“The girls who veil in France, especially the high school and junior high students, it’s first of all a question of identity, because these girls are born in France to foreign parents.”
– Isma, 36-year-old Algerian teacher
French citizens found themselves grappling with a number of pressing issues at the beginning of the new millennium. In predominantly French-Maghrebian neighborhoods, social unrest relating to poverty and discrimination was on the rise, compounding ethnic conflicts stemming from the real and imaginary differences between these North African French and the European French. Meanwhile, religious tensions surrounding the presence of a large Muslim population in a secular state flared, intensified by growing fears of Islamic radicalism following 9/11 and other terrorist attacks in Europe.
These tensions were especially sharp in public schools that had large numbers of Muslim students, and they soon seemed to focus on the Islamic veil. In 2004, roughly 70 percent of the nation felt that the veil was an obstacle to France’s national unity, to its secular and democratic tradition, and to its security. Both Left and Right agreed: the veil had to be banned in public schools.
The year before, President Jacques Chirac had called on Bernard Stasi, a former minister, to head a commission to study the veil and other aspects of Muslim life that affected France’s secular tradition. Lawmakers, school administrators, and the general public expected drastic actions.
However, little attention was paid to the question of why Muslim girls and women were wearing the veil. Sociologist Caitlin Killian attempted to answer this question. During the debate, she interviewed female Muslim immigrants about a range of related issues including racism, assimilation, school curriculums, and teachers’ attitudes toward the veil (or, in the case of men, the beards some Muslims wear).
The findings pointed to a broad spectrum of opinions regarding all of these issues. Focusing on the veil, Killian found, on the one hand, women who vigorously defended its ban in schools and, on the other, women who thought that the veil was a legitimate form of self-expression.
Some of the women Killian interviewed argued that there are much more urgent issues at school than the wearing of the veil (violence and poor behavior among them). According to others, the French are specifically targeting Muslim culture. They also thought that the proposed ban on headscarves in schools is driven by prejudice.
Yusra, a 31-year-old Moroccan, explained:
I find that it’s really an attitude on the part of teachers that is really racist, truly. That, for me, is a racist act. We cannot exclude girls because they wear the headscarf....It’s really pointing a finger at them, and then [at] the culture of the child, they say to her “your culture, it’s not good.” You don’t have a right to judge like that.1
While some of the interviewees viewed the French reaction to the headscarf affair as racist, others questioned the secularity of schools where most of the holidays and vacations revolved around the Catholic calendar.2 Some went on to suggest that instead of ignoring or banning Islamic traditions, teachers could use them to educate about the cultural and religious diversity of France’s students.
Below are a few women’s reflections:
Besma, a 34-year-old Tunisian: I’m going to repeat what a lot of Arabs say, there are schools in France, or universities in France, where there are no exams on Saturday because it’s the [ Jewish] Sabbath, in the public schools, in the secular schools, and nobody talks about it. All that it takes is for the universities to agree....The students manage to make an [ informal] arrangement with the teachers....On Friday, they eat a lean meal, meaning a meatless meal because Catholics don’t eat meat on Friday. We do Lent Friday in school cafeterias and nobody protests. Nobody finds anything to say. So I find it completely petty to hide behind arguments that don’t hold up, that aren’t at all convincing, and all of sudden there are different rules for different groups.
Nour, a 34-year-old Algerian: [Y]ou know the secular school, it doesn’t miss celebrating Easter, and when they celebrate Easter, it doesn’t bother me. My daughter comes home with painted Easter eggs and everything; it’s pretty; it’s cute. There are classes that are over 80 percent Maghrebian in the suburbs, and they celebrate Easter, they celebrate Christmas, you see? And that’s not a problem for the secular school. And I don’t find that fair....
I find that when it’s Ramadan, they should talk about Ramadan. Honestly, me, it wouldn’t be a problem. On the contrary, someone who comes into class...with a veil, that would pose a question actually, that we could discuss in class, to know why this person wears the veil....Why is it so upsetting to have someone in class who wears a veil, when we could make it a subject of discussion on all religions? Getting stuck on the veil hides the question. They make such a big deal out of it, the poor girls, they take them out of school; people turn them into extraterrestrials. In the end we turn them into people who will have problems in their identities, in their culture and everything....For a country that is home to so many cultures, there’s no excuse.3
Some of the women Killian interviewed argued that the veil is a symbol of a new identity, especially for the second-generation immigrants who experience rejection in their daily life in France. The veil, they suggested, is the response of those who seek alternatives to the French national identity. Isma, a 36-year-old Algerian teacher who now teaches in France, had this to say:
The girls who veil in France, especially the high school and junior high students, it’s first of all a question of identity, because these girls are born in France to foreign parents....At a given time an adolescent wants to affirm himself, to show that he’s someone, that he’s an individual, so he thinks, I’d say, he thinks that it’s by his clothes that he shows that he comes from somewhere [else], that he’s someone [different]. So then, I think you should let them do it, and afterwards, by themselves, people come back to who they really are.4
But other female immigrants argued that Muslims girls should assimilate or keep their traditions to themselves. Some felt that the veil promotes fundamentalism and intolerance, while others still saw it as a sign of female oppression:
Cherifa, a 44-year-old Moroccan: I believe that if they have to wear the veil then they should do it at home. Me, I’d be a bit radical. I wouldn’t make concessions, because if I want to wear a djellaba [Middle Eastern cloak]...then I should stay in my country. I feel that when you are somewhere, you try to blend in. There’s an old Moroccan proverb that says “do as your neighbor [does] or leave.” That means that I shouldn’t come to France to affirm my convictions, be they cultural or religious and all. If I want to wear babouches and put on the veil... well I should stay in my country, or I blend in. Otherwise, if I’m in France, well I’m sorry, I dress like the French. If I eat with them, live with them, if I go to their schools, I don’t see why I’d make myself be noticed because I want to wear, um, they should wear it when they’re at home or at friends. I don’t have anything against it. But when she’s at school and everything, I don’t think so....No, I would totally agree with them outlawing the veil.5
Deha, a 34-year-old Algerian: I come from a school [in Algeria] where the veil was already starting. It’s not the way she dresses; it’s what she is herself. The way she dresses implies a lot of things; so there are no sports, philosophy is forbidden....A girl who wears the veil [thinks that] she’s pure and that the other who doesn’t wear the veil, she’s not pure. It’s not that she’s not pure; it’s that she’s a slut. You see? And it’s there that you say to yourself, well, okay, the veil represents all of that.
Isma, a 36-year-old Algerian: I’m not intolerant; myself, I’ve suffered from intolerance, but dressing like that, you become yourself intolerant, because you want to impose. I’m sorry to say it, but it’s often the one who wants to show that he’s more Muslim than the other; he wants to impose it.6
Excerpted from “The Other Side of the Veil: North African Women in France Respond to the Headscarf Affair.” Copyright © 2003 by Gender and Society. Reprinted with permission.
- Maghrebian : Maghreb is a region of North Africa where three former French colonies are located—Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. Maghrebian immigrants and their sons and daughters form a growing minority in France. In some urban centers, they make up the majority of the current population. These immigrants speak various dialects of the Arabic language and Kabyle, the language of the Berber or Kabyle people.
- assimilation : A process through which immigrants accept the national culture of the host country and give up their former national identity.
- radicalism : A political orientation that favors extreme changes to society, sometimes by resorting to violence.
- 1 : Quoted in Caitlin Killian, “The Other Side of the Veil: North African Women in France Respond to the Headscarf Affair,” Gender and Society, 17, no. 4 (August 2003): 577.
- secularity : Secularism is used to describe governments that maintain a separation of church and state. Countries such as France, which upholds this separation, ask believers to practice their religion for the most part in private. While generally the term refers to the neutrality of the state toward religious groups, some in France interpret it as the Republic’s official culture.
- 2 : Killian, “The Other Side of the Veil,” 577.
- Ramadan : An Arabic word for the ninth month of the lunar calendar. During an entire month, observant Muslims pray, atone for their sins, perform acts of charity, fast from sunrise to sunset, and celebrate the revelation of the Quran to the prophet Muhammad. The month ends with Eid ul-Fitr—a three-day holiday that breaks the fasting period.
- 3 : Ibid., 578.
- 4 : Ibid., 579.
- fundamentalism : Strict adherence to the literal words of an ancient text that is believed to be true (the Bible or the Quran, for example). While some fundamentalists seek to impose the principles and laws found in such texts on everybody (and sometimes even resort to violence), most fundamentalists live peacefully among their neighbors and respect the separation of state and church.
- djellaba : A Moroccan Arabic word for a traditional garment that is worn widely in many Arab regions. It has loose, long sleeves and a long skirt that can be worn by either sex.
- babouches : Traditional Moroccan slippers.
- 5 : Ibid., 582.
- 6 : Ibid., 583.