France: Issues related to the headscarf ban

Fatou Sow, Claude Abati and Wassyla Tamzali discuss the current issues of the debate surrounding the banning of headscarves in French schools.
Fatou Sow is DAWN's Francophone Coordinator (Africa). She lectures in both France and Senegal. Wassyla Tamzali works for the Collectif Maghreb égalité in Paris, France. Claude Abati is a young feminist based in France. AWID interview by Shamillah Wilson.
In November 2003, France captured the attention of the world by suggesting the passing of a law that would prevent Muslim girls from wearing their headscarves in public educational institutions. These developments have been cited as a 'vital antidote to rising Muslim fundamentalisms, and growing risks to France's secular underpinnings." Similar debates have emerged in Germany and Belgium.

This particular issue has arrested our attention because of the potential implications for human rights. Namely (a) promoting a process that criminalizes migrant communities; (b) enacting processes that exclude; and having implications for citizenship (based on racist or sexist notions); (c) automatically tying symbols (in this case the headscarf) to Islamic fundamentalism - and promoting Islamophobia (as has been the case post 911) and; (d) interpreting religious symbols as religious and political statements against secularism or the secular state.

As we contemplated a response to these developments, we reflected on our experiences of international solidarity and action. The case of Amina Lawal comes to mind where international solidarity, instead of supporting and promoting the struggles and campaigns happening locally, aggravated the efforts of local activists and groups. In light of this, we felt it was important to seek the perspectives of feminists located in France about the banning and its implications for women, women's rights and the rights of minority groups. AWID interviewed Fatou Sow, Claude Abati and Wassyla Tamzali.

AWID: What is the context of the headscarf banning in France?

Fatou Sow: There are several things coming together. Firstly there is the September 11 aftermath with rigid control of terrorist groups, Muslim groups and fundamentalist groups in France, UK and Germany. Many of these groups have felt pressured by extreme policing of their activities and this has resulted in pressure on girls to wear hijab. Then there is the politics of integration of foreign communities in France. This integration, means an assimilation into an 'ideal' citizen by French standards. France has difficulties in assimilating those from North and Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia because of their religions and races.

Lastly, France is the only European country where secularism is so important. All other states have references to God in their constitution, but in the French constitution, it states clearly that there is a separation between the Church and state. So to bring a young girl into a state school wearing a 'veil' is unbearable for the French. Religion is only taught in schools as part of history. There has also been trends where Muslim women from North Africa go to public hospitals and refuse male doctors to touch them. The French are concerned about these trends developing.

Claude Abati: For many years now, France has been experiencing the problem of headscarves in its institutions. The question emerged of whether the headscarf should be accepted at school or not? The ambiguity of the question worked, at the beginning, in favour of these young women of Muslim faith who wanted to wear the scarf at school. The issue was eventually dealt with at an institutional level according to the stand taken by the headmaster. Some headmasters have instinctively asked for expulsion from school of these young women while others felt that this radical stand wasn't the best because once excluded, these young women found themselves excluded from education. Some arrangements were therefore made for these girls to continue attending schools. They could wear their scarves but only under some conditions. Although the French constitution extols the principle of secularity, the difficulty of bringing everyone to agreement on the headscarf question required the passing of a bill banning its wearing.

Wassyla Tamzali: The appearance in public of veiled women touches the French public opinion because it is perceived as an archaic image of women that is rejected by the French as contrary to its ways and customs. It is only in the second analysis that the headscarf is interpreted as a religious symbol. The secularity in France has become a soft ideology, days of the violent anticlerical are out-of-date, that is why the Jewish kippas and other religious symbols were widely tolerated. The headscarf challenges the idea that French people have about women and gender equality

AWID: What is or will be the impact of the banning?

Fatou Sow: It would do nothing. There are no Muslim schools in France. Out of 60 million people in France, 4 million are Muslim. So if the headscarf is banned, girls will still need to go to school. Many of the migrant communities are in France because of jobs or because they are in political exile. So there is no option.

Also, not that many girls wear the hijab to school, but because this has become an issue there are more girls starting to wear it. If girls are allowed to wear hijab, what does this imply for other young girls (Muslim) who don't wear it? Eventually the trend could be that they would all feel obliged to wear it because of its political significance. That would be undemocratic. Currently in the world, there are more young women wearing the 'veil' than before. And this is because there has been a resurgence in Islam which started in the 1980's. Many young women are involved in political movements and the media has also become involved in Islamic discourse. If this trend continues - it will mean that all women will be obliged to wear the 'veil' eventually. When religion becomes a political tool, women's space, freedoms and their bodies become involved.

Claude Abati: We can expect relief for headmasters who didn't know how to manage that problem without a clear stand from the government and the constitution. We can hope that all religious symbols will be banned in schools for good. I do hope that the perverted consequence would not be to exclude these girls from schools.

Wassyla Tamzali: I can say that overall, the impact of the statute and the debate that went with it was negative on migrant communities, especially on persons who are against the scarf. This statute was seen as a discriminatory action that leads to a denunciation of a community. In the eyes of this law, the migrant communities have lost their diversity and they have formed a common front.

AWID: How have different groups responded to this process (the banning)? (Women's groups, young women's groups, migrant communities, Muslim groups)

Claude Abati: Non-Muslims welcomed the government's decision because secularity is the very foundation of the French Republic. The parting of Church and State in France has been achieved after many difficulties and I think that French people do not wish to go back that way. In my opinion, and that is also the opinion of people with whom I had discussions with, the majority of the Muslim population is in favour of this decision.

A very mediatised minority has demonstrated around the importance of religion in their way of life and that the stand taken by the government was running counter to their freedom of religion. But this principle of religious freedom contradicts the one of secularity. Another group made up of young women coming from the migrant community and living in Parisian suburbs has taken advantage of this debate to make itself heard: It is the movement called "Ni putes, ni soumises" (Nor whores or submissives ). These Muslim young women born in France try to impose another way of living Islam, a more "liberal" way. They propagate the idea that these young girls who go to schools wearing scarves are "pushed" by their families, often an older brother more 'integrist' [morally upright] than the parents. This movement tries to reveal the difficulties of young Muslim women living in suburbs; they must find a balance between the western woman that they are and the Muslim religion that is their family heritage.

Wassyla Tamzali: There have been reactions organized around political issues that have nothing to do with the subject and were a symbolic score settling with the government. In that batch we can put some feminists, Kist and Marxist groups supported by big newspapers. This group argues that the discriminations against the migrant communities are more important than the wearing of scarves in schools by hundreds of young women. We can add to this group the international league of human rights and the league of teachers. We should also mention the Islamist organizations close to the fundamentalist and integrist ideas. Some of these organizations have seats in Muslim representative institutions. In favour of that bill are some French feminists, the silent civil society, some migrants who consider that behind the scarf there is a danger of integrism.

AWID: How does this impact on issues of citizenship?

Claude Abati: The issue of the headscarf emphasizes the idea of the choice to be made between the French citizenship and its rejection in consideration of the Muslim community. The issues of integration and assimilation are brought up again for discussion. Some people feel isolated because the choice of their religion does not seem to be accepted by other communities. One has the impression that a French citizen can only be Catholic and that creates the feeling of not fitting in among Muslims and others.

AWID: How do you think the ban impacts on the rights of women?

Fatou Sow: What is problematic about the 'veiling' of young girls? It is basic issues. Can one really say that young girls between the ages of 6-18 consciously chose to wear the veil? Most of the time it is imposed on them. But in this instance, because of the need to assert their identity, young women's bodies become sites of struggle. Young Muslim men are not affected in the same way as they still get to wear jeans and look like they are part of the French. So young women are asked to mark their identity.

In my opinion, the veil is oppressive. It is important that all sort of oppressive patterns are not brought into secular societies. We need to therefore prevent women from going against their freedoms. Yes, this development does stigmatise communities - but that is another issue. Schools are a place where everyone should be able to sit and engage openly and freely. For example the debate about Female Genital Mutilation. In France they jailed people who participated in these practices. Now there are laws in most countries to do this. Why do we always have to be behind in protecting oppressive practices ('traditions')?

Claude Abati: One can assume that the ban will result in a kind of exclusion because these young women will not have access to schools and they will then be left without education, and women who work in government service will be deprived of their rights to work because they will not be allowed to wear a scarf. In both cases, these women run a risk of not being able to look after themselves. This can result in finding themselves under male domination.

Wassyla Tamzali: Positively. The statute applies to the symbolic as well as to real-life. Feminists have worked for a long time on the female body and its control by patriarchal society. The headscarf is a symbol that reduces woman to her erotic body. The scarf states and declines the principle of gender equality and the freedom of women's body in French society. The fight against the headscarf is as important as the one conducted 30 years ago against rape and for contraception.

AWID: Do you feel that the French government is justified in its claim that religious symbols pose a threat to the secular state?

Fatou Sow: By putting the headscarf in the middle of the debate on secularity, while the headscarf is in essence a question of identity and freedom for Muslim women in the world, hides the profound crisis in the French society, a society that refuses to acknowledge its multi-racial and multi-cultural state. All Muslims (and even not all Christians) living in France do not define themselves by their religion. To use it as a reference in arguments becomes a stigma. However, even though the headscarf is a smokescreen for hiding many kinds of discriminations against foreigners and Muslims, in my opinion it should be passed at least to prevent fundamentalist communities from using the body and fear of women in order to assert their authority.

Claude Abati: Religious symbols have meaning and convey ideas. It's more the conveyed ideas that are a threat to the secularity principle than the symbols.

Wassyla Tamzali: The French government has made a serious mistake of putting the headscarf in religious register, which is far from covering the reality of headscarf in France. It is an attack on the principle of equality of women and human rights. Instead of trying to understand and explain some vague behaviour, it is to the French norm, equality, which the law should apply.


The banning of the headscarf clearly raises many issues as articulated by all of the interviewees. In attempting to respond or criticize, it is important that we actually ask the right questions. What is the actual banning achieving? Is it not in fact increasing hardships and burdens on young women? Is this phenomenon not challenging the very concept of 'secularim' and pluralism? If we are to respond effectively to the threat of fundamentalism, it is important that we do so in a way that is effective and decisive and that we do not through our very actions create the fertile ground for it to proliferate.