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French Anti-Hijab Law: Four Years On

Wednesday, June 24, 2009 10:28:51 AM, Amara Bamba,


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On March 14, 2004, the French legislative council voted the ban on "religious symbols" in public schools. This uncommon law, which mainly targets Muslim young girls, was widely supported in France. After four years of the enactment of the law, one can hardly measure its consequences among the French Muslims. People still observe the case without real understanding.


In 1989, for the first time, the hijab (Islamic headscarf) appeared to cause trouble to some school teachers in France. At that time, the opinion of the Council of State could disregard the protest but could not solve the problem. Fifteen years later, Muslim girls in the French public schools were no longer coming from outside France. They were born in France, and their hijab was neither a problem for the other kids nor a nuisance for the majority of their teachers.


French Islamophobia

However, within the atmosphere following 9/11, Islam invaded the public debate. In 2002, the debate was about the Muslim representation. After a noisy process, in April 2003, the then minister of interior Nicolas Sarkozy called an election to establish a Muslim body and urged the Muslim leaders to vote. For the first time in their history, the leaders of the French Muslim community voted their representatives at the French Council of Muslim Cult (FCMC).


This council did not make unanimity, but openly or not, the Muslims expected that the FCMC will bring back some dignity to the community, especially concerning the image of Islam, which was deeply affected by a latent Islamophobia. Even Sarkozy, as a minister of interior responsible for religious affairs, was accused of sympathizing with the Muslim fundamentalists in France after he urged some leaders to join the FCMC.


On April 19, six days after the FCMC was founded, Sarkozy raised the question of hijab. Invited to speak at the Congress of Le Bourget (France's greatest Islamic meeting), Sarkozy boiled the Islamic debate, opposing the hijab to the national secular system called laïcité. His speech opened the door to a fierce political debate that continued for a year.


Every week, using all kinds of statements from "experts," all sorts of media disseminated a new portrayal of Muslims, Islam, Islamization, hijab, terrorism, and Muslim women. This public rivalry generated an atmosphere of confusion. France became suspicious and afraid of Islam. Above all, there were no Muslim voices prestigious enough to denounce or calm down the suppressive media campaign.


On one hand, the new FCMC was extremely criticized by Muslims. The leaders were not ready to work together. Their dissensions were deeper than their projects. They showed no interest in a strategy aimed at changing the image of Muslim citizens. In short, none of the Muslim leaders really seemed to be prepared to speak on behalf of the whole Muslim community, so they all kept silent.

On the other hand, Tariq Ramadan, who appeared to be the only Muslim leader in France with enough power to lead the debate, was being accused of anti-Semitism after he criticized Israel. Therefore, the media waves around the issue of hijab proceeded without authorized Muslim opinions. 


The rising Islamophobia faced no reaction from the Muslims themselves. It definitively focused on young Muslim girls, though when the issue was raised once again, there were no tangible problems in schools. Out of five million French Muslim women, approximately 1,250 wore the hijab and only 150 had problems with their schools.


Stasi Commission

On July 3, 2003, former president Jacques Chirac created a commission that aimed at studying the issue of hijab at schools. The Stasi Commission was then founded. Bernard Stasi, ombudsman of the French Republic, was known as the "friend of Islam." His nomination as head of that commission brought some hope for an appropriate solution to a question that very few felt concerned about. During this lull, a small book by sociologist Vincent Geisser, entitled The New Islamophobia, blew a cold wind on the fire of Islamophobia.


In his book, Geisser explained the roots of French animosity toward Islam. His book showed how these feelings started and how they spread. He described the different ways of propagating the French phobia toward Muslims and Islam. He also defined the categories of Islamophobia, including Muslim Islamophobics, who are Muslims whishing to see Muslim men without beards, Muslim women without headscarves, and mosques without minarets.


But the break did not last for long. In the newspaper Le Monde, the most prestigious newspaper in France, some academic tried to belittle Geisser's work without much success. But the Stasi Commission's report issued on December 11, 2003, was a surprise. The FCMC, which was supposed to be a body governing the Muslim affairs, was not associated with the commission. Dalil Boubaker, president of the FCMC, was auditioned by the commission as rector of the Mosque of Paris, not as president of the FCMC. The report mentioned the Christian cross twice, the Jewish hat five times, and the hijab more than a hundred times. Above all, the Stasi Commission invited, out of the hundred people auditioned, only two Muslim girls wearing the hijab.


On December 17, 2003, a week after the commission's report was issued, Chirac made an important speech demanding a law banning all religious symbols at schools. The ban on hijab was clear. In his long speech, Chirac spoke of the "hand of Fatimah," a small Islamic pendant that offers no consolation to any Muslim girl who wishes to cover her head. This proposal from the then head of state in an official speech was unrealistic. The hand of Fatimah is a badge used by Arabs and Jews in Morocco for superstitious reasons. It has nothing to do with the Qur'an or the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him).


Wassila's Initiative

After Chirac's speech, no reactions came from the Muslim bodies and organizations in France. It was the fourth day after the speech when Wassila decided to do something. Wassila is a Muslim girl living in Tremblay, Paris. She was then only 16 years old. With some of her friends, she decided to protest against Chirac's speech. She loved to wear the hijab, yet she did not want her mother to have problems with the school over this issue. But, like most French girls, whether Muslims or non-Muslims, she would not let anyone interfere with the way she dresses. So, like any other French citizen, she went to the police station to fill in the form of a permission for demonstration.


Wassila received no support from any Muslim organization. She was not even a member of any. But, as soon as she got the permission from the police, she posted the information on the Internet, which helped her to spread the word easily. The demonstration took place on December 21, 2003, in absolute improvisation.


Within the following days, the press released a bunch of articles on the protest. For some reason, the newspapers repeated that the demonstrators were closely surrounded by an exclusively male security service. There were both males and females in the security service. Nobody has ever witnessed an exclusively female security service in a demonstration in Paris.


"Attached to the Veil and Under Tight Guard"; "Veiled, Semi-Recluse, and Rebels"; "The Organizers Remain Hidden" — these were some titles of published articles on the demonstration. Throughout the protest, Wassila and her friends had tens of interviews, mostly with foreign journalists, and their pictures were everywhere.


In fact, some journalists did not believe that 3,000 people have been demonstrating on the street in response to the call of a teenager. This first demonstration against the anti-hijab law was totally different from the French media's tradition illustrating Muslim women as dependent on, and manipulated by, their men.


Absent Muslim Strategy

On December 22, 2003, the day following the Wassila demonstration, Sawsan, a French Muslim woman, went to her bank to get some cash. She was wearing her hijab as usual, but that day was not usual. At the bank, a small poster in a corner asked all customers to take off their headscarves "for security reasons"! Accordingly, Sawsan could not enter the bank. The security officer only allowed her to enter her head through the gate to check if the poster was real. Eventually, she could not get the cash and she went back home. Although the anti-hijab law was still not voted, the ban extended from schools to other institutions.


The French political system is a representative, democratic one. In such a system, when a bill is to be discussed, few major elements can influence the debates. The first element is the degree of mobilization of the people concerned. This is usually measurable through the size of the crowd in a demonstration. The second element is the number of media releases expressing the opinions of opponents. The last one is the number and weight of politicians, intellectuals, and artists in favor of the law. According to each and every element, the Wassila demonstration failed.


The newly elected members of the FCMC were still unable to build a strategy against the ban on hijab. Individually, they claimed to be opposed to such a law, but as an organization, they kept silent in a profound embarrassment.


For Sarkozy, a mere law did not fit the situation. The reins had gone out of his control because, at the end of the day, he was only the minister of interior and Chirac was president. But Sarkozy was the one who gave the first shot, so he tried to get some redemption from Egypt during his winter vacation. At Al-Azhar University, he met Sheikh of Al-Azhar Mosque Muhammad Sayyed Tantawi, who gave him the exact fatwa he needed. It was a fatwa that curved with the storm Sarkozy had sparked. However, with the festivals of the new year, this fatwa had very little effect in France.


Muslims, Feminists, a Leftists

Among the Muslims, three groups opposing the ban on hijab appeared on the scene. The first group was represented by the Party of Muslims of France (PMF). The PMF is a very small political party based in Strasbourg, which is far away from Paris. Few people knew about the party before the debate of hijab. Mohammed Ennacer Latrech, leader of the PMF, is known as a ferocious defender of Palestine. Some media consider him anti-Semite, but Latrech says he is anti-Zionist.


On January 17, 2004, the PMF called for a demonstration in Paris against the ban, but the accusations against Latrech had been confusing to many. The demonstration was classified risky. Some sources said that about 3,000 police officers were mobilized for the event. But, the French Muslims did not respond to the call. Most of them reproached Latrech for his approach to Islam in France. They regarded the PMF as an "organization for Muslims only."


Some Islamic leaders didn't want Latrech to speak on their behalf. Therefore, they organized a meeting in Paris on the same day of the demonstration. On January 17, 2004, some Muslims were demonstrating against the anti-hijab law with the PMF and about 150 leaders were trying to foil the demonstration.


The PMF demonstration was a success on the media level but a failure on the level of mobilization. Less than 2,000 people were present. The media called them fundamentalists and opponents of democracy. Meanwhile, the 150-leader meeting was a great opportunity for those leaders to build up something new. But their discussions did not come up with anything concrete.


The organizers of the 150-leader meeting wanted the non-Islamic organizations to join them in their fight against the anti-hijab law. Some feminists and leftists joined the meeting, but the Muslim organizers became soon incapable of reaching a common ground. The majority of them refused the anti-hijab law but failed to agree on their reasons behind the refusal. The feminists refused the law because the victims were girls, but they still did not want the girls to wear hijab. According to some of them, education is the best solution against hijab. "To deprive Muslim girls from school is to condemn them to ignorance, which drives them to wearing the hijab," some feminists said.


The leftists were opposed to the law and also to the hijab! They drew the debate into the field of individual freedom of expression. They described the anti-hijab law as a political law aimed at a religious matter. But the leftists were not ready at all to "demonstrate with women wearing Islamic symbols."


The different positions were unmatchable, and the inharmonious "allies" were only able to arrange for a few symbolic, yet insufficient, actions. Thus, on February 4, 2004, when the discussions on the bill were initiated, they gathered in front of the Parliament. The spokespersons were not Muslim, and their speeches were perfect for the media. The same day, Sofia Rahim and Hadjar Ajimi started a hunger strike. The two French Muslim ladies were completely ignored by the French media. Only foreign media reported their news.


"No" to Islamophobia

The law was to be voted on February 14, 2004. A collection of organizations then announced a demonstration to be organized on February 7. The Movement for Justice and Dignity (MJD) was the third group of French Muslims fighting against the ban on hijab. It included ten local organizations led by Muslims. Two months later, the MJD had a more concrete shape for its actions. The watchword of its demo was "Freedom, Equality, and Fraternity; 'No' to Islamophobia." By planning a demonstration a week before the vote, the MJD thought it could change things with such a good degree of mobilization.


On one hand, the 150 leaders called for boycotting this demonstration and called for other two demonstrations. They urged the MJD to focus on Muslim issues. On the other hand, the MJD campaign suffered some media blackout. Some members of the MJD were professional journalists, but their articles were never published on time. Only foreign media and a couple of Internet sites announced the MJD campaign.


The day before the demonstration, the Le Monde published an article blowing clouds of suspicion around some leaders of the MJD. The intoxication worked. In a rainy afternoon, the demonstration of February 7, 2004, became another failure of mobilization. Many reporters were present to report the event, but the MJD had blacklisted a number of "Islamophobic French journalists and media." The leaders of the movement refused to be interviewed by the blacklisted media "for the sake of their dignity."


Religion and State

On March 14, 2004, the law on religious symbols at schools was voted while a dozen of demonstrators gathered in front of the Parliament. Since then, many French Muslim girls take off their hijab before they arrive at school. In Strasbourg, Cennet Doganay, who was 15 at the time, shaved her hair to find a middle ground between the Islamic law and French law. Some Islamic secondary schools were established after the law was voted, but not all Muslim families could afford the fees. Some students chose to study at home, and others migrated with their families.


A year after the anti-hijab bill was approved, two French journalists, Georges Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot, were kidnapped in Iraq. The kidnappers demanded an abrogation of the anti-hijab law by the French government. As a consequence of this situation, nobody could take the responsibility of organizing a protest in France.


On the fourth anniversary of the crisis in March 2008, 45 French ladies explained their views on the issue of hijab in France. It was evident that the French Islamophobia had resulted in the anti-hijab law. The atmosphere following 9/11 helped to prepare the ground for the ban. Also, some ambitious politicians managed to start the debate, and the media played its role and inflamed the situation. But, unfortunately, the French Muslims were not able to find a bucket of water to pull the fire down.


Law is the same for all, but here, Islam was the target. Indeed, France needs to change its approach to Islam. This religion is by no means a "new" phenomenon. It is also not a faith coming from abroad. Democracy cannot and should not ignore the demographic changes in a country.


The chance is that the so-called French Islam has a real political will. But the history of France shows how religion and state have been fighting over centuries. The battle is at an intellectual level and a political one. The long struggle of French Christians and French Jews witnessed no relief without methodical strategies, media expressing and defending the religious opinions, and knowledgeable leaders who are skilful in debating.


The French Muslims failed to build a unanimous strategy toward the crisis of hijab. They failed to make their voices heard through the media. The normal outcome was that their management of the crisis proved to be ineffective. Now, after four years of the enactment of the anti-hijab law, the situation appears to be the same.




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