Will Muslim Women Feel at Home in Their Home Country of France?
by Anna Mansson McGinty, special contributor
Muslim men and women stroll down the Champs-Élysées in Paris. (photo: Archibald Ballantine/Flickr, cc by 2.0)
“Of course, I’m at home (laughter). Who else’s (country) am I in? I feel at home. I have my family here, we live, we eat, we cry, we laugh, we suffer, we don’t suffer. Some people are pleasant, some insult us. But truthfully, the day the law will be (implemented), I’ll no longer feel at home.”
Camile is one of the Muslim women interviewed in “Unveiling the Truth: Why 32 Muslim Women Wear the Full-face Veil in France,” a report written as part of the “At Home in Europe Project” of the Open Society Foundations. The report was released in April, as the ban on the covering of the face, such as with the niqab or burqa, went into effect on April 11.
The law has been fiercely debated since the French National Assembly voted in favor of it (336-1) in July 2010, six years after the banning of conspicuous religious symbols in French public schools. The ban makes it illegal to wear any face covering in public spaces in France, and thus, from the perspectives of the opponents of the law, a religious act and symbol has been criminalized. France, with an estimated 6-7 million Muslims, is the first European country to make it illegal. Belgium and the Netherlands may soon follow suit.
The “burqa ban” and its current popularity in Europe raise several questions pertaining to religious expressions in public, freedom of expression, the future of Islam, and the growing Muslim population in Europe, but also, as the quote of Camile points to, national identity and citizenship. The ban rests on the salient notion of French secularism, laïcité, the separation of church and state and the division between private life and public sphere.
Laïcité requires that in order for the state to secure the equality of all citizens, these individuals have to present themselves as free from religion. Consequently, the notion of laïcité, together with a prevalent public discourse of Islam and Muslims as the ultimate “other” incompatible with “French values,” has made Muslims, who publicly display their religious affiliation, the target and object of scrutiny. In effect, a woman who does not abide by the law could be fined up to €150, and in some cases be required to take citizenship classes.
But why this urgent and intense focus on Muslim women’s garments? The relationship of the West to the veil and Islamic dress code is a complex political and social phenomenon, with a long history, suggesting several interrelated factors at play. Considering the very small number of women in France who wear the full-face veil (estimates range from 400-2000), one wonders if this is, as the proponents argue, an effective means to combat Islamic extremism and enhance integration. In which ways can policies prohibiting certain attire promote the preservation of “French culture” as well as the assimilation of Muslim immigrants into the French mainstream?
This kind of state regulation and control over certain gendered and religious (as well as political) bodies demonstrates the symbolic meaning and weight a national community can place on women’s dress and conduct in public, as women represent, in Cynthia Enloe’s words, “nationalist wombs;” they are not only bearers of the future generation, but also the ones transmitting the nation’s culture and values from one generation to the next.
Furthermore, it is hard not to make historical parallels to colonial times in places such as Egypt and Algeria where the “veil” and “the Muslim woman” became the battlefield between the anti-veil colonialists and the native, national liberation movement. Similar to the colonial politics of the veil and the discourse of “saving the Muslim woman” from her oppressive and traditional man and religion, French president Nicolas Sarkozy uses “feminist” rhetoric arguing for Muslim women’s dignity and equality in the French Republic. Interestingly, 10 of the 32 women interviewed in the report indicated that they had started to wear the niqab as a protest to the ban.
In response to the ban, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which makes recommendations on human rights issues, passed a resolution that emphasizes “freedom of thought, conscience and religion while combating religious intolerance and discrimination,” urging EU countries to protect women’s “free choice to wear religious or special clothing.” While perhaps not representative, the many personal experiences and testimonies of Muslim women featured in the report “Unveiling the Truth” resonate with this declaration.
To the proponents of the ban, the face veil symbolizes the most extreme version of Islam and poses a threat to national culture and secularism, but the women who claim to have chosen to wear the face veil, speak of the niqab as part of a spiritual journey, as reflecting a deepened relationship with God and the desire to follow the actions of the prophet Mohammad’s wives for guidance. The question now is how and to what extent the ban is going to be implemented, the social and political implications of it, and whether some of these women, such as Camile, will ever feel at home in their own home country.
References in This Article
- “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and its Others” by Lila Abu-Lughod in American Anthropologist
- “The Burqa Debate. Are Women’s Rights Really the Issue?” in Der Spiegel
- Bananas, Beaches, and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics by Cynthia Enloe
- “France Enforces Ban on Full-Face Veils in Public” by Steven Erlanger in The New York Times
- “Deux Mille Femmes Portent la Burqa en France” (“Two Thousand Women Wear the Burqa in France”) by Cécilia Gabizon in Le Figaro
- “Unveiling the Truth: Why 32 Muslim Women Wear the Full-face Veil in France” in the At Home in Europe Project by Open Society Foundations
This article is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
NPR Series on Muslim Women in Europe
Colleen Scheck, Producer
I enjoy the reporting of Sylvia Poggioli, NPR’s veteran European correspondent. She was formerly known in my household as “The Pope Reporter” because I often had the radio on when her stories on Pope John Paul II aired. (She was a guest on our program on the religious legacy of the late pontiff).
Last week NPR aired Poggioli’s six-part series exploring the evolving identities of Muslim women in Europe. Her stories focused on women in Germany, France, and Britain, the three European countries with the largest Muslim populations. I always like reading reporter notebooks - here’s an excerpt from her notebook for this series:
As I traveled through Europe this fall to report for this series, I remembered the words of filmmaker Yamina Benguigui, my first guide into the world of what she called “ghost women.” French-born to Algerian parents, she broke with her strict patriarchal family and married a non-Muslim Frenchman.
In her documentaries, Benguigui explored the phenomenon of some young French Muslim women who, in the early 1990s, had taken to wearing the headscarf even when their mothers did not. While many of these young women said the headscarf was a mark of their cultural identity in a society where they felt discriminated, Benguigui said it was also something else: a way of getting around the dilemma of living a double life in two different cultures. Instead of breaking with their families, “they decide to take the Koran as a weapon against their families, by submerging themselves completely in religion, brandishing the veil and the Koran, they become the leader in the family … (the Muslim girl) will not be forced to marry and she can come home when she wants. She can drive a car and she’s completely free,” Benguigui told me in 1995.
Twelve years later, I met many Muslim women who still have not found their places and are still torn by two cultures. But I also met many Muslim women who are asserting themselves much more forcefully — either in identifying with European secular culture and demanding the same rights as their Western sisters, or by appropriating Islam for themselves, through a new female perspective. Or in a combination of the two.
While there is no distinct Europe-wide pattern, in many places a quiet revolution among Muslim women is under way.
Next week we broadcast Krista’s conversation with Ed Husain, author of The Islamist: Why I Joined Radical Islam in Britain, What I Saw Inside, and Why I Left. Poggioli’s series is a good compliment to this show, and to the other programs we’ve done on Muslim women with Leila Ahmed and Ingrid Mattson, that help broaden my understanding of Islam worldwide.
(photo: [name removed at photographer’s request])