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The Veil and a New Muslim Identity

“I function as a barometer of the popularity of Muslims.”

Many second- and third-generation immigrants from North Africa, feeling neither French nor foreign, see religion as an important part of their identity. Often, these young people have never formally learned about Islam, either because their parents stress the importance of assimilation or because they believed their children would pick up the tradition in the same way they did as children in North Africa. Therefore, many teenagers turn to the local mosque, the Internet, or neighborhood Islamic bookstores to learn more about Islam.1

 

Two students exchange a friendly gesture as one returns to school fully veiled. Youth in France are challenging tradition and bridging divides through food, music, and sports at an unprecedented level.

Souad (last name not given) is part of this generation. She was born in France, shortly after her parents arrived from Algeria. She was not brought up to be especially religious, nor does she speak much Arabic. As a sign of her religious commitment, she recently began to wear the veil. In the following interview, Souad describes the journey she undertook:

Once I got to high school, friends told me about my religion, [and] I discovered an aspect I did not know; I studied, read books, [and] I found that enriching.

It was clear to me that the headscarf was an obligation, and I felt the need to please our Creator; it was in that spirit that I wanted to wear it, but the social conditions at high school presented problems. I had to prepare to be rejected by others. I studied my bac[the all important exam at the end of one’s studies at school] and practiced my religion, but the voile [veil] was another thing. I always did my prayer, that’s something very important for Muslims, and I am proud of myself there. But there was always that desire to go higher in faith, to go closer to the Creator, to please him. So I put on a small hair band so that people would get used to it, because before I wore mini skirts, long hair, but never drank alcohol. In effect I was a bit of a tomboy and hung out with guys, who considered me their little sister and made sure I did not veer toward drugs and night clubs.

One day I decided to become a woman, not a boy, and I changed my behavior because I had been very aggressive....I realized that it is hard to live in society as a woman, because there is a lot of sexism....So, to return to the zigzag, my behavior as a woman, the fact that God asked me to do certain things, so I decided to go in that direction while adapting myself to the society where I live, and I succeed [in] this, for when I am at work I wear the scarf not like I have it now but on top, swirled around like the Africans [makes gesture around her head]. That seems to work. I began wearing it as an intern and it worked. This shows that there are still people who are very tolerant. They knew me before and after the foulard [the veil], and their attitude did not change. They saw that my work did not change, even got better, and one said, if anyone criticizes you let me know and I will take care of it. I found that touching.2

While for Souad the decision to wear the veil was religious, some believe that young people’s decision to wear the veil is as much a reaction against feeling excluded as it is a rebellion against their parents’ attempts to fit in.

Fariba (last name not given) was born in France, grew up in Algeria, and returned to study in France in 2001 as a young adult. She began wearing the veil, or hijab, at age 15 as a part of her religious beliefs. In an interview conducted with anthropologist John Bowen sometime after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States, she argues that how she is seen is based on what is happening in the news:

Sometimes even when I have not been listening to the news, I know what has happened by watching how people regard me. On September 11th [2001], I returned home from work, turned on the television and saw the catastrophe. I was shocked like everyone else. The next morning, Wednesday, I had almost forgotten what had happened, I took the train to work, and the looks I got from others reminded me that it was the 12th, of what happened the day before. At first I did not understand, I looked myself over, to see if there was something wrong with my clothes, what did I do? And then I made the connection....

The other time it happened to me, it was when there was a French ship blown up, I had not heard about it, and I saw a great deal of aggression in people’s stares, and said to myself I had better read a newspaper right away, and I saw the explanation. I function as a barometer of the popularity of Muslims. When there were sympathetic looks it was between the two votes for the president [in April–May 2002], when [right-wing nationalist politician] Jean-Marie Le Pen had done well, they felt guilty, and so in the subway if I was jostled a bit, people would say “Oh, excuse me, ma’am,” as if to say, “I did not vote for Le Pen.” So in some sense, I have never been spit on or struck or yelled at but I see a lot in those looks.3

 

 

French author and feminist Fadela Amara (left) attends a party in Paris in 2008 with Rachida Dati, French Minister of Justice (right), one of the most prominent Muslim figures in France. Amara is currently serving as the French Junior Minister for Urban Affairs and is heading several initiatives aimed at improving life in the banlieues. Many French Muslims disapprove of her strong stance against the political use of religion.

Fadela Amara, an activist-turned-politician, has protested racism and discrimination against immigrants (especially women) in France for many years. She warns that the headscarf is becoming the symbol of a militant Islam that poses a danger to French democracy. Amara, who was born to Algerian parents and grew up in an immigrant neighborhood, offers her own explanation as to why young women wear headscarves:

Among the young women in the projects there are those who seek recognition in a...return to ethnic community life and in particular by returning to Islam, for their identity. Some of them wear the headscarf by choice in the spirit of religious practice. But others have been subjected to pressures...from parents, religious leaders, or the [people in the housing] projects. As someone who is very attached to fundamental freedoms, I think religious practice is legitimate when it is a personal choice, without pressure or constraint, but above all when it respects the norms of secular society.

It is possible, in fact, to distinguish different categories of young women who wear the headscarf. First of all, there are those who wear it because they believe that the fact that they practice their religion affords them a legitimate existence. . . . They wear the headscarf as a banner.

But there are many young women who, forbidden any outward display of femininity, wear the headscarf as armor, supposed to protect them from male aggression. Indeed, women who wear the headscarf are never bothered by young [Muslim] men, who lower their eyes in front of them; covered by the headscarf, these girls are in their view untouchable. 4

Amara believes that something else is at stake, beyond issues of identity:

[There is a] third category of women who wear the headscarf....In general, these are women who attend university and...fight for a social project that is dangerous for our democracy. These are not disturbed kids, troubled or searching for an identity, who wear the headscarf because it shows they belong to a community. No, these are real militants! They often begin their justification for wearing the headscarf by explaining that, in their view, it is part of a process of emancipation. It bothers me to hear the talk about freedom of expression because behind this symbol is a [plan to create] a different society than our own: a fascist-like society that has nothing to do with democracy.5

Reprinted by permission from Why the French Don’t Like Headscarves: Islam, the State, and Public Space. Copyright © 2007 by Princeton University Press.

Excerpted from Breaking the Silence: French Women’s Voices from the Ghetto, translated by Helen Harden Chenut, Copyright © 2006, University of California Irvine. Reprinted with permission.

Citations

  • assimilation : A process through which immigrants accept the national culture of the host country and give up their former national identity.
  • 1 : Tariq Ramadan, To Be a European Muslim (Leicester: The Islamic Foundation, 1999), 114–15.
  • 2 : Quoted in John R. Bowen, Why the French Don’t Like Headscarves: Islam, the State, and Public Space (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 76 –77.
  • hijab : Originating from the Arabic word for “curtain,” it is a veil worn by many Muslim women in observance of their faith. Hijab is a means of preserving one’s modesty, as well as a display of cultural affiliation and religious devotion. The hijab is one name for a variety of similar headscarves that cover the head and neck, and often the hair and forehead.
  • nationalist : subscribing to a political ideology that emphasizes national culture or interests above those of minorities and other sub-national groups.
  • 3 : Quoted in ibid., 79–80.
  • 4 : Fadela Amara, Breaking the Silence: French Women’s Voices from the Ghetto, trans. Helen Harden Chenut (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006), 73–74.
  • emancipation : The granting of civic and political rights to groups or individuals (hence “liberating” them). The modern use of the term is associated with granting civic rights to religious minorities, such as the Catholics and, especially, the Jews in eighteenth and nineteenth-century Europe.
  • 5 : Ibid., 74.

Connection Questions

  1. Why do you think so many second- and third-generation immigrants have adopted a religious identity? What does it offer them that other identities cannot satisfy?
  2. How does Souad explain her decision to wear the veil? How did she expect others to respond? What responses did she get?
  3. How do different people in this reading explain why women wear the veil?
  4. In the West, many Muslim women choose to wear the veil. In Iran and some other Islamic states, the veil is mandatory. In your opinion, does it make a difference? Do all mandatory traditions or rituals assume that the person who practices them has no choice? Have you ever embraced or chosen a commonplace tradition in your community?
  5. Why does Fariba feel that she is a “barometer for the popularity of Muslims”?
  6. Fadela Amara believes that for many, the veil is a marker of identity, but she says that others wear the veil to express their militancy and to show support for Islamic extremism. In her writings she suggests that it is also a sign of male dominance over women—a symbol of a society that does not respect the equality of women. If she is correct, how should the French people and government respond?

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