Hijab: a very French obsession

French-Muslim singer Mennel Ibtissem was forced to pull out of a singing competition following backlash over old social media posts in February [Youtube/TheVoice]

Why is a piece of fabric causing such virulent and irrational reactions in France?

by   4 Apr 2018
 An angelic voice emanating from millions of television screens captivated audiences acrossFrance on February 4. A contestant on the popular talent show, The Voice was singing Leonard Cohen’s cult anthem, Hallelujah. The spellbinding performance caused all four members of the show’s jury to turn their chairs around in a mark of approval. The young candidate, Mennel Ibtissem, was an instant favourite. 

But Mennel was not just another successful candidate on the show – her photogenic face was framed by a headscarf worn turban-style. Also, she sang the second verse of the song in Arabic. 

This detail was enough to rattle some members of the audience who were not comfortable with the presence of a visibly Muslim woman in a mainstream entertainment programme. Of course, some viewers were not at all bothered by the faith of the candidate – they only focused on her voice. But others, shaken by Mennel’s “audacity” to appear on the show wearing a hijab, embarked on a demonisation campaign. 

They started dissecting her social media presence. They went through her Facebook posts and discovered that a couple of years ago she showed support of conspiracy theories about terror attacks in France. No doubt, she was making some serious assertions in these posts – but nobody bothered to remember that she was only 20 years old when she wrote them. Nobody bothered to think about what other French 20-year-olds put on their private social media pages on a regular basis.

People started calling for her dismissal from the show. The campaign against her swiftly snowballed into a nationwide witch-hunt, and the young singer was eventually forced to announce her decision to leave the singing contest.

But what do we know about the ideas of the dozens of other candidates who have participated in The Voice since 2012? Nothing. Did we dissect their social media profiles the way we did Mennel’s? Of course not. Because in France we do not expect singers to be perfect in every aspect of their lives before they find fame and success. French artists are allowed to make mistakes in their youth.

As long as they are not Muslim women wearing hijabs.

In France, we are not accustomed to seeing hijabi women on prime-time television. Their presence still causes shock and anxiety.

The question of hijab (The hijab is a headscarf worn by many Muslim women who feel it is part of their religion.) is omnipresent in French public discourse, yet hijabi women are very rarely granted opportunities to express themselves in public. Mennel’s expulsion from The Voice is yet another sign that our hijab-obsessed country is not ready to hear the voices of the women who choose to wear it.

Why is a piece of fabric causing such virulent and irrational reactions in France? Why are we not able to accept that hijabi women can be regular members of French society?

The hijab controversy in France started in September 1989, when three Muslim school girls were suspended for refusing to remove their headscarves in class in a middle school in Creil, a suburb of Paris. A month later, the State Council, the highest administrative body in the country, ruled that the girls’ headscarves were compatible with the “laicite” (secularism) of French public schools. But the controversy did not end there. At the end of that year, Education Minister Lionel Jospin issued a statement declaring that it was educators, and not the state, who had the responsibility of accepting or refusing the wearing of the hijab in classes on a case-by-case basis.

After 15 years of recurrent debates about whether hijabs are acceptable or not in French schools – and public life in general – French parliament passed a law in 2004 banning women from attending classes while wearing it. In 2010, France passed another controversial law that banned the wearing of the full-face veil anywhere in public (even though at the time there were only 367 women in the entire country that wore such attire).

Since then, several other controversies about the Muslim headscarf – and Muslim women’s clothes in general – have emerged in France.

The summer of 2016 was marked by an epidemic of “anti-burkini decrees”, with mayors across the country trying to ban Muslim women from wearing swimsuits that cover their bodies completely. It began with the cancellation of a “burkini” event at a water theme park in Marseilles. Then the Riviera town of Cannes banned the full-body swimsuit on its public beaches. The then Prime Minister Manuel Valls expressed his support for the bans, saying the swimsuit represents what he calls a “provocation” and “an archaic vision”. Later, photographs have emerged of armed French police confronting a woman on a beach in Nice and forcing her to remove some of her clothing to make her comply with the “burkini ban”. The State Council eventually put an end to these anti-burkini decrees when it ruled that they were a “serious and manifestly illegal violation of fundamental freedoms”. 

These controversies highlight France’s colonial and Islamophobic obsession with the hijab. The incapability of French intellectuals and politicians to accept Muslim women’s right to take control of their bodies is symptomatic of the French brand of “secularism” that has made the fight against the visibility of Muslims its priority.

The dominant discourse in France is that the hijab is an oppressive tool used by Muslim men to hide and silence Muslim women. This is why, when French Muslim women come out and say that they choose to cover their heads in public spaces, their agency to make this decision is being questioned.

In France, discussions surrounding the hijab are frequently shaped by the circumstances of other – fundamentally different – countries. In these discussions, hijabi women in France are compared with their foreign counterparts, even though they are as French as any other citizen of the country. The hijab does not carry a single meaning that can be used in any given context. How can a piece of clothing carry the same meaning in France as it does in another country where women are officially oppressed by the law? In one context, for some women, the hijab can be a tool of oppression used by men in general and the state in particular to make them comply with the rules imposed on them by society. But in a country like France, where it is not the norm, the hijab can be a tool to make the Muslim identity visible.

Of course, one can legitimately question the origins and patriarchal character of the wearing of the hijab. It is perfectly acceptable to debate the ways in which femininity is expressed; but French hijabi women – and no one else – should be the ones defining the meaning of the hijab in France. However, they are rarely invited to express their opinion on this subject. The media do not give them the opportunity to join the discussion as full-fledged French women with reason. 

But hijabi women are not being removed from the discussion just because they are Muslim.

France has a problematic relationship with women in general. For example, there has been fierce opposition to the #MeToo movement by such emblematic figures as Catherine Deneuve and Brigitte Bardot. Deneuve was among the signatories of an open letter – in which a collective of 100 women tried to defend men’s right to “annoy” women – in response to the #MeToo movement. This text, which placed the desire of men at the centre of a debate that aims to promote the liberation of women, is symptomatic of a culture that reduces women to objects of desire that should constantly seek the approval of men. This mentality is not unrelated to the rejection and condemnation of women who voluntarily choose to hide their hair and wear modest clothing.

In a country that views “the seduction of women” as an important aspect of its national identity, it is easy to understand why hijabi women can attract criticism. In France, men who “seduce” are adored and admired as “Don Juans”; in such a context, one can imagine that women who voluntarily decide to withdraw parts of their bodies from public view can be perceived as subversive. 

In a country where society tolerates everyday harassment and even protects men’s right to harass, it is easy to see that hijabi women are perceived as a challenge to implicit gender norms. As a result, the hijab controversy in France cannot be viewed only in the context of Islamophobia. To understand the French obsession with the hijab, society’s relationship with women and different expressions of femininity also needs to be questioned.

France decided long ago that Islam has somehow become “problematic”, and consequently adopted particular behaviours to hide Islam and Muslims from society’s field of vision. Mennel Ibtissem was only one victim of a problem that affects the lives of millions of French citizens. Today, the concept of “laicite” is being used by the French state to make expressions of Muslim identity illegal. However, secularism is and must remain a principle based on equality and not prohibition. Its vocation is to enable every citizen to freely express his or her faith without fear of being stigmatised.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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