France: Women’s voices silenced again

Marieme Helie-Lucas
The controversy about banning signs of religious and political affiliation in French schools.
On November 17, 2003, the President of the French Republic announced on TV that, having heard the report of the Stasi Commission that was appointed some months ago, he would propose a law on secularism that will forbid any sign of religious or political affiliation in schools and public administration.
That created an international uproar, in which women voices and progressive Muslim voices supporting this project of law were totally ignored, while wide audience was given to the fundamentalist opposition.

In actual fact, such a law existed since the beginning of the 20th century: it was strictly enforced during the first half of the century before falling into gradual oblivion during the second half. It includes requesting Christian children not to wear crosses within the premises of schools and Christian people not to wear crosses if they work within public administration services, i.e. if they represent in their function the secular French Republic. Similarly it request from Jewish males not to wear the kippa in the same circumstances and Muslim girls not to wear the veil. It also forbids anyone to wear signs of political affiliation within schools and for workers in public administration. Outside these very locations, people can wear what they like. The proposed law will update and revive the old law.

Initially the law that was passed at the beginning of the 20th century was meant to counter the enormous influence of the Catholic Church in education up to the 19th century and to ensure that all children will learn in school to interact freely, without carrying the burden of representing their ‘community’, and to teach them all to see themselves as equal citizens of a secular state. It was a lesson in democracy in action and the antithesis of what we know now the world over as communities and communalism - a mortal disease that had spared France till very recently.

It is not possible to speak about French secularism without making clear what distinguishes it conceptually from what other countries in ‘the West’ call secularism. Secularism in France means total separation of the State from religion. Turkey has the same understanding of the concept. In other words, religion can exist freely, but it remains in the private sphere of personal faith and the State does not interfere whatsoever. This is fairly different from what the UK does, with its Queen as the Chief of the Anglican Church, from what Germany does, when the Lander (i.e. the states within the federation) collect taxes for the main religions, or from what the US does, where people testify in court by swearing on the Bible! The French model of secularism is a far cry from ‘tolerance’ vis a vis various religions, as is the case in India which allows, against all promises by its Constitution, appalling differences between its women citizens, in the name of personal laws and respect for all religions. In the French views, religion is simply not the business of the State and all citizens have equal rights by law. Many of us consider the French model that came out of the French revolution is the only true model of secularism. Alas, this model is presently undoubtedly under attack within the proposed European Constitution.

Since World War II, thousands of migrant workers from the then colonies of France (mainly Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, then Mali, Senegal, Guinea and Ivory Cost - mostly Muslim countries) have landed in France in search for work, in successive waves. Their wives and then whole families gradually came to join them, first on a small scale and then massively when a law was passed, about twenty years ago, that allowed ‘family regrouping’.

Feminist writers, play writers and film makers of North African descent (third generation in France and French citizens) recently started documenting the lives of their mothers and grand mothers upon arrival in France. It is both striking and extremely moving to see documentary films showing how foremothers would adjust and seize whenever they could the opportunities of freeing themselves from family oppression and anti-women traditions (such as forced marriages, unilateral divorce, seclusion), how they would use their right to work as a way to step out of the home, and, among other things, how they quickly dressed like any other woman from the working class. Very, very few of them kept the traditional clothes (they usually changed on the boat that brought them to France), and even fewer would wear a veil.

In France it is only after the fundamentalist regime took over in Iran, that what came to be called ‘the Islamic dress’ was imported and introduced. Interestingly enough, it is not only in France but also at the same time in North Africa that this brand new ‘Islamic dress’ was introduced, where it is absolutely untraditional. This ‘Islamic dress’ has nothing to do with either the various traditional women’s dress in North Africa, nor with the cultural adjustment that the foremothers made upon their arrival in France to endorse their new identity as working class women.

It became clearer and clearer over the years that this new veil was the spearhead of the war for political power that fundamentalists had launched in Europe too - once more using women’s bodies. Boys were encouraged to seek integration into the French mores for themselves, while girls were in most instances forced into representing mores and values of ‘tradition and religion’ - that is, as interpreted by fundamentalists - thus living a painful and destabilizing contradiction between personal emancipation and defending communal identity, a contradiction that spared their foremothers.

The political danger of letting this extreme right fundamentalist force set foot in France in a big way became clear in the 80s both to the French state and to alarmed progressive people born and raised within ‘Muslim’ families in France. In 1984, a march of young men and women called the ‘Marche des Beurs’ (a popular nickname that the 2nd and 3rd generation sons and daughters of migrants invented for themselves) walked throughout France, from Marseille, in the South, to Paris in the North. It was demanding integration against class and race discrimination, as a viable alternative to the communalist agenda that the fundamentalists were proposing. Organized without a single penny and relying on the goodwill of their fellow citizens, this march received a very cheerful welcome from all the cities and villages they crossed during months.

Throughout the 80s and 90s, in suburbs of the main cities where lower middle class and lower class families of migrant origin are concentrated, the situation of girls became more and more dangerous and stressful. The French police barely set foot any more in these lower middle class areas, thus allowing young mafia males to run them, as near ghettos, to their convenience, and to impose, among other things, strict rules of behavior and dress codes on girls and young women. France presently witnesses on its soil the beginning of ‘communities’ that it never had before.

After a young teenage girl was burnt alive in the garbage cell of her building in the suburbs of Paris, a women’s organization was formed that regroups women of Maghrebian descent. Its name: ‘Neither whores, nor submissive’ speaks for itself. They quickly became a nationwide organization which is well respected and heard by the authorities. In 2003, on the model of the ‘Marche des Beurs’, it organized a march for gender equality throughout France. They claim their right to have, in their private lives, an ethno-cultural identity or a religious faith without falling into the trap of fundamentalists, and to give priority to their identity as citizens of France. They want to make full use, like any other citizen, of emancipatory rules for women within French secular state.

In wake of these courageous initiatives, the French state, afraid of being seen as part of the general Islam bashing in Europe, has remained silent. It is only now, faced with the growing threat of Muslim fundamentalism mobilizing the suburbs of big cities, that it is taking steps. Steps such as reviving the old law on secularism or passing a new law which will update the old one.

It is appalling for someone who witnessed the wide mobilization of women of migrant descent in France in the past few weeks, to see the international media exclusively reporting on the fundamentalists-organized protests against the proposed law, showing exclusively demos of veiled women cordoned by bearded men on all sides.

They have not reported on the immediate collusion between the Catholic Church and Muslim fundamentalists who now work hand in hand - the Catholic Church seeing it as chance of revenge and reversing history after one century of strict secularism.

Similarly they did not report on the fact that the Extreme Right leader of National Front, Le Pen, immediately sided with Muslim fundamentalists in order to defend the ‘right to be different‘, an old strategy of the extreme right in the Southern states of the US before the civil rights movement, as well as in South Africa under the apartheid regime, which always purported to enhance the inequality of those who are ‘different‘.

Unfortunately but in quite an expected way, human rights organizations have once more failed to fulfill their role in the defense of women and progressive forces: they sided with the Extreme Right, the Church and the fundamentalists and came up in defense of the what they think is religious rights (fundamentalist version) and the right to education for girls who will risk, under this law, to be expelled from school if they do not respect it. Considering that the problem of veiled girls in schools in France only started ten years ago, is very limited in numbers so far, although given the widest publicity (less than 50 cases in the whole of France), one can ask with some credibility how come thousands of Muslim girls do not and did not in the past find it a problem to attend schools unveiled?

Once more, human rights organizations fail to identify fundamentalism as a political movement of a fascist nature, that will severely curtail peoples’ and women’s rights, and the veil as their very visible political banner. Once more they ignore the voices of progressive Imams such as the Grand Mufti of Marseille, Soheib Bencheikh, who went public in support of this law and declared that the veil was nowhere mentioned in the Qur‘an which only commanded to both men and women to dress ’modestly’. Like other religious authorities, the Grand Mufti insisted that girls would behave like perfectly good Muslims without a veil on their heads, if they observed modesty in their dress. He stated that there was no contradiction between this law and Islamic prescriptions.

Once more human rights organizations will objectively if not with intention help fascist Muslim forces to gain power, and they will once more come after the battle to defend our human rights when those will be endangered by the very forces they are helping right now. What a sad contradiction...

International media have also totally ignored the thousands of women from Maghrebian, Afghani and Iranian descent that have volunteered to testify in front of the Stasi Commission, that have written and signed appeals, and that have gone public in the written press and on TV, in order to support French secularism in general and this law in particular. Their analysis is that veiling a girl child amounts to inculcating into a young mind a sense of shame and guilt about their body that will shape and distort in a harmful way her personality and sexuality. Moreover, it makes the girl child responsible for any sexual attack by men on them. Women advocate to use this law as a means to protect the girl child, as long as she is under age - which roughly speaking corresponds to the time when she is in school, since schooling is compulsory till age 16. An Iranian refugee, Chahdortt Djavann, who also testified in front of the Stasi Commission, has just published a 48 pages book in which she fully develops this position, and it sells by the thousands, in a way that indicates how concerned the women are.

Among the many women who came public on this issue, there are writers, film makers and professional women. Prominent exiled feminists from Algeria such as Zazi Sadou, have taken the same stand - knowing from first hand experience what it means to enforce this political banner that veil actually is on women’s heads. They find it appalling that what some women risked their lives for in Algeria i.e. secularism and women’s rights, may happen all over again in France.

But there are also thousands of students and school children, health workers, social workers and community workers that both experienced in their private life and witnessed in their work the ravages of the contradictions fundamentalists are trying to trap women into. These women are fully conscious of the inequalities of French society, of the bias against Muslims in Europe at large, and of the role that this law will play in the hands of a right wing government in France; they do address all of these issues publicly in their statements. However, they are also very much aware of the extreme danger of letting fascist Taliban-like forces grow in France, under the pretext of defending the community. And they made their choice with open eyes.

I will leave the final word to a very young social worker of Algerian descent who courageously went on TV to state her support to a law that would forbid religious signs in schools. She said: ‘For once, women’s rights will prevail over community rights’.

Why are women’s voices and progressive voices silenced? Will they at long last be heard?