FEMFACTS
29 Mar 2019

France is obsessed with the Islamic headscarf, but won't let Muslim women talk about it

Who cares about French Muslim women's opinion about their choice to wear a hijab? Not the French media it seems.

Guest Mavens
Marion Dautry NewsMavens, Europe
France is obsessed with the Islamic headscarf, but won't let Muslim women talk about it - NewsMavens
Photo from Lallab.org

Muslim Women's Day, celebrated on March 27, is an initiative started three years ago in the US by Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, founder of the website Muslim Girl. The French feminist and anti-racist association Lallab “imported” the initiative last year in France, wanting to cast focus onto the discriminations faced by Muslim girls and women during their school years. Lallab’s mission is to "make the voice of Muslim women heard". But hardly anyone is listening.

WHAT’S NOT BEING HEARD?

The question of hijab, the Islamic veil or a headscarf used by Muslim women to cover their hair, is a very sensitive one in France. Since 2004, a law prohibits wearing ostensible religious signs inside public schools, as a way to protect the laïcité (secularism) that France has been very attached to since the first law in 1905 to separate the State and the Church. But in 2004, the focus was on the Islamic headscarf, following years of heated debates since 1989 when three teenage Muslim girls were expelled from their school in Creil for wearing a headscarf. Their headmaster had judged it “incompatible with the secularity of the State and its institutions”.

Wearing a niqab or a burka, two different pieces of clothing which cover the face, used by some Muslim women in public, has been prohibited since 2010. The law bans "covering one's face in public", but nobody is being arrested for wearing a balaclava in the winter.

One of the goals of Muslim Women's Day in France was to share women and girls’ personal testimonies as a way to point out the consequences of the 2004 law. According to a study by Aala Abdelgadir and Vasiliki Fouka from the University of Stanford, published in January 2019, "the law reduces the secondary educational attainment of Muslim girls, and impacts their trajectory in the labour market and family composition in the long run".

"One of my teachers stopped me and gave me an ultimatum: either enter the museum without my veil, or to stay outside wearing it and not participate in the visit (...) So I waited two hours on a bench at the entrance of the park, alone. It was March 2012 and I was still underage."

This testimony of Basma, a French Muslim woman, was shared on March 27 by Lallab for Muslim Women's Day. It was one of the many examples of discrimination faced by Muslim girls and women in the education system, and of the impact those difficulties have had on their lives.

However, despite the fact that France has a Muslim population of 8 to 12 million, including obviously many women, Muslim Women's Day and the Stanford study received very little attention.

Last year for the first edition we got more attention. This year we sent press releases and contacted many journalists but we had very few responses, I am not sure why. It’s a pity because we need to be present in the media”, Fatima, who works as a volunteer at Lallab, told NewsMavens on the phone.

When searching directly on the websites of mainstream, national-wide media such as Le Monde, Le Figaro, l'Humanité, Marianne, L'Express, Le Point... There is no result either about Muslim Women’s Day, or the Stanford study. And among the top links when searching "Journée des femmes musulmanes" (Muslim Women's Day in French) on Google is a far-right website promoting conspiracy theories, nationalism and Islamophobia.

There are a few exceptions. One is Liberation, which mentions the study in a column on its "debate" section, published earlier in March. RTL Girls, the women’s section of RTL French radio's website, interviewed Muslim women about their difficulties in education and later in the professional sphere, with a headline on  Muslim Women's Day. Glamour Paris, the website of the women's magazine Glamour, published an article where the testimonies collected by Lallab are shared and the Stanford study is mentioned.

WHAT IS BEING REPORTED?

This lack of coverage does not mean that French media do not care about Muslim women and their headscarves. They do. A lot. But words like "scandal", "controversy" and "polemic" are often linked to the topic.

The treatment of the French sports brand Decathlon selling a "hijab for running" is a striking example. On February 21, 2019, a Twitter user noticed that Decathlon, which has shops in many countries, was selling a hijab designed for running. The brand answered that the product is sold in Morocco, but is also available to order on the Internet. A few days later, the right-wing party Les Républicain's spokesperson, Lydia Guirous, accused the brand of "submitting to Islamism" and "disowning France's values" on Twitter. Politicians from the left and from the ruling party expressed similar opinions, including some considered to be feminists. In just a few hours, Decathlon received thousands of threats and, according to the brand, employees were physically threatened in their shops. The brand finally announced that it won’t commercialize the product in France for "security reasons".

"Hijab of Decathlon" and "hijab for running" have become keywords in search engines and bring dozens of results. The media that is not saying a word about Muslim Women's Day covered the story with numerous articles: we counted at least 13 on the website of The Huffington Post, 12 on Le Figaro, 7 on RTL. Several pieces focus on Decathlon's community manager who was at the frontline of the violent abuse received online. What they do not focus on is the opinion of Muslim women wearing the headscarf, which was absent from the conversation -- as if nobody thought of asking them what they would like to wear while running.

Screenshot from The Huffington Post

“This topic is an obsession. But Muslim women are not being heard. Meanwhile on TV you see politicians and men talking about it. That way, we are being stripped of our own narratives”, Fatima from Lallab told NewsMavens. She says they were contacted by many foreign media such as the Washington Post and the New York Times to react on the story, but by very few French ones.

Liberation, however, published an op-ed signed by members of the association Alliance Citoyenne (Civic Alliance), which was founded to push for the right of Muslim women to wear swimming suits covering their entire body in the municipal pools of Grenoble. This op-ed, which calls for the respect of the freedom of Muslim women to decide if they want to wear a headscarf or not, has only been mentioned by a few other media since.

Washington Post correspondent James McAuley did not miss the irony of the situation when people pretending to defend Muslim women's freedom are pushing them away from sports and therefore further from public life, all this in the name of secularism that the French forget every Christmas. And it is far from being the first time.

CONCLUSION

French media are at the center of the storm by relaying every politicians' statement on the topic, and inviting them to share their opinion on radio and TV. On the other hand, a similar chance is not offered to Muslim women, thus allowing others to speak in their name and contribute to rendering them invisible. By ignoring opinions that do not conform to the mainstream line of thinking, they strengthened a certain vision of French society that pushes millions of its citizens on the margins. The overall effect of such an approach amounts to censorship of women’s voices and intersectional discrimination displayed towards them on basis of their religion and gender.

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