Cultural Racism and Secularity in French Society

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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.

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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.

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