A 15-year old girl in France can decide whether she wants to consent to sexual relations, but shouldn’t be allowed to choose if she wants to wear a headscarf.
On March 30, the French senate voted in favour of adding an amendment to a so-called “Islamist separatist” bill that would – effectively – ban girls under the age of 18 from wearing the hijab in public spaces.
While the bill states it would prohibit “conspicuous religious” clothing signifying a lower status for women in relation to men, it is clear the real target is Muslim girls.
If approved and it becomes law, it would also mean mothers wearing hijab would not be allowed to accompany their children on school trips. Schoolgirls wearing headscarves would be excluded from participating in sports, and the wearing of the burkini (full-body, modest swimsuits) at public pools and beaches would also be banned. This would exile thousands of French Muslim women and girls even further from wider society.
The potential ban prompted the hashtag #HandsOffMyHijab, with athletes, celebrities, and influencers taking to social media to share their outrage and disappointment with the French government.
The bill is part of French President Emmanuel Macron’s promised crackdown on political Islam in the wake of the gruesome beheading of school teacher, Samuel Paty, by an extremist in October.
Islamophobia: Macron’s political life-line
In reality, however, this is a desperate bid by Macron to gain votes ahead of next year’s presidential elections. The Covid-19 pandemic, protests against police violence, contested reforms of the educational system, and the 2018 Yellow Vests protest movement against economic inequality have significantly dented Macron’s popularity.
Macron’s disapproval ratings stand at almost 60 percent and far-right leader, Marine Le Pen, is ahead in the polls for the 2022 elections.
In response, Macron has clung to a political lifeline that has long resonated in French society: the threat of visible Islam.
In 2004, the French government banned all signs of religious faith including Jewish yarmulkes and Sikh turbans. However, the primary target of the prohibitions was the hijab. By 2010, face veils were outlawed, with the French state arguing that face coverings were irreconcilable and a threat to French values.
Making French Muslims invisible
France’s bans on face veils and headscarves have little to do with their incompatibility with the French way of life and everything to do with the state’s reluctance to include visible Muslims in the French national identity.
Macron changed the name of the Islamist separatism bill to “Strengthening the respect of the values of the Republic”. Rebranded as a bill to promote French republican values, it has gained more support in the French political establishment.
But France is weaponising its republican values to exclude and control its almost six million Muslim citizens. Apart from the hijab, the separatism bill also takes aim at home-schooling, charitable donations and hate speech online. It also creates new administrative procedures to temporarily close religious establishments.
Along with the separatism bill, Macron’s administration is also proposing a comprehensive security bill, which will further shield the police from scrutiny and accountability, giving authorities unprecedented powers to shut down organisations and groups.
In the wake of Paty’s beheading, Macron’s government arbitrarily dissolved the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) which defends the human and legal rights of French victims of Islamophobia.
Progressive academics studying racism and colonialism have been the targets of an “Islamo-leftist” campaign championed by the higher education minister, Frederique Vidal. Islamo-leftist is a catch-all smear for anyone exposing and fighting Islamophobia and racism in France.
“It’s no longer a question of ‘Does France have a problem with its Muslim population?’ It is an affirmation: France does have a problem with its Muslim population and the Islamophobia targeting Muslims today has also allowed France to become a further authoritarian state, if not a police state,” says French human rights and civil liberties activist, Yasser Louati.
Macron’s Islam of France
“Emmanuel Macron is asking for the rights to meddle in clerical and religious affairs, and for him to decide what can Muslims be and not be, say and not say, do and not do,” says Louati.
In October, Macron spoke about an “Islam in crisis” and the need to “restructure Islam.” He has repeatedly called for the creation of an Islam of “the Enlightenment” without specifying what that is.
Macron has now outlined what his enlightened Islam would look like.
In January, Macron introduced the Charter of Imams – a set of principles which would define an “Islam of France” enforced by state-approved preachers and registered imams. The French government would be designated as the body that sets out the framework of Islam in France.
According to the Charter, imams must accept that “state racism” does not exist in France. The Charter declares that “denunciations of a so-called state racism amount to defamation and exacerbate both anti-Muslim hatred and hatred of France”.
Macron wants French Muslim leaders to deny that there is Islamophobia in France, yet a recent survey found that 42 percent of French Muslims have faced discrimination because of their religion. Sixty percent of women wearing a headscarf share the same experience. Over 59 percent of cases of discrimination in public services are against Muslims.
The Charter also bans mosques from engaging in “political speeches about foreign conflicts.” Discussions about political injustices in Palestine or Myanmar, or criticism of French foreign policy are deemed extremist.
For a country that touts laïcité (secularism), Macron hasn’t been shy about involving the state in shaping Islam in France.
Despite a Muslim presence that can be traced back to over a century, French Muslims have been consistently excluded from the French nation and considered a threat to the republic’s identity, security and values. But it is France’s state-sanctioned Islamophobia that is the biggest threat to liberte, egalite, and fraternite – not a 15-year old girl choosing to wear a headscarf.
Side-bar: Laïcité and Religion
Laïcité is the French term for secularism. Article 1 of the 1905 French law on the Separation of the Churches and the State ensures “freedom of conscience” and “the free exercise of religion”.
The state has not only a duty to guarantee freedom of religion, but also a duty to refrain from interfering in religion.
According to French-Egyptian author and activist, Marwan Muhammad, laïcité has evolved from a liberal framework for freedom of religion, into a “neo-laicite” – an instrument for the demonization and exclusion of any religious visibility (with a deliberate focus on Muslim communities).
Emmanuel Macron’s introduction of the ‘Imam Charter’ has raised fears of state control over Islam, and violates the laïcité law.
* Suraya Dadoo is a freelance writer. Find her on Twitter: @Suraya_Dadoo
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL and Independent Media.