I write a lot about France and its national psychosis over headscarves. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the 2004 law on secularity and conspicuous religious symbols. I lived there as a hijabi for almost five years. So it is safe to say nothing really involving France and headscarves shocks me any more. Until recently.
One of the typical elements of the headscarf ban in schools is that women can’t wear headbands greater than a certain width, or caps, or hats, you know, because it might be too close to a headscarf, or it may be worn with a “religious intention.” More recently, some school authorities have taken it a step further. In April, Sarah, a junior high student in the northern city of Charleville-Mézières, was suspended for two days because her skirt was too long. Apparently, maxi skirts are not secular enough.
Maxi skirts are in fashion now, but according to a representative of the CCIF (Collective Against Islamophobia in France), not every fashionista is called out for the length of her skirt. In fact, Sarah’s case is not unique and they counted 130 similar “skirt issues” since 2014. More troubling is that according to article from Libération cited above, a spokesperson for the CCIF, Elsa Rey, mentions that the students who are being targeted for skirt violations are those who identify as Muslim outside of school.
Apparently, one of France’s experts on Secularism, Nicolas Cadène, mentioned in Le Figaro that the skirt’s length is not the problem, and correctly noted that a skirt in itself is not a religious symbol. However, he suggested that perhaps the student’s behavior was “provocative” and that could have led to her being singled out. He then goes off on a tangent about how some students could be singled out for not participating in a course or for “highlighting” ones religious belonging. In the Libération article, he is cited again as saying that skirts aren’t the reason for a sanction, but rather the overall behavior of a student, of which the skirt is a part.
Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, the French Minister of Education, praised the “discernment” of the school’s administration and used the same line of reasoning as Mr. Cadène- that the administration had not made a decision based on the skirt itself but based on the “student’s attitude.” I find Ms. Vallaud Belkacem’s approval disconcerting as she is a senior member of government. So basically, is the takeaway not that she had a long skirt on but that she was being provocative or ostentatious, or too religious in her behavior? Yeah, okay. Sarah’s case even was the source of a hashtag on twitter, “#jeportemajupecommejeveux” (I wear my skirt how I want), with many twitter users making the point, like the CCIF, that not all maxi skirts are created equal.
What is important to remember is that school dress codes, globally, serve to police women’s clothing. This is not a French thing or a Muslim thing. What makes it worse in France is that the feminist element is completely bypassed and anything regarding any kind of clothing ban is seen as good for secularism. As such, for me, this latest skirt ban is that this school has crossed the line from simple” enforcement of secularism” (if that is even such a thing) into an obvious, cut and dried policing of women’s clothing and their bodies. Of course, hijab bans are already policing women’s clothing and bodies, but this skirt ban should scare even those who are anti-headscarf because what a slippery slope. What is next? Why is it ok to single out Muslim women today? What if it becomes the rest of us tomorrow? I wear long sleeves all year round, even when it is hot. Because I am Muslim, will I be forced one day to wear shorter sleeves in public? Worse still, the news broke at the same time as a university student in Algeria was kicked out of class for her miniskirt. Too short, too long…when do we get the chance to dress how we want? Women can’t win.