Radical Islam is invading Paris’s elite political science universities; or at least that’s what opponents of Hijab Day would have everyone believe. On Wednesday, April 20th, students at Sciences-Po organized a hijab day. Salaam Sciences-Po, the Islamic reflection group behind the event, invited people to don headscarves in opposition of Islamophobia. While Hijab Day has been criticised as promoting a shallow, narcissistic “understanding” of what it’s like to be a Muslim woman in the West, and the exclusion of Muslim women who choose not to cover their hair) have been discussed at length, this particular Hijab Day is interesting when considered in the context of France’s current political environment. In 2004, France instituted its infamous hijab ban, which outlawed ostentatious religious symbols—most notably the hijab— in primary and secondary school. In 2011, the French government followed the ban with legislation that criminalized full-face covering. Now, in 2016, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls would like to make headscarves illegal at the university-level. He claims the majority of French people believe Islam goes against the values of the French republic.
While the Hijab Day did receive some support, it was also surrounded by intense controversy. Sciences-Po, which allowed the event to take place in the interest of open debate and free expression, issued a statement asserting that even though it allowed Hijab Day, the university does not necessarily endorse the initiative or its ideas (“…la tenue de cet événement dans les murs de Sciences Po ne saurait être interprétée comme un quelconque soutien de l’école à cette initiative.”) In the realm of more distinctly negative comments, French-Tunisian journalist Sonia Mabrouk tweeted, “When I think of all the women’s daily fight for freedom and choice in countries like Tunisia, this Hijab Day is an insult.” Her comment seems to miss the point of Hijab Day at Sciences-Po. Like Mabrouk, the Muslim women at Sciences-Po are fighting for their right to wear what they want (“…de se vêtir comme elles le souhaitent”), which is precisely what women in Iran, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, and other countries are fighting for. Whether they are fighting to wear a headscarf or to take it off, the goal is the same: liberty. After receiving numerous insults on her social media platforms, Mabrouk amended her statement by saying she respects the choice to wear hijab, but still finds Hijab Day counterproductive to the struggle against forced-hijab. Though she improved her argument by voicing her respect for those who choose to cover, her amendment still does not recognize that being beaten for wearing hijab can be just as oppressive as being forced to wear it.
The Front National, France’s right-wing, nationalist party, could not keep silent in this debate. On its Facebook page for the Sciences-Po chapter, the Font National issued a formal statement denouncing the event as “a gesture that underlines the imposturous politics of a bourgeois Parisian (woman) disconnected from social realities” (“Ce geste relève de l’imposture politique d’une bourgeoisie parisienne déconnectée des réalités sociales.”) Before reading the rest of the statement, one wonders, what exactly are the social realities of France? If you ask me, I’d argue that France, like many other Western countries, is seeing a rise in anti-Muslim sentiment, paralyzed by the tragedies of January and November 2015 and is willing to penalize anyone who looks like they might be even remotely related to ISIS (an absurd aim, considering members of ISIS have more than one profile.) According to the Front National,
“The veil is contrary to the principles of the [French] secularism of 1905: [a] symbol of the subjugation of women, it hides them, giving them a status of otherness within the public space, which in fact excludes [the women] from democratic discussion” (“Le voile est tout ce qu’il y a de plus contraire aux principes de la laïcité telle que pensée en 1905 : symbole de l’aliénation des femmes, il les dissimule et leur confère un statut d’étrangeté au sein même de l’espace public, ce qui, de fait, les exclut de l’espace de discussion démocratique.”)
Modern French secularism involves not only a separation of church and state, as is the case in the United States, but also the privatization of religion. In other words, the less visible a person’s religion is in public space, the better. Considering how visible headscarves are, I cannot disagree with the Front National on that point. The rest of the statement, however, illustrates the problem with French secular thought, as well as with Islamophobia in general. If hijab gives wearers an air of otherness, it is because the societies in which the wearers live have yet to accept them as fully-fledged citizens. Rather, their societies are content to view hijabis as immigrants, even if the women were born and raised in their countries. Non-Muslim citizens view these women as people who do not fit in, or, as is more often the case in French rhetoric, people who refuse to integrate (for more information on this, I suggest Trica D. Keaton’s Muslim Girls and the Other France, Robert Castel’s La discrimination négative: Citoyens ou indigènes?, and Azouz Begag’s Ethnicity and Equality: France in the Balance.) Headscarves, by themselves, do not exclude women from democratic discussion, but racism and discrimination do.
I’m disgusted by the vehement opposition to Hijab Day at Sciences-Po, but I’m not at all surprised. Just a few weeks ago, Laurence Rossignol, the French Minister of Families, Childhood, and Women’s Rights compared women who choose to wear hijab to “American niggers who were in favor of slavery” (“Il y a des femmes qui choisissent, il y avait aussi…des nègres américains qui étaient pour l’esclavage.”) She has apologized for her comment, but its very utterance simultaneously ignores the realities of slavery and disrespects Muslim women in a most heinous fashion. Normally, I do not condone hijab days, because they suggest that women will experience everything a full-time hijabi experiences and become sympathetic, and because they narrow Islam to an aspect of clothing. Hijab Day at Sciences-Po, however, has earned my respect because it was an attempt to engage directly with the discourse surrounding the so-called “Islamic” headscarf (Muslims are not the only people who cover their hair and bodies). Salaam Sciences-Po wanted to question the problematization of hijab, and remind the France that “there are as many veils as women [and it’s only the person who that has the legitimacy to give it significance]” (“Il y a autant de voiles que de femmes. C’est la personne qui le porte qui est la seule légitime à [le donne une signification].”) While it is unlikely that the 2004 and 2011 laws will be overturned any time soon, I take solace in the fact that France’s Socialist ministers are as of yet unwilling to ban headscarves in university. In response to Manuel Valls’s comments, higher education minister said, “There is no need for a law on the headscarf at university…The headscarf is not banned in French society.” Let’s hope it stays that way.