On the 30th March, the French Senate voted in favour of the “Separatism Bill”, which would enforce a ban on wearing the hijab for anyone under the age of 18. The bill would also prohibit mothers accompanying school field trips from wearing it, as well as banning the burkini from public swimming pools. While the law needs to pass through the National Assembly, the lower house, before implementing it, the support it has received so far from the French government has led to a lot of criticism.
The government justified the bill as a way to fight off Islamic radicalism and prevent practices that take away women’s dignity. Right-wing senator Bruno Retailleau referred to the veil as “sexist”, “a marker of the submission of women”, and “the banner of separatism”.
Yet is forcing a Muslim woman to remove her veil not taking away her dignity? Is it not a “banner of separatism” if we choose to undermine someone’s faith, purely because it does not fit in with our ideals?
The justification for the bill is not only flawed, but ignorant in many ways. Assuming that all Muslim women who wear the hijab are oppressed disregards the values of the religion itself, as well as those of the individuals who chose to wear a hijab as a symbol of their faith. Muslim women who decide to wear the hijab often do so from the age of puberty, which often precedes the age of 18 by too long.
Just as forcing a woman to wear a hijab can be oppressive, so is forcing them not to. Women have the right to choose their vestments without interference from the government, or anyone for that matter, and this should not be any different for Muslim women. A government cannot preach about liberty and women’s autonomy, if it does not respect all personal choices.
In her book, Dr. Amina Easat-Daas from De Montfort University in Leicester, found that as a result of their religious affiliation, Muslim women face difficulties when participating in politics, appearing “threatening to the French status quo”. They continue to be undermined, and rather than support them, such a law would only enforce these negative attitudes.
The fact that in France, the age of sexual consent currently stands at 15 years old, whereas the potential age for being allowed to wear a hijab would stand at 18 years old, has also caused some controversies. As the Independent states:
“Women as young as 15 years old have sexual autonomy and agency in France, but they will not have the right to choose a symbol of their religious faith”
Coming just a month after France’s neighbour Switzerland implemented a ban on the burqa and niqab, garments that cover both the face and the head, the Separatism Bill is likely to create a more discriminatory environment, and could lead to a rise in Islamophobia in France.
The rhetoric behind the Separatism Bill appears to echo the Islamophobic tendencies rooted in the French state. In 2011, France was the first country in Europe to implement the niqab ban. The previous year, President Nicolas Sarkozy had introduced a ban on face veils. Yet despite the introduction of facemasks on public transport in France due to COVID-19 last May, wearing a niqab continues to be a fineable offence. This double standard is a display of hypocrisy from the French government, which is not only harmful but also discriminatory based on one’s religion.
Groups such as Amnesty International have spoken up about the Separatism Bill, with the organisation’s Europe researcher, Marco Perolini, referring to the proposed law as “a serious attack on rights and freedoms in France”. He highlighted the French authorities’ use of “the vague and ill-defined concept of ‘radicalisation’ or ‘radical Islam’ to justify the imposition of measures without valid grounds”.
In trying to uphold its secularist ideal, the government is causing injury to its population of 5.4 million Muslims. Through this law, they are indirectly associating an entire group of people with extremist Islamic radicals. It encourages more division, rather than acceptance and understanding of each other.
In a society where we preach freedom of expression, how we are able to dress should not be limited by a law. And when there appears to be an alternative political agenda to such limitations, the issue grows larger. Many celebrities and social media influencers have called out the French government on its proposed law, and rightly so. It is an attack on fellow Muslim sisters and brothers and an example of blatant Islamophobia.
Whether or not the law will pass through the National Assembly, is yet to be determined. However, in introducing the Separatism Bill, the French government has raised questions about its inclusivity policies regarding its Muslim population.
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