Mahrukh Arif-Tayyeb, UK
French Muslim women are making headlines again.
This time, it is regarding an amendment to the separatism bill the French Senate is keen to pass that would discriminate against French Muslim women like never before. The upper house has proposed to ban the hijab in public spaces for girls under 18, ban the burkini in the public pools and ban the hijab for mothers accompanying their children on school trips.
The proposed bill is unlikely to pass, as it has to get approved by the French National Assembly first to become law. A mere ‘political move’ it seems that reveals a great deal about the overall political and social climate prevailing in France against its Muslim citizens. A dangerous climate that reminds us of the darkest years of European history.
Once upon a time, this same climate was seen and observed for the Jewish people of France. One might be thinking this comparison is equivalent to comparing apples with oranges; however, it gives goosebumps just to think that not so long ago, in 1942 under the French Occupation, Jews were banned from going to public places such as cinemas, museums, parks and even public pools and beaches.
The hijab has become a French obsession as a visible symbol of ‘muslimness’ that the higher institutions of the country are keen to erase from the public sphere, stripping Muslim women from their basic right to own their religious identity. An identity that is wrongly seen as incompatible with French values.
Islam has become the safe escape for policymakers to divert the attention from the most serious issues currently at stake in France. As a matter of fact, France’s handling of the pandemic has been catastrophic – as the world is slowly considering getting out of its respective lockdowns, Emmanuel Macron has announced last week, a complete lockdown and shutting down of schools due to the high contaminations and an increasing number of cases. The hospitals and medical staff have been screaming their hearts out about the lack of equipment and beds, French teachers all over the country have been complaining about the lack of consideration regarding their safety in classrooms with more children contaminating the teaching staff. Students have been queuing for hours outside charities just to get a free meal and stressing upon the growing student precariousness throughout the country.
Within these circumstances, the proposition of a bill curbing the freedom of Muslim women seems incongruous – and to say the least – far from being the national priority. For a nation claiming to champion human rights, this bill stands in complete contradiction with basic individual freedoms.
Proposed Ban on the Hijab in Public Spaces for Girls Under 18
The French Senate has first and foremost proposed to ban the hijab in public space for girls under 18. This came in the context of a bill confirming respect for the ‘principles of the Republic’ with a senatorial majority voting in favour of the ‘prohibition in the public space of any conspicuous religious sign by minors and of any dress or clothing which would signify an inferiorization of women over men.’ One right-wing senator, Bruno Retailleau, said: ‘Each time we have proposed to toughen this text, especially vis-à-vis the veil and ostentatious signs, the government has backed down.’ The veil, according to him, is ‘sexist,’ a ‘marker of the submission of women,’ and ‘the banner of separatism.’
These claims set the perfect example of a patriarchal attitude where men decide and policy on how women choose to dress. Policing women’s clothing is a phenomenon that can be observed in many parts of the world: some impose the hijab on women while others impose to remove it; both falling in the category of coercion. If one is rightly appalled by the former, it cannot be insensitive for the latter as both are equally damaging for women’s rights and freedom.
Despite being a so-called enlightened and feminist country, this attitude is a direct assault on basic women’s rights and freedom.
Paradoxically, according to the same institutions, the legal age for sexual consent has been determined at 15. So technically, French policymakers consider that a woman does have the maturity to engage in a sexual act at 15 but needs to be 18 to understand how to dress.
The hijab according to the same people sitting in the Senate marks the inferiority and submission of women to men as a symbol of a so-called Islamist ideology that is stranger to France. However, one only needs to enter a church or a cathedral to see a veiled woman not only tolerated but celebrated in France; the Virgin Mary, the central figure of the Christian tradition on which France has built its values. This reality brings us to the most obvious observation that the veil is no stranger to France. On the contrary, it is very much a part of the country. It is part of French traditions and cannot be equated with a foreign phenomenon linked to immigration and the arrival of Islam in France.
It is also through the analysis of these same traditions that it is possible to understand the parallel drawn between the veil and women’s submission to men. The idea of the veil as a symbol of submission to a man is peculiar to Judeo-Christian traditions. In Jewish tradition, the veil is prescribed to married women while the unveiled woman is associated with being an easy woman’.
In contrast, the symbol of the veil as submission to a man is much clearer in Christian texts. In the First Letter to the Corinthians (11: 2-16), Saint Paul clearly explains the reason why a woman must put a veil on her head: ‘Man, he must not hide his head: he is the image and the glory of God, but the woman is the glory of the man. For it was not a man that was taken from woman, but woman from man, And man was not created for woman, but woman for man. This is why the woman must bear the mark of her dependence on her head.’
Let it be clear that in the Islamic tradition, the wearing of the veil is not linked to the idea of the submission of women to men. On the contrary, the hijab is part of the preservation of a modest way of life for which men and women – both – are equally called to play their part. 
Therefore, when viewed through the lens of the Judeo-Christian traditions, the veil may appear to be a mark of submission of women to men. These same traditions that France proudly displays when it comes to saying that Islam and the veil are not compatible with the values of the Republic.
There is a grain of truth in this observation: Islam grants women the freedom to dress as they choose; the French Republic wants to censor them. Islam allows veiled women to make society by being active members of the society without making any compromise on their choices, freedom or identity, while the Republic slows down their social progress by limiting their access to the labour market.
Ban the Burkini in Public Pools
France is the only country that seems to be legislating on a piece of cloth with such insistence while there isn’t any need. Why do women have to wear a specific swimsuit while using a public pool or going to the beach? Does the clothing hinder the physical faculties involved in swimming properly?
Some women have certain skin conditions that would require them to cover while enjoying a good swim; some women are simply uncomfortable wearing a specific type of swimsuit and would rather swim with much more clothes on. The sole idea of banning the burkini seems completely absurd and can be perceived as a means to socially exclude Muslim women from using public pools. How is a woman wearing a burkini offensive in any way, and why is she more offensive than a woman choosing not to wear one?
All these interrogations point to a mindset that seems to be related to the idea of male domination where there is a certain discomfort looking at women being too covered while giving a clear approval for those who choose to show skin.
It is also interesting to see the shift in the reasoning for such laws. When France banned the burqa, it argued that face-covering could potentially constitute a threat to national security and make identification checks more difficult. However, the reasoning here is clearly discriminatory and based upon a certain interpretation of the hijab and the Islamic teachings that most of the Muslim community in France do not share or agree with.
Needless to say the social implications of these laws – even when they are just propositions – will be enormous.
Ban on the Hijab for Mothers Accompanying their Children on School Trips
The third proposition of this bill is the most devastating: as a mother of a little boy, I cannot begin to imagine how painful the idea of not being able to accompany my child on his school trips would be. More than the inner dilemma I would have to face as a mother, the implications on the psyche of the child aren’t negligible. The child would undeniably grow up with a sense of rejection, knowing his mother’s attire isn’t socially acceptable.
Being a Muslim woman born in France, I can testify that being veiled in that country actually means social death.
These propositions are just like the final shot given to a half-dead, agonizing body. It only means the end of freedom for Muslim women who are being sent a clear message: in order to fit in, they must comply. Otherwise, they are free to leave or accept a social status where they would be deemed insignificant and invisible.
Such bills set dangerous legal and political precedents towards a community that might be questioning their future in the country.
Today it is the hijab, what is it going to be next?
About the Author: Mahrukh Arif-Tayyeb is a French Muslim currently living in the UK. She holds a Masters degree from Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales – a prestigious School of Social Sciences in Paris. She has previously worked as a journalist for a french newspaper.
 Mishnah, Ketubot 7: 6
 The Holy Quran, 24:30