Bigotry in the Guise of Secularism

Against the Current, No. 175, March/April 2015

Carmen Teeple Hopkins

[The murder at Charlie Hebdo and the Paris kosher supermarket have unleashed a wave of attacks on French Muslim communities, their culture and religion. For a report on these developments, see “An Outpouring of Islamophobia,” by Julien Salingue, posted at The following analysis by Carmen Teeple Hopkins helps explain the gendered background of the present dangers and tragedies. — The ATC editors.]

IN THE SPRING of 2011, France became the first country in Europe to ban the burka and niqab (face veil) from public space. Any woman who wears the burka or niqab in public can be fined 150 euros or forced to take a course on French citizenship. Of the five million Muslims in France, fewer than 2000 wear a face veil.

An International Women’s Day issue is the perfect place to discuss a topic that has been so divisive among feminists. I hope to make the case that it is crucial to oppose religious dress laws. But first, some context.

Talking about anti-veiling laws in France means talking about laïcité, the secular division of Church from State. A historically rooted and politically charged word in France, it is regularly used to justify anti-veiling laws.

Although it goes back to the French Revolution where people challenged the Catholic Church’s wealth and power, laïcité was established more formally in the 1880s through education laws that secularized public schools and unified many regions of France. The official Law of Separation, adopted in 1905, meant that the French Republic would not fund religious institutions, though it would recognize the freedom of religion generally.

In France, laïcité has a very real meaning in people’s daily lives and how they understand themselves.

Veiling Debates

Media and national discussion of laïcité in relation to the veil was sparked more than 80 years after the law’s origin. In 1989 — what has now become known as l’affaire du foulard [the headscarf affair] — a middle-school principal expelled three girls from school because he asked them to remove their headscarves. They refused.

The public debate that followed reignited discussion of the meaning of the 1905 Law of Separation. At this point, school principals could make individual decisions about whether or not students were allowed to wear headscarves.

By 2003 under President Jacques Chirac, this policy was considered inadequate and the government created a commission to evaluate laïcité in France. Based on the commission’s recommendation that public schools prohibit religious symbols, a 2004 law was put in place that did just that.

Debate around the veil returned in 2008 when a communist member of the French National Assembly, André Gerin, expressed concern that many women in his riding (district) near Lyon were wearing a face veil. In June 2009, President Nicholas Sarkozy gave a speech before both houses of parliament stating: “the burka is not a religious symbol but a symbol of subjugation that is not welcome in the territory of the republic.”(1)

Sarkozy then appointed a commission to investigate face veils. The commission came out with a report that included testimonies from 221 people, none of whom wore a face veil.(2) Within a year, the 2010 face veil law was formally created and implemented on April 11, 2011.

After Sarkozy, president François Hollande tried to implement a religious dress ban, but he was not successful. In a heavily publicized 2008 case, Fatima Afif was fired from her job at a private daycare, Baby Loup (located in a suburb of northwestern Paris) for wearing a headscarf. In March 2013, a French court ruled that Afif had been unfairly fired from her job, because private sector employers cannot regulate the religious dress of workers.

Many in France opposed the court’s ruling. Hollande attempted to extend the ban of religious symbols to the private sector, beginning with daycare workers and potentially impacting other sectors. To examine this potential ban he created the Observatoire de la laïcité, which concluded however that the ban could not be upheld in the private sector.

Sexist Islamophobia

Talking about laicité means talking about Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism in France, though these two things are not the same. Not all Muslims are Arab, and not all Arabs are Muslim. But what is clear is that France’s colonial presence in the Maghreb (Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco) has left an ongoing legacy of racism within France.(3)

A telling example of violence that Maghreb populations face in France occurred during the Algerian Revolution. What has been called the “Paris Massacre” of October 17, 1961 saw French police killing Arab protestors at a pro-National Liberation Front demonstration in Paris.

Many believe that the official death count of Arabs was much less than the actual number, because in the days that followed, people saw Arab bodies floating in the Seine that went uncounted and unidentified.(4)

More recently, French sociologists Abdellali Hajjat and Marwan Mohammed define France’s specific brand of Islamo­phobia. This includes individual acts of violence that people knowingly or unknowingly perpetrate, culture-based discriminatory attitudes that are deep-rooted in French national history, and the socio-economic conditions of Muslims in France (being unemployed or precariously employed, living in segregated neighborhoods).(5)

Many Muslim women who agree with laïcité, and understand its historical importance, perceive the headscarf law as one that does not reflect the initial intent of laïcité and as a law that does not apply to everyone, but targets Muslim girls. Many also feel growing hostility and discrimination toward them from members of the French public.(6)

In anti-racist political circles, it is common to talk about these laws as a form of Islamophobia, something that pre-dated 9/11 but has certainly worsened since then. But “Islamophobia” alone does not do justice to the concrete everyday realities of veiled Muslim women.

We need to talk about how these laws and their impacts are a form of sexist Islamophobia.

Anti-headscarf Law

According to Amnesty International, during the first year of the ban (2004-05 school year) in France, there were 639 reported cases of students wearing religious symbols to school. Of these cases, 626 wore a headscarf, 11 wore a Sikh turban, and two wore big crosses.

Of the 639 students, 496 took off the religious symbol to attend public school spaces. Seventy-one students began public distance education (outside the schools), and 72 students left public school spaces entirely.
One year after the ban was implemented, 96 students left public school spaces. Of these, 50 began public distance education, others began private school or dropped out.

Among 47 students who were expelled, 44 were Muslim girls wearing headscarves and three were Sikhs wearing turbans. Of these, 21 entered public distance education and others dropped-out or began private school.(7)

The 2004 law has not only affected Muslim girls who wear the headscarf, but also their mothers. In 2004, veiled mothers who had previously accompanied their children on school trips were no longer allowed to go on school field trips. Non-veiled siblings and parents of children in other classes were asked to volunteer to replace veiled mothers.(8) These exclusions from school trips have continued.

In response to these exclusions, a collective formed in Montreuil (an eastern Paris suburb), called Mamans Toutes Égales [Mothers All Equal].

The collective describes themselves as “women and men, with or without a headscarf, in solidarity to defend a basic right: the right for a headscarf-wearing woman to live, work, and to be involved in the education of her children, as much as she wishes, and as much as other parents” [translated by the author].

This collective has “blocked school coaches, boycotted outings and staged street demonstrations in protest at the growing number of mothers in headscarves being barred from school trips.”(9)

Mothers All Equal states that since the anti-headscarf law, the number of Muslim mothers excluded from field trips has steadily increased. They see religious dress laws as a significant break with the intentions of the 1905 Law of Separation.

Mothers All Equal believes in the principle of laïcité, individual freedoms and equal treatment, but clarify that a democratic state does not tell its citizens how to dress. They also understand the discrimination of veiled Muslim women is doubled, based on the fact that they are both Muslim and women.(10)

Anti-veil Law and Public Space

While the anti-headscarf law has impacted veiled Muslim girls in the education system, the anti-face veil law has a much wider impact in public spaces more generally as well as in employment. While official statistics are not available, as of October 12, 2012 the Association Touche Pas à Ma Constitution claimed that 947 face-veiled women had been arrested in public since April 11, 2011.

In 2012, Association Touche Pas paid 417 fines amounting to 67,726 euros. According to this association, 68% of the women targeted were divorced or single, 18% were minors, the youngest at 13 years of age, many relied on social assistance, and 91% were French citizens.(11) Not one man has been pursued under the prohibition of religious symbols.

The rate of Islamophobic acts is increasing most rapidly in the area of interpersonal acts of aggression. In 2012 there were 136 reported aggressive acts. From 2008 to 2012, there was a 139% increase.(12) Attacks on women represented 84.4% of the 418 reported cases.

From April 11, 2011 to April 30, 2013, police gave 423 face-veiled women fines 705 times. Most women were under the age of 30 and born in France.

Five women received police fines at least 10 times; one woman in Nice received 29 fines. One third of these cases have taken place in the suburbs of Paris.(13)

An Islamophobic attack in a public space made headlines around France when on June 13, 2013 two men attacked a 21-year old four-month pregnant Muslim woman in the Paris suburb of Argenteuil. They hurled racist insults, tried to take off her headscarf, cut her hair and tore at her clothing.

She yelled that she was pregnant and one of the men kicked her stomach. Some sources indicate that the two men told her that the veil did not belong in France.

The woman was taken to the hospital and miscarried. Three weeks prior, another headscarf-wearing Muslim woman had been attacked in the same region of Paris.(14)

These are not the only examples in which an individual attacked a Muslim woman. In 2006, a librarian physically assaulted a woman in a library, then followed her out to the street choked her.(15)

Another woman, mother-of-three Kenza Drider, shares a series of frightening experiences:

“I still go out in my car, on foot, to the shops, to collect my kids. I get insulted 3-4 times a day […] [m]ost say ‘Go home’; some say, ‘we’ll kill you.’ One said we’ll do to you what we did to the Jews. In the worst attack before the [anti-face veil] law came in, a man tried to run me down in his car.”(16)

Employment and Neoliberalism

According to the Collective against Islamophobia in France, discrimination that traditionally occurred in the public sector is increasingly occurring in the private sector. In 2010, 3.59% of Islamophobic acts occurred in the workplace, increasing to 10.77% in 2012. In that year alone, the number of Islamophobic acts in France equaled the total numbers from 2005 to 2007.

While employment discrimination is not new for Muslim women in France, the religious dress laws have increased its extent. Veiled Muslim women are turning to telemarketing for employment.

According to one woman interviewed by Amnesty International, “I tried to look for work in the telemarketing sector because it is where women wearing headscarves have more chances to be hired as no direct contact with clients is required. All these restrictions constrain our employment opportunities and result in segregation.”

But why are these laws being implemented? France’s economic situation has not helped. French neoliberalism began during the mid-1970s with a gradual lessoning of state intervention in the economy.(17)

In 1985, foreign investors owned 10% of French firms, a percentage that grew to 44% by 2000. This period of financialization also saw the privatization of public services, wage freezes, as well as growing unemployment and precarious work.

During the middle to late 1970s, North African and Sub-Saharan African immigrants felt the weight of economic restructuring in France the most. The French population stigmatized people from formerly colonized countries.

In the early 1980s, second generation children were generally seen in a positive light as potes [buddies].

This image changed by the early 2000s, where second-generation youth were seen as “criminal deviants” and potential participants in “Islamic extremism.” This stigmatization meant that the children of many first generation immigrants had fewer social opportunities.(18)

Unemployment in France has increased over the past 40 years. From the late 1980s to early 1990s, there were 300,000 to 400,000 people on social assistance. By the end of 2000, there were 965,180 recipients, a statistic representing closer to two million including dependents.

As of January 1, 2012, there were 2.03 million social assistance recipients in France, up 2% from 2011. Yet this number was actually 4.33 million people, including partners and dependents.

French Muslim women have some of the highest rates of unemployment. Most of France’s Muslim population comes from the Maghreb (North Africa), but there are also immigrants from Turkey and Sub-Saharan Africa. Women from the Maghreb have lower levels of labor force participation than French-born women or women from Portugal, Spain, Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.

Algerian women have the highest rate of unemployment (61%), followed by Moroccan women (44%) and Turkish women (39%). Women from the Maghreb are often forced into precarious (temporary, unstable, part-time, informal) work.(19)

In periods of economic crisis or recession, there is often an increase in xenophobia, even within sectors of the French Left where people take “solace” in French “republican values.”(20)

The rightwing xenophobic le Front National [the National Front] was founded in 1972 but grew during the 1980s under leader Jean-Marie Le Pen. In 1981 the party represented a neglegible part of the population but by 1988 it received 9.6% of the vote. From 1984 to 1997 its popularity rose to 10-15% of the votes.

The National Front’s current popularity under Marine Le Pen is at an all-time high. Immigration in France was not a hot political issue until the National Front focused on it. In 1984 only 6% of French voters thought immigration was an important issue, rising to 22% in 1988 and to 31% in 1993.(21)

Let’s put the veil debates in a socio-economic context, shall we? L’affaire du foulard (the headscsarf affair, discussed above) occurred in 1989, one year after the creation of social assistance in France. The anti-headscarf law in 2004 under president Chirac occurred approximately 15 years after the implementation of social assistance, when unemployment rates had more than tripled. The burka debate under president Sarkozy began in spring 2009 in the context of the global economic crisis, where the burka became a political question that all French parties sought to address.(22)

President Hollande’s proposed 2013 private sector ban occurred at a time when his popularity was at an all-time low. In fact, Hollande appeared live on French television for over 45 minutes to reassure the French population of his attempts to deal with the economic crisis and unemployment.

In response to Hollande’s proposed ban, the head of the Union of Islamic Organizations of France, Ahmed Jaballah, suggested that the lack of economic growth in France prompted a need for political scapegoats.(23)

Given the growing economic inequalities in France, there is certainly a need for political scapegoats. But let’s be clear that veiled Muslim women are the scapegoats. And as feminists — particularly white feminists such as myself — we need to take cues from veiled Muslim women as to how they want to politically organize.

The attacks on Charlie Hebdo and in the kosher supermarket in France have ushered in a new wave of “national security” discussions. Ten thousand French soldiers have been deployed on the ground in France, and an additional 5,000 police officers will be located outside Jewish establishments.

The precise impact of this heightened military and police presence for Muslim women is yet to be seen. But in the wake of already existing anti-veiling laws, this presence will surely make their lives more difficult.

As anti-racist feminist socialists, our work at a minimum is to fight sexist Islamophobic policy and violence. But more particularly, the experiences of veiled Muslim women must become a priority in the anti-capitalist fight against unemployment and precarity.


  1. Raymond, G. G. (2009). “From Islam en France to Islam de France: Contradictions of the French left’s responses to Islam.” Patterns of Prejudice, 43(5), 481–496.
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  2. Selby, J. A. (2011). “Islam in France reconfigured: Republican Islam in the 2010 Gerin report.” Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, 31(3), 383–398.
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  3. Hajjat, A., & Mohammed, M. (2013). Islamophobie: Comment les élites françaises fabriquent le “problème musulman.” Paris: La Découverte.
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  4. Ross, K. (2002). May ’68 and its afterlives. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. See also:
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  5. Hajjat, A. & Mohammed, M (2013).
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  6. Chouder, I., Latrèche, M., & Tevanian, P. (2008). Les Filles Voilées Parlent. Paris: La Fabrique Éditions.
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  8. Chouder et al. (2008).
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  11. Association Touche Pas à ma constitution (2012 October 12. “Niqab/2 ans après: Pari réussi pour Rachid Nekkaz.”
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  12. “Collectif contre l’Islamophobie [CCIF]” (2013). Rapport Annuel 2013.
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  13. S.J. (2013, July 21). “Voile intégrale: plus de 400 femmes verbalisées, don’t 5 multirécidivistes.” JDD (Le Journal du Dimanche) News.
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  15. Chouder et al., (2008).
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  17. Prasad, M. (2005). “Why is France so French? Culture, institutions and neoliberalism, 1974-1981.” The American Journal of Sociology, 111(2), 357-407.
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  18. Krishnan, R., & Thomas, A. (2008). “Resistance to neoliberalism in France.” In L. Panitch, & C. Leys (Eds.), Socialist Register 2008: Global flashpoints: Reactions to imperialism and neoliberalism (296–314). Halifax, NS: Fernwood.
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  19. Kalev, H. Dahan, & Marzel, S. R. (2012). “Liberté, Egalité, Islamité: Coping strategies of female immigrants from the Maghreb in France.” Women’s Studies International Forum, 35(5), 354–361.
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  20. Krishnan & Thomas (2008).
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  21. Rydgren, J. (2003). “Meso-level reasons for racism and xenophobia: Some converging and diverging effects of radical right populism in France and Sweden.” European Journal of Social Theory, 6(1), 45-68.
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  22. Barras, A. (2010). “Contemporary laïcité: Setting the terms of a new social contract? The slow exclusion of women wearing headscarves. ”Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions, 11(2), 229–248.
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March/April 2015, ATC 175