Lifting the veil on prejudice against French Muslim women

A small minority of Muslim women in France are 'forced' to wear a veil, but there are others who choose of their own volition to do so, pointed out filmmaker Sarah Zouak.

PARIS // France’s Muslim women feel the sting of prejudice whether they choose to cover their heads or not – and many are beginning to speak out in a deluge of books, online postings and open letters.

Traditional feminism is failing many Muslim women, to judge from an outpouring of complaints that they suffer prejudice on as many as three fronts at once – gender, religion and national origin.

“Don’t liberate me, I’ll do that myself,” sociologist Hanane Karimi, a prominent French Muslim feminist, said on Twitter.

France is home to the largest Muslim population in Europe, with people from Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisian backgrounds as well as from other former French colonies such as Senegal and Mali.

A small minority of Muslim women in France are “forced” to wear a veil, documentary filmmaker Sarah Zouak said. “That’s a reality, we mustn’t deny it.”

But, she said, those who choose of their own volition to wear a veil or hijab are “lumped together” with those who are forced to, and it is assumed that they all do so at the behest of a father, husband or brother, she said.

A recent book of essays by journalists, sociologists and activists titled Voiles et Prejuges (Veils and Prejudice) accuses French society of "appropriating the voices" of Muslim women.

The hijab has become the preferred target of Islamophobes, they say, arguing that France’s strict rules on separating religion from public life encourage identity politics – even though secularism is meant to protect religious and other freedoms.

The hijab was banished from the classroom and government offices in France in 2004, but it is a common sight in the streets.

Prejudice against the garment comes from both the left and the right, causing unnecessary tensions and even fuelling radical Islam, Muslim women activists say.

Last summer, the appearance of the body-concealing burqini swimsuit on French beaches became a burning campaign issue in the run-up to this year's presidential election.

“The right has clear racist positions but the Socialist government of the last five years was among the worst for us,” said Ms Zouak, who founded an association to “give a voice to women who are the victims of racist and sexist oppression”.

She recalled comments last summer by then prime minister Manuel Valls backing several rightwing mayors who tried to ban the burqini from their beaches.

Mr Valls, who stepped down in December to mount a failed bid for the Socialists’ presidential candidacy, said during the controversy that the veil was synonymous with “women’s enslavement”.

Ms Zouak also pointed to a remark by women’s rights minister Laurence Rossignol who in March last year likened women who wear the hijab to “Negroes who supported slavery” in the United States.

Feminists denounced Ms Rossignol, saying she was supposed to “defend the cause of all women”.

Ms Zouak went further, accusing Ms Rossignol of being a “white feminist, fighting oppression by men telling us how to dress, think etc but copying oppression against other women, thinking she has a monopoly on feminism”.

Ms Rossignol later retracted the remark.

Another Muslim woman to speak out is Hanane Charrihi, who recently published a book in memory of her mother who was killed in last July’s jihadist truck attack in the southern city of Nice.

“My veil is not submission to a man but to God,” Ms Charrihi said. “It’s the result of an intimate journey in faith.”

“You fight for freedoms, so that a woman can wear a veil if she wants to, or a mini-skirt if that’s her choice,” she said.

Sociologist Eric Fassin said it was striking that women were speaking out on the issue “after long allowing debate to rage without their voices being heard”.

“We were given to understand that the women were not allowed to speak out, but in fact we contributed to this silence” by not giving them a voice, he said.

At a screening of a documentary by Ms Zouak about Moroccan women, a woman in the audience opened up and complained about “prejudice” against her.

“If I say I am Muslim, and wear a veil outside work, you automatically think I have a horrible husband. But I’d like you to meet him!”

* Agence France-Presse