in the arena, Britain’s colonial legacy is arguably the most well-known among its neighbours, but it had only been first among many other Imperial European powers. At various times, France had protectorates and colonies established throughout north, west, and central Africa, as well as further afield in Asia and North America. The vast majority of French Muslims are of North African descent, specifically hailing from former colonial holdings such as Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. Geographical proximity is doubtless a factor here, but there are also deeper socio-political currents at play. The mid-fifties through to the sixties were a hey-day for Muslim immigration to France, a wave mostly made up of men who were encouraged by the French government to migrate in order to fill the post-war labour shortage. Algeria was their main point of origin, owing to the less-than-ideal economic climate left in the wake of the country's war of independence. Later legislation allowed for the families of these North African workers to join them and settle down in France and it is now estimated that 82% of French Muslims are of North African descent, with roughly 43% of that number being descended from Algerians. A vast percentage of French Muslim women are the daughters and granddaughters of immigrants who helped rebuild and revitalise the country after a devastating World War, and yet those who wish to wear the hijab are portrayed as incompatible with modern France as opposed to intertwined with its recent history - an organ to be rejected by the body, rather than a part of its lifeblood. Most damning of all, according to President Macron, they are at odds with French ideals. 

What is the barometer of Frenchness? Surely the pinnacle of its ideal is enshrined in its famous and admirable motto: ‘liberté, egalité, fraternité’. There was no liberty for the Algerians who had to fight the French military for over seven years to gain their independence in 1962, no equality for the North African labourers who came to France only to find inadequate housing and racial prejudice, and there is no fraternal, or indeed sisterly, feeling in evidence towards Hijabis, who are watched with eagle eyes for any opportunity to undermine their legitimacy as Frenchwomen. The picture this leaves of the French establishment is deeply unflattering. Maintain overseas colonies, grow rich off their resources, violently suppress rebellions, deliberately destabilise them, then present yourself as their workforce's most attractive option for a better life and profit by their manpower, but do not validate them as French until they have conformed to your taste. Not even if they were born and raised there. 

The debate surrounding women's right to don the hijab smacks particularly of the colonial “civilising mission”, with a hefty side-serving of hypocrisy. One of the main arguments in favour of the ban, apart from upholding laïcité, asserts that the hijab is essentially anti-feminist. The irony of this is that Muslim women who wish to wear the hijab are repeatedly shouted down whenever they express their opinion, and dismissed as unqualified to make this decision for themselves. If we are to accept that it is wrong for countries such as Iran to force the wearing of the hijab in public (and it unequivocally is), then it is equally wrong for France to force the removal of it. Both mandates stem from an impulse to police women’s dress due to a fear that the choices they make about which parts of their bodies to show presents a moral danger to the nation. If this new law passes the National Assembly, all French girls under the age of eighteen will have had their ability to dress freely in accordance with their desires undermined. It is a bizarre lapse in logic that the French government can accept that girls from the age of sixteen are capable of consenting to sex, but this ability to make decisions about their bodies magically evaporates when it comes to religious dress. French girls, girls everywhere, deserve the dignity of being able to assert their bodily autonomy in full.

This dignity must obviously and crucially be ensured for those women in France who are pressured or threatened by family or community members to wear the hijab against their will, and must be part of a larger effort to combat violence against women, however, there is no reason to believe that this law will be any more successful than France’s previous attempts to combat religious extremism. If anything, it presents the perfect excuse for fundamentalists to keep vulnerable girls out of the public eye. 

France aspires to be a country wherein freedom and equality is guaranteed and believes the total separation of religion from every aspect of public life is a cornerstone of this effort. However, Muslim women deserve the liberty to go covered or uncovered as they please, whether they are getting an education, joining the workforce, or out enjoying themselves on one of France’s public holidays. Six of which are Catholic feast days.