France and the hijab: The problem is France

By Iram Yousuf 

Earlier this morning the French Senate passed an amendment that would make it illegal for girls to wear the headscarf worn by Muslim women. While the measure is likely to fail when it is up for debate in the National Assembly, it has focussed attention on France’s continued oppression of the other in the name of civilisation. 

The problem, quite frankly, is France. The same France that tested nuclear bombs on the Atoll of Mururo from 1966 to 1996, and prior to that tested them in the Algerian Sahara. The same France responsible for the Sétif and Guelma massacres. The same France that purports the neo colonial tax that it imposes on 14 African countries is a safety mechanism to prevent price inflation. And while this may seem like an ideal solution, it is an affront to the sovereignty of these countries.

And while one may argue that the France of today is not the France of Charles de Gaulle, with an increase in the black population, one need only take a peek into the role of identity in the state’s politics to realise that it is, in fact, much worse. Because the France of today is quite adept at pretense.

Despite having a 2008 estimate in the New York Times putting the number of black people in France at somewhere between 3 and 5 million people- many with North African origins, chiefly from Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco- racism is well and rife in France. This is illustrated through France’s own police brutality towards its black population. In October 2005, Bouna Traoré and Zyed Benna were two Black and Arab teenagers who died as a consequence of being illegitimately chased by the police in Clichy-sous-Bois. Justice, being the foundation of this so-called great state seemed to missing when after 4 years, the death of Traoré due to asphyxiation after undue police was deemed inconclusive. Following their deaths, Sarkozy (Minister of Interior at the time) called for a state of emergency, whilst police forces were directed towards black dominated neighbourhoods, and repression was focused on the youth. Neighbourhoods that have been developed and gentrified for the past 35 years for the sole purpose of serving as a colonial continuum. These perpetuate the inequality between the white upper/middle class in the city, the racialized Others, and amplify the discrepancies in the relationships with the police, architecture, and service. The 2020 Black Lives Matter protests in the U.S that were echoes in France reflect this. 

The racist behaviour of the state further manifests as Islamophobia. In 2015, President Hollande declared a state of emergency after the Paris attacks, that resulted in raids of thousands of Muslim-owned homes, offices, restaurants and mosques, as well as hundreds of house arrests. These attacks however, are not placed in context and are not inclusive of the larger picture – the French state is a terror on its own. Much of the French government has permanently  engaged in aggressive racist rhetoric and France still maintains its colonizer habits. Habits that one can get away with, due to white privilege- rampant and unacknowledged in France, as it shys away from the wrongs it is responsible for  whilst decrying the systemic problems that it now faces.

Indeed, France’s only concern has been in trying to universalise its notion of civilization. Macron’s comments: “The challenge of Africa is completely different, it is much deeper. It is civilizational today. Failing states, complex democratic transitions, the demographic transition… One of the essential challenges of Africa … is that in some countries today seven or eight children [are] born to each woman.” His statements somewhat echoing in what can be considered a more elegant manner those of his fellow statesman in 1884 who stated that, “The higher races have a right over the lower races, they have a duty to civilize the inferior races.” France’s “mission civilisatrice” or “civilizing mission,” was at the core of French colonial ideology. This can even be read as being synonymous with Macrons claims to “reform Islam,” where reform is another word for civilize.

In its attempts to civilise the Muslim woman, France has imposed its niqab  ban, and now its moves to pass a bill to ban the hijab on those under 18 years of age, and mothers who wear the hijab from accompanying their children. The bill called for a “prohibition in the public space of any conspicuous religious sign by minors and of any dress or clothing which would signify inferiority of women over men.” The bill serves as a mass erasure of the Muslim woman- who publicly identifies herself as Muslim- from space. While there are instances of men abusing the concept of hijab, the bill fails to recognise what the hijab means to Muslim women themselves who elect to wear it. Nor does the bill propose ways to counter the other ways in which inferiority of women over men has presented itself in society. The mass hyper sexualisation of young girls and women, public sexual harassment, sexist insult, GBV, femicide, and rape. Migrant women in France, as well as refugee women often suffer harassment at the hands of French officials. To claim itself a feminist symbol is truly a ludicrous claim in and of itself, when feminism, much like France’s problems illustrated in this article, is inter-sectional.

No, France is an extremism on its own- liberal extremism. But you’ll forgive me if without my romanticized accent I’d have you read that as a new fascism.

Iram Yousuf is a PhD candidate in Legal Philosophy at the University of Pretoria, and a Mellon Foundation scholar.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect The Daily Vox’s editorial policy.

Featured image via Flickr