Why is the right of Muslim women to wear the veil still so controversial in France?

A recent court decision showed these pieces of fabric still have the same power to inflame public debate. Is it a feminist issue? A secular issue? Or just plain bigotry?

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It had been a while. After France’s high court recently overturned the dismissal of a private childcare employee, fired in 2008 because she started wearing the hijab, France’s most controversial piece of fabric again found itself at the heart of public debate. Following the 2004 law banning “conspicuous religious symbols” at state schools and the 2008 law banning the niqab in public places, France may now allow private businesses to ban their employees from wearing a headscarf.

A survey conducted after the court decision showed that 83 per cent of French people would be in favour of a law banning the hijab from private business dealing with the public, meaning shops, medical practices, kindergartens, and so on.

The hijab has, in France, a special power to inflame public debate. Following the recent court decision, it took only a few hours for the government to react, a few days for a group of intellectuals to launch a petition demanding a change in the law and a week for the opposition to actually hand in a legal proposal in Parliament and for the president to claim there was a “need” to clarify the law. A remarkably swift and focused response. Some might argue that France would be doing much better if those in charge were that quick to react on all issues. They’re not. So why such wide-ranging dedication to tackle this issue, which, it shouldn’t be forgotten, is based on a single case?

For religious sociologist Raphael Liogier, “the debate is actually nurtured by the feeling of being in the face of imminent disaster.” He argues that “the problem is not Islam as such, but the obsessive feeling of being besieged,” the “dread of islamisation,” that explains reactions such as those of former Interior Minister Claude Guéant, who referred to street prayers as “occupation,” or opposition leader Jean-François Copé alleging that children had their snacks confiscated during Ramadan.

But while these over-the-top – and islamophobic – remarks are usually the prerogative of the right and far right, commenters of all political persuasions seem to agree when it comes to the hijab. Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, the government spokesperson and Minister of Women’s Rights, who had called Jean-François Copé “ridiculous” and a “danger to the vivre-ensemble (cultural harmony)" for his remark about snacks and Ramadan, reacted vehemently to the decision of the court. “Secularism should not stop at the doorstep of kindergartens,” she stated.

This tenacity might feel hard to understand in Britain, where Muslim policewomen are allowed to wear hijab as part of their uniform, should they choose, where a Sikh soldier became last December the first guardsman at Buckingham Palace to swap the traditional headwear for a turban, and where it would simply be very difficult to imagine a teacher being banned from wearing a headscarf.

A debate over Islamic dress among teachers did take place in Britain, but only concerning the full-face veil. Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls argued in January 2010 that it was "not British" to tell people what to wear in the streets. The French and the British have dealt with immigration and cultural diversity in two very different ways. While both push equality, the French live for “neutrality” – let’s all hide our differences – and the British prefer to go with assumed multiculturalism – live and let live.

Last January, when parents decided to sue their daughter’s South London school for banning her from wearing the hijab, Independent Voices published a piece asking whether it would really affect anyone in the school if a child wore a hijab matching her uniform. In mainstream French media, such a piece about a nine-year old would have been considered absurd and would probably never have appeared. Can France’s strong and proud tradition of secularism explain this difference?

One region of France, the eastern territory of Alsace-Moselle still lives under a special status and is exempt from secular policy. That doesn’t raise public outrage. What about other religions? Would the public reaction have been the same had the employee been wearing a Sikh turban instead of headscarf? It’s highly unlikely. In fact, the commission that worked on the 2004 ban admitted to having kind of forgotten about Sikhs when drafting the law – there are only a few thousand Sikhs in France – proof if needed that, under cover of protecting secularism, the debate has always largely been about one specific “conspicuous religious symbol.”

But even if Mr. Liogier is right in mentioning the obsessive fear of an Islamic invasion in France, it is probably not fair to say that more than 80 per cent of the French think this way. To political commentator Thomas Legrand, whether “those who use and overuse” the notion of “islamophobia” like it or not, what is targeted is not a specific religion, but the “expression of a sexist practice of religion.”And indeed, the vast majority of French people seem to agree, viewing the hijab as a symbol of oppression and inequality between the sexes, and would support laws against it for this reason.

So the French are not only secular, they’re also hard-core feminists, ready to close their eyes on any possible violation of freedom to protect women’s rights. What’s strange though, is that France’s other issues related to women’s rights never get the same level of public attention as the hijab does, except perhaps on International Women’s Day. In France, one woman dies every three days because of domestic violence, a woman is raped every eight minutes, the difference in pay between men and women is still 27 per cent, and some political parties would rather pay a fine than abide by the rule of gender parity in elections.

Why then waste all this energy on the hijab, a piece of fabric, a personal choice, that doesn’t harm nor affect anyone? It is dishonest to say, like the philosopher who started the intellectuals’ petition for a new law, Elisabeth Badinter, that “banalising” the hijab “establishes it as a norm.” If that was true, every British woman would be veiled by now.

On Friday, a group of Muslim women launched a campaign on social networks in reaction to Femen’s “Topless Jihad day,” with the claim that Muslim women “do not need saving,” and “whether we choose to wear hijabs or not is nobody’s business but ours.”

Apparently, the vast majority of French don’t agree. But instead of brandishing big beautiful values, French should maybe take some time to think about why they really care so much, and maybe forget for a second what they believe “the hijab” represents and think about the women under them. For example, about how humiliating it might be for a mother to be banned from accompanying her child’s class on a school trip because her head is covered. Because extremism is indeed dangerous, but it goes both ways.

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