Cultural Racism and Secularity in French Society
Despite the fact that a greater Muslim population is found in France than in most other European countries and that Muslims have dwelled in France for many generations, this community has been continuously outcast from mainstream French society (Pew Research Center, 2017). This general rejection of Muslim culture is evident in the French attitude towards hijab: the various forms of veiling practiced by Islamic women. The stigma placed on public displays of hijab in France is a direct manifestation of the cultural racism entrenched in French society. This cultural racism finds its roots in the historical ideal of the French nation. Furthermore, policy that directly targets the religious freedoms of Islamic women residing in France is normalized because it is implemented under the guise of maintaining the secularity that defines French society.
Before one can begin to analyze any discourse surrounding Islamic veiling, it is imperative to develop an understanding of the history of hijab, and one that is beyond the context of Islam. In Muslim culture, hijab denotes both a physically and conceptually significant item, as it commonly used to describe “a complete ensemble that refers to Islamic clothing rules”, and not merely a singular article of clothing (Boulanouar, 2006). Less well-known is the reality that veiling among females existed long before Islam; in ancient, pre-Islamic societies, only wealthy women who were deemed respectable were permitted to veil (Nayebzadah, 2010). Thus, the custom finds its origins as an incorporation into Islamic tradition as Islam spread through the Middle East and gained popularity, rather than having originated in the religion itself (Killian, 2003).
The discourse in France surrounding this single practice is characterized by two opposing narratives. I will refer to them as the narrative of oppression and the narrative of power and piety. Those in agreement with the former tend to regard the hijab as a symbol of oppression, a tangible manifestation of Islam treating women as the inferior sex. However, those in agreement with the latter narrative? primarily insiders on the subject? argue that hijab cannot be reduced to a mere symbol of oppression. They assert that it not only serves as a form of liberation, but as an expression of piety through modesty. With the lack of emphasis placed on physical appearance, it allows women to be freed from “the feeling that one has to meet the impossible male standards of beauty” (Mustafa, 1993). Naheed Mustafa explains that contrary to popular belief, hijab is “a woman’s assertion that judgement of her physical person is to play no role whatsoever in social interaction” (Mustafa, 1993).
In terms of piety, a study found that for many veiled Muslims, hijab is a demonstration of “obedience to their faith” (Siraj, 2011). This perspective has forced me to consider that perhaps the narrative of oppression is partially the product of a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of Islam. This idea of a personal and voluntary submission to God through modesty has been kicked to the curb in favor of the portrayal of an involuntary submission to meet Islamic cultural standards which disproportionately discriminate against women.
The consistent failure of French society to acknowledge and absorb this side of Muslim belief is a product of cultural racism. Cultural racism differs from the classical definition of racism in that is veers away from the idea that one group is superior to another and focuses more on an “insurmountability of cultural differences” and an “incompatibility of life-styles and traditions” (Balibar, 1991).
This form of neo-racism is deeply rooted in the foundations French society and its historical focus on a nationalistic ideal, or “the optimal version of [France] in the contemporary world” (Silverman, 2014). Maxim Silverman points out that this desire for a homogenous society in which “differences are fixed and naturalised” become racist in their tendency subordinate and exclude (Silverman, 2014). Consequently, North Africans dwelling in French society have been historically othered due to their differences on both physical and religious levels. Further evidence of this othering is present in the discourse surrounding the general topic of immigration in France. The terms “immigrant” and “foreigner” are often “popularly and politically blurred” (Silverman, 2014). Furthermore, it is predominately those individuals of North African descent who are immediately assumed to be immigrants regardless of their actual citizenship status in France (Silverman, 2014).
It is this deeply entrenched difference-equals-deficit mindset that can explain the gradual alienation of the Muslim community in France to this day? but this is only part of the underlying issue. The notoriously French emphasis on secularism has played a major role in facilitating discrimination against the Muslim community. Since the French Revolution, the French have regarded this acute separation of church and state as a key component of how the French republic operates.
The hijab, as a tangible and outward expression of religiosity, is perceived as a threat to this principle of secularity that French society holds so near and dear. However, legislative action taken to combat violations of this secularity is done so in a way that targets veiled Muslim women more than any other religious group. A 2004 law passed under the guise of maintaining secularity in education prohibits students from wearing signs of their religion in the classroom, but it was clear that the passage of the law was meant as a strategy to eliminate the presence of hijab specifically. The discriminatory nature of French legislation against Muslims is nothing new; during a previous attempt to pass such a law, France’s Prime Minister at the time was quick to “[reassure] France’s peak Jewish representative body that the measure wasn’t intended to have anything to do with the Jewish kippah” (Riemer, 2016).
This same focus on Islam as the pinnacle of the threat to secularity in French society is present outside education as well, such as was seen with the banning of the “burkini” by authorities in many French towns. The burkini is a type of swimsuit designed for Muslim women so that they can continue to adhere to the principles of hijab while engaging in aquatic activities. In one instance on a beach in Nice, a photograph emerged of a Muslim woman in a version of the burkini being confronted by police officers at the beach. As a result of this confrontation, the woman is pictured removing her tunic. The ticket she was given read that her outfit did not resemble an outfit “‘respecting good morals and secularism’” (Quinn, 2016).
What should not be treated as anything more than a cultural difference is treated as highly problematic by those who have the power to promote equality and autonomy. It is highly unlikely that if you walked around in France wearing a Christian crucifix that you would receive any sort of verbal reprimand, let alone a physical ticket, from the French authorities. This supports the notion of an underlying cultural racism in French society is directed at Muslim women and the Islamic faith in general.
The burkini was designed to facilitate the practicing Muslim woman’s desire to participate in a certain activity, similar to a restaurant offering vegetarian options. This ban is no less restrictive than that of the vigorously theocratic governments of Iran and Saudi Arabia. Anywhere a woman is denied agency, she is oppressed. For this reason, I am so baffled the ability of French society to normalize the restrictions it places on the headscarf, while simultaneously asserting that these Middle Eastern societies are barbaric and backwards in their imposed restrictions. In both environments, though they are on ideologically opposite poles, the resulting reality is the same: Islamic women are denied the right to wear what they choose.
Although this injustice runs rampant in French society and has for a long time, the potential for Muslim women to achieve equality in this realm begins by dismantling the negative perception of hijab through comprehensive education. This, of course, does not mean you should go around accusing every French person opposed to hijab of being a cultural racist. This is counterproductive to promoting an actual productive dialogue and must instead be pursued in the manner of remedying a fundamental misunderstanding of the Islamic faith.
One could begin with the interpretation of Quranic texts, the holy scripture of Islam, whose verses are so often considered to be anti-women by outsiders and therefore anti-hijab. Riffat Hassan However, Hassan argues that this misunderstanding can be attributed to a lack of understanding regarding the relationship between the the Quran and the ahadith (Hassan, 1994). She explains that the Quran is too often interpreted through the lens of the ahadith. This distorts the meaning of the Quran, as these are not the words of the Prophet. Instead they are representative of “Arab culture of the 7th and 8th centuries” and that “Islam, coming after Judaism and Christianity, as the youngest of these three religions has incorporated the biases of these earlier religions towards men” (Hassan, 1994).
An interpretation of the Quran through this lens is outdated and should not be allowed to characterize authentic Islamic beliefs. Much how Christian laypeople reinterpret text, Hassan argues that every generation of Muslims, male and female, should have the right to reinterpret the verses of the Quran as it is an “open text” (Hassan, 1994). These interpretations include those regarding hijab. Hassan, along with many other Islamic feminists, has found that this more accurate interpretation of the Quran results in the realization of a multitude of feminist notions within the holy text. It is crucial that the members of French society consider this concept of reinterpretation when evaluating their perspective of the Islamic faith, for it is crucial that all interpretations of text are taken into account when making any sort of critique.
Despite the complex and multi-faceted nature of hijab and its surrounding discourse, one thing remains certain: A woman should be able to choose to wear whatever garment she feels best conveys what she identifies with as an individual. It should not matter whether she is wearing her hijab to show devotion to God, out of respect for Islamic tradition, or as a means of making a political statement. An unveiled Muslim woman who feels that who she is can be most adequately expressed through a tank top and miniskirt is as valid as the Muslim woman expressing her identity through the total concealment of the burqa, even if that identity is rooted in religiosity.