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Excluding Muslim women

Fom hijab to niqab, from school to public space.

par Sylvie Tissot
26 août 2016

Six years after banning pupils from wearing a hijab in public high schools, in July 2010, French deputies passed a law that forbids women from wearing the “integral veil” (or niqab, an outfit hiding the entire face except the eyes) in public spaces. This article examines why such a repressive policy toward Muslim women was unanimously embraced by the conservative majority and some left-wing leaders with so little protest. It aims at underscoring the specific phenomena that, on the basis of a new “orientalism,” contribute in France to institutionalizing a category of people on the basis of race and gender. The recent bans on burkinis are obvious consequences of a process that started in 2004.

On July 13, 2010, French deputies voted a law which forbids women from wearing the “integral veil” (or niqab, an outfit hiding the entire face except the eyes) in public spaces. If they do so, policemen will be able to arrest them and fine them, or alternatively force them to attend a program aimed at teaching them “citizenship”. As many people do, President Sarkozy used the wrong word to state clearly that the “burkha” is not compatible with the “values of French Republic” (the burkha has a grid for the eyes, unlike the niqab targeted by the law). The country’s top juridical body, the Conseil d’Etat, has questioned the constitutional validity of the law, and many jurists have warned that the European Court of Human Rights will very likely overturn it. Yet, the government has dismissed all legally grounded arguments and the conservative parliamentary majority voted the law, which also received the approval of a few prominent socialist and communist leaders.

Beyond the legal dimension of the affair, there is another quite striking aspect : the huge gap between what politicians and commentators suddenly insist is a serious problem in need of urgent action and the evidence for such a claim. This was already evident in 2004, when the government banned pupils from wearing a simple hijab (a religious head-covering of any kind) in public high schools, even though complaints from teachers about this issue had dropped from 300 in 1994 to 150 in 2003 [1]. It was unclear why there was a pressing need to vote a national law to address this declining number of local disputes that were, for the most part, settled locally. Similarly, in June 2009, a parliamentary Commission decided to investigate the problem of women wearing niqab, at a time when, according to official estimates, somewhere between a few hundred to 2000 inhabitants (out of 64 million) wore them. A deputy at the head of the Commission even declared that this was a “marginal phenomenon”. He nonetheless urged the government to take action to free these women from the “willful servitude” they indulged in, and fight the “talibans” living in “our neighborhoods” [2]. The hearings themselves exposed a striking double standard in the way people were treated. The deputies’ expressions of respect for intellectuals and feminists eager to explain their anxieties about religious fundamentalism stood in sharp contrast with the open suspicion directed at the few individuals who questioned what the Commission had decided ahead of time : the burkha was a problem that required immediate action.

How is it that leading political figures were able to sideline legal considerations and the basic rules of democratic debates ? Why, in turn, did this legislation evoke so little public protest ? In 2004, a range of community organizations, activists and intellectuals denounced the proposal to exclude pupils wearing headscarves. They staged rallies and demonstrations, published op-eds, analyses, and books, and protested ardently against the repressive redefinition of French secularism. Yet, aside from a few isolated petitions, none of this happened in 2010, despite the fact that this new measure poses such obvious threats to human rights : not just freedom of speech and of religious beliefs but women’s right to access public space.

Since 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan, a rhetoric that relies on feminist arguments has emerged as central to the growing stigmatization of racialized populations in Western countries, and notably of “Muslim” or “Arab” people. Public debates have contributed to anchoring a boundary between a “West” committed to equality between men and women and an “East” utterly opposed to it and, thus, potentially fertile ground for religious fanaticism and terrorism. Although this rhetoric has taken root in numerous countries, it is worth focusing on how it is being used in France. A related incident, that took place several weeks before the deputies voted the law, is telling : the police arrested and fined two women ; their crime was driving a car while wearing a niqab hence causing a safety risk because it could potentially obscure the driver’s vision (which supposedly could be endangered traffic). After the media revealed that the husband of one of these women was polygamous, the minister of justice suggested that the government deprive him of his French citizenship [3] – a punishment normally applied only to individuals deemed to pose a serious threat to the country. In France, the new “orientalism” is moving beyond shaping and producing representations : it is now materializing in judicial and repressive measures targeted at a racialized population.

The first explanation of how this is happening in France relates to the way that, since 2000, feminism has entered public debates. French governments had long been reluctant to embrace a forthright stand in favor of women and women’s rights—influenced, in part, by the idea that, because the country had a unique tradition of libertinism, power relations between men and women were less conflictual. Yet, since the early 2000s, not only activists, but also the media, politicians and intellectuals have repeatedly invoked feminism as a crucial grounds of their arguments. For example, the 2003 death by immolation of a young woman in an impoverished area in the outskirt of Paris at the hands of her boyfriend (both of Maghrebi origin) prompted a widely relayed public outcry and mobilization in the name of protecting women from male violence. The same year witnessed the creation of an organization “Ni Putes Ni Soumises” (they claim to be “neither whores nor subservient”), which benefited from this intense media coverage. One particularity of the new mainstream feminism is that it rarely points to a structural sexism in France, but prefers instead to focus on the sexism of one group of men, racialized men. Thus, since 2003, the media have regularly devoted articles to news items involving racialized men and/or women, although they rarely discuss statistics that show that domestic violence takes place in all socio-economic and ethnic groups.

The new focus on masculine domination was both restricted in scope and targeted within noticeably geographic boundaries. The newly mainstream feminism relies on very peculiar image of women and men. Women of foreign origin, specifically those living in projects—and, even more specifically, the Muslim ones—have replaced the traditional housewife as the symbol of female subservience. Now, public authorities claim to offer these female victims the means to escape the oppressive culture of “cités” (housing projects), and to emancipate themselves. A widespread consensus around this territorial definition of sexism was able to take hold, in part, because, in the 1990s, references to “quartiers sensibles (literally at-risk neighborhoods) became the most accepted way to analyze social questions in France. Of course, the fact that riots could be mapped onto certain spaces contributed to attracting attention to those spaces. But this spatial focus is not just self-evident : it conveys a peculiar vision. References to quartiers sensibles work to designate such spaces as at once homogenous and utterly unique, totally separate and distinct from the rest of the society. As a consequence, it leaves unquestioned the structural phenomena that led people, many of whom are immigrants, to live in impoverished neighborhoods on the outskirts of large cities : notably racial discrimination ; housing policies ; and unemployment. From this spatial perspective, sexism in the city outskirts is a phenomenon that results from the particularities of the city outskirts. Thus, in 2005, commenting on the case of a woman of Maghrebi origin who had been attacked by a Pakistani man in the outskirts of Paris, Nicolas Sarkozy expressed a deep commitment to the principle of equality between men and women. This principle, he argued, was the foundation of laws of the Republic according to which, he contended, “women are free”. The violation of such a principle was blamed on a violent culture that came from outside of France.

The focus on racialized women as the only victims of sexism in France has logically nurtured a vision of women wearing the niqab as the most outrageous expression of masculine domination, a situation that cannot be compared with any other behaviors and outfits. Thus, to many, the condemnation of niqab is just common sense. But how could such condemnation result in a law excluding them from public spaces ? If these women are so alienated, why should they be punished ? While in 2004, the issue of repression was rarely raised because pupils are considered minors, thus expected to be subject to adult authorities, this should not have been the case for women wearing the full veil since they are adults. Yet, far from considering them as such, the defenders of the law have constantly oscillated between two visions, both of which deny their status as citizen. On the one hand, they tend to see these women as alienated individuals who should be saved— against their will if necessary : a vision encapsulated by the notion of “willful servitude”. On the other hand, to several members of the parliamentary commission and various commentators in the media, they represent a threat to French society, albeit a masked one. Women in niqab are the Trojan horse of extremist Islamism. In their view, the cloth does not only hide a face, but secrete intentions as well : to attack secularism and impose Islamic rule. Either totally deprived of free will, or a superpower, they are denied the condition of citizens, much less that of human beings. This is the reason why, in public debates, the impact of the law on the women themselves has rarely been taken into account. For example, because they are extremely religious, most of them now might well stay in the domestic sphere rather than take off their outfit to go outside the home. In the debates, this possible relegation behind walls disappeared ; the issue at stake was saving the country from the rise of “fanaticism”.

Excluding women from public space to save them was not the only paradox noticed by commentators [4]. Some have also pointed to the striking limits of the government’s commitment to equality between men and women. While the situation of a few hundred individuals became a national emergency, the government has still to implement its plan against domestic violence. The few feminist groups who oppose the law also see a real double standard in the government’s attitude. In their view, it has shown no concern with other practices—all more widespread than the niqab and highly visible in the public sphere—that could also be considered as symbols of women deeply alienated by the workings of patriarchy : cosmetic and diet products ; high-heeled shoes ; the mini-skirt ; etc.

Faced with such criticism, the defenders of the law progressively shifted from the first image (alienated women who should be saved) to a more threatening vision based on the specter of religious fundamentalism. Even if the parliamentary commission proved unable to identify a specific link between wearing the burkha or niqab, Salafist movements, and terrorism, the deputies have repeatedly invoked the question of “public order’ and “safety’, which supposedly requires uncovered faces. This has reinforced the idea of fully veiled women as a security threat, a position that is stated quite explicitly. An expression used by the head of the parliamentary commission is telling : to him, the niqab does not represent a danger but is the “tip of the iceberg”, an iceberg that, in his view, threatens French society. As in the war on terrorism waged in the United States or the United Kingdom, a logic of “prevention” tends to prevail to the detriment of human rights.

To understand the priority given to repression, it is necessary to grasp the atmosphere of islamophobia that has developed in the last past years. Islamophobic feelings have deep historical roots in France. It links into longstanding hostility toward Muslims in general and, more specifically, toward the specter of Algeria. But the debates about immigration and “national identity” have played a major role in how Islam has come to embody the interior enemy. In 2007, when President Sarkozy was elected, one of his first measures was to create the controversial “Ministry of Immigration and National Identity”, thus implying both that French identity is a clear, homogeneous entity that needs protection and that immigrants have still to prove worthy of it. In 2009, the government decided to start a country-wide debate, based on the same premises, about what “being French” means. Prefects were asked to organize public discussions in every city. Demeaning public declarations by members of the government fully discredited the undertaking : one urged Muslim youth not to talk slang or wear back-to-front caps ; another one was filmed by a journalist joking to a member of his conservative party that one Arab is fine, but that problems come when there are several (a court eventually condemned him for that remark, but he was not forced to resign). All this caused a public outcry, and the debate on “national identity” was a failure. The government buried it, but turned its attention, almost immediately, to the debate over the burkha.

Clearly, such debates reveal an inability to address the financial crisis, the rising unemployment rate and widening inequalities. To brandish the threat of Islam and emphasize cleavages between “real” French and the “others” works to obscure socio-economic divisions, and helps fuel the anger of white working class people towards immigrants. But this is not only about diversion. This debate and its continuation through the discussion of the burkha are also part of an ideological attempt to promote a “French identity” which works, at the same time, to create and institutionalize a category of “others”. Sarkozy’s presidency epitomizes this phenomenon because it is the first time that this goal has been so clearly and emphatically embraced. But the obsession with “national identity”, far from being new, appears to be a broader response to the declining cultural, economic and political role of France. References to an eternal set of values provide comforting answers to identity questions. At the same time, what is particular about recent assertions of “French identity” is how Islam has become so crucial to definitions of “the other”. Although they offer a variety of (often contradictory) answers, the titles of countless TV programs and weekly newspapers reveal that everyone agrees that there is one question that needs to be addressed in any discussion of French problems : the “problem of Islam”.

If left-wing parties and organizations all condemned the “national identity” operation, why have they been so silent about a law that obviously participates into it ? First, part of the Left, and more particularly the Socialist Party, has accepted the idea that the burkha or niqab is first and foremost a social problem (rather than an individual right). It did not support the law, but it failed to question the terms of debate, and thus asked for a less repressive and more educative approach toward women whose behavior they both condemned and saw as opposed to “French culture”. This attitude reveals how the government succeeded in not only passing a law, but in reinforcing the division between an “us” and a “them”. This partial success results from the ambiguous attitude of the Socialist Party (but also more left-leaning groups) toward “racial” issues in France. For many progressive activists and leaders, cultural diversity and multiculturalism are either not legitimate issues at all, or merely secondary ones. They prioritize the fight against the dismantlement of the Welfare State and, as a consequence, they tend to urge the Left to unite on socioeconomic issues rather than delving into divisive questions, or attempting to address the complex links between class and race in France. Thus, connecting the fate of Muslim women to traditional left-wing causes is extremely difficult. At the same time, while women and, indeed, the Muslim population now make up a large fraction of the French working class, a white and male definition of the working class has long prevailed ; this hinders the Left’s ability to address the symbolic and political integration of racialized populations. Finally, many progressive leaders are deeply hostile to religion in France. They consider all spiritual faith as antinomic to emancipation and social rights, and so pay no attention to the government’s use of Islam to advance its ideological undertaking.

During the parliamentary hearings on burkha, the president of the organization Ni Putes Ni Soumises (whose former president was appointed by Sarkozy to the current administration) declared that, unlike women wearing the full veil, she was not ashamed of her body. As an illustration, she dramatically took off her jacket in order to reveal her naked shoulders. It is strange to see a woman undress in front of panel of men as a way of proving her feminist commitment. But even more incredible was the declaration she made about France, claiming that it was “the only country able to solve the problem of the burkha”. In fact, her whole talk was a fierce encouragement to the undertaking of the Commission, and she came out for a repressive law. The deputies were so pleased that they burst into applause when she was finished. No doubt, her praise of France contributed to their contentment. In fact, is it not agreeable to hear a myth one wants to believe, i.e. that France has had and still has a leading role in promoting human rights worldwide ? Many commentators have questioned this rosy picture of French history. But the more important point, here, I might suggest, is that if it does play a leading role, it might not be such a glorious one. France has not invented the “clash of civilization” rhetoric, but its public authorities might well have pioneered a new form of exclusionary practices targeted at racialized populations on the basis of religion and gender. Discussions on the “problem of the burkha,” which began in France, are now in the process of spreading out to many other European countries…


This article was published in Public Culture, 2011 Volume 23.


[1Pierre Tevanian, Le voile médiatique. Un faux débat : “l’affaire du foulard islamique” (Paris : Raisons d’Agir), 23-24.

[2André Gérin, Interview on Europe 1, January 14, 2010.

[3On July 2010, President Sarkozy revealed that he intended to apply the same sanction to certain delinquents of foreign origin. The same month he also targeted the Roms, arguing that this community’s behaviors caused “problems”, and calling for deportations and the dismantlement of their camps. All these projects are clearly unconstitutional and the government knows it : a vast majority of Roms are French, and the Rumanian Roms are European citizens. This attitude reveals how the government’s stigmatization of foreigners and people of foreign origin ignores any respect for constitutional frame. Note that these developments suggest that the strategy deployed for the law on the niqab marked a turning point.

[4See, for instance, the declaration of the French section of Amnisty International, and Jacques Rancière, “Modeste proposition pour le bien des victimes”, Libération, January 11, 2010.