In 2004, Muslim headscarves were among the array of religious symbols banned from being worn in French public schools. And in 2010, the country prohibited full-face veils like niqabs in public spaces like streets, parks and public transportation, becoming the first European country to enforce a nation-wide ban and even launching a government campaign that proudly stated, “The Republic is lived with an uncovered face.”
Over the past months, the French Senate has passed a series of amendments to the bill, including banning public officials from expressing their religious beliefs or political opinions, training teachers in secular values, and preventing teaching at home except in the best interests of the child.
In mid-April, the Council approved amendments specifically affecting Muslim women:
• The wearing of the hijab or any religious symbol by persons accompanying pupils on school trips is prohibited.
• Allow public swimming pools to prevent the wearing of burkini.
• The prohibition of the wearing of any religious symbol by minors in public places, and the prohibition of minors from wearing any dress that means women’s inferiority towards men.
The French Constitutional Council was convinced that the law was in line with the Constitution since the law did not mention the word Islam or Muslims, but spoke generally of persons who adopted a speech calling for secession from French society.
Impact of the legislation on Muslim women
Women rights activists said the fact that the law was approved by one of the two legislative houses means a lot about how willing legislators are to go to wipe Muslim women out of the public domain, and the debate that takes place without the participation of the main parties involved is itself a normalization of the exclusion of this society.
It would be obvious that Muslim women want is to be free to control everything about their bodies, and those who claim to protect them from persecution while preventing them from exercising their normal activities are prevented from acting independently and making their decisions freely.
A French journalist, writer and filmmaker commented on France’s recent vote to ban the hijab, explaining that it shows how far this country will go in its exclusion of Muslim women.
Freedom of worship – especially for Muslim women – suffered a setback last time with a decision by the highest judicial body in the European Union, which allowed employers to discriminate against people who wear religious clothing.
The Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ) concluded on 15 July in two cases concerning complaints lodged by women in Germany whose employers refused to allow them to wear the Islamic headscarf at their place of work, employers were justified in imposing limits on the expression of religious, political or philosophical beliefs in the workplace when there is a “real need” to “present oneself in a neutral manner toward clients or prevent social conflict.
The Court held that such restrictions are not discriminatory, since they apply equally to any form of religious expression or belief. These restrictions must also apply, for example, to the wearing of Jewish Kippah and Sikh turban. In practice, it is often Muslim women in Europe who wear the headscarf or Islamic veil who are subject to these restrictions.
Bans on the wearing of religious clothing and symbols by teachers and other government officials in Germany have led some Muslim women to abandon careers in education. The ban in France of the burqa, the Islamic veil covering the face, approved by the European Court of Human Rights, led to the imposition of fines on nearly 600 Muslim women in less than three years and the 2004 French law prohibiting the wearing of the Islamic headscarf in schools led some Muslim students to leave school before the end of their studies.
Women veil wearing or not are personnel decisions
For every woman who is forced to wear the headscarf or the Islamic veil, such prohibitions do not allow to address the root cause of their oppression but risk in practice to further limit their integration into society.
Denying women the right to cover themselves is just as big a mistake as forcing them to cover themselves. Muslim women, like all women, must be left with the right to choose their own clothing and to make decisions regarding their lives and how to express their faith, identity and moral values. No one must force her to choose between her religious beliefs and her career of choice.
The generalization of “vanquishing women” leads to an imbalance in the basic principles of gender equality: In terms of the right to self-determination and freedom of one’s body, that is, the right of a woman to make decisions concerning her life and body without the least interference of the State or of others. The veil is a decision, just as one expresses one’s identity in Europe based on convictions and behaviors sculpted by influences and societal, family or religious factors.