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Between Ostentation and Concealment: The Law on the Veil

Veröffentlicht am 27. November 2023

Von Soledad Tuñón

France passed a law on 15 March 2004 prohibiting students from wearing „conspicuous” religious symbols or clothing („signes religieux ostensibles”) that would display their religious affiliation at school. The religious symbols in question, as stated in official documents, are the veil, the cross and the kippa. It is well established that the right to wear them does exist if they are discreet.[1] Large and active propaganda machinery backs the law, which is still in force. Reminders about it are found in every school: posters explaining its meaning („La charte de la laïcité„), and ministerial notices proclaiming what happens in case of disobedience. In September 2023, the law’s scope was adjusted, which actually led to its reinforcement. The new Minister of Education, Gabriel Attal, stipulated that wearing the abaya and the qamis at school is against the law passed in 2004, because this type of outfit would ostensibly show a religious affiliation. However, the „French Council of the Muslim Faith” (Conseil français du culte musulman) had previously indicated that these are traditional garments that are not religious per se.

Under the Guise of Preventing Proselytism

Officially, the law passed in 2004 is based on the assumption that laïcité would allow everyone to be – beyond the convictions of each individual – „free and equal“ since it would avoid any proselytism at school. According to the law any manifestation of religion through the way a student dresses would in itself constitute proselytism.

However, the question arises whether the law does in reality promote equal treatment. This is because, to achieve equal treatment, religious practices and religious clothing would need to be similar across religions. Do all students arrive at the school gate dressed in the same way? Do the most widespread religions in France profess in the same manner? In brief, is the equality the law would seek to promote the one that is being achieved? To answer this question, I will examine what „laïcité“ assumes as „equality“ in this law by employing the tools of decolonial thought.

Laïcité: Formal or Real Equality?

According to philosopher Jacques Rancière, Laïcité, having the status of law in France since 1905, used to mean „that the State does not teach any religion and does not allow any religion to influence the organisation of public education“ (2022: 67, my translation[2]). The author points out that in this original understanding of laïcité, what was being sought was mutual tolerance, under which the beliefs of others should not be attacked and would be respected. It is the State and its institutions that become secular, but it is not an imposition on the country’s inhabitants. However, according to Rancière, today laïcité is understood differently. The law passed in 2004 restricting the use of conspicuous religious symbols extended a ban, which previously only applied to state workers, to students. Nowadays it is an altered notion linked to a prohibition to dress in certain ways. Hence, a discriminatory prohibition.

Furthermore, this clothing neutrality is considered a „value“ held by the French republic, one that is believed to apply to everyone in the same way. It is imposed equally on all religions: under this perspective, there is no discrimination because no one can enter with a „conspicuous“ mark of religion. However, the „National Institute for Statistics and Economic Studies” (Institut national de statistique et d’études économiques) points out in a survey published in March 2023[3] that the two most widely practised religions in metropolitan France are Christianity and Islam, and that Muslims tend to be more active in their religious practices. Beyond these results, it is common knowledge that Christian practices in France do not include any particular type of clothing, while a large proportion of Muslim women tend to wear a hijab in accordance with regulations of Islam[4]. Moreover, under the law passed in 2004, to wear a small cross around the neck is considered discreet, while the veil is considered conspicuous. In sum, the law is applied to religions that are practised in different ways: the cost to be paid is higher for some. 

Civilisational Discourse

As early as 1989, an uproar arose because the principal of a school in Creil (a small town in the north of France) refused to let three veiled female students into the establishment. In the face of this event, a group of philosophers (Badinter, Debray, Finkielkraut, de Fontenay, Kintzler) published a letter in which they stated the view that to tolerate the Islamic veil at school is to countenance a person being not free, equating the veil with the subjugation of women.[5] In this sense, in 2003 the „rapport Baroin“[6] on the nouvelle laïcité focused the discussion around laïcité on „man-woman equality” (égalité homme-femme), according to philosopher Hourya Benthouami (2018). As Benthouami remarks, and rejects, to link the 2004 law with „man-woman equality” implies that there is no way to be a free religious woman. It is under the latter view that, in order to promote the emancipation of women, a „neutral” dress code was imposed at school.

Philosopher Sarah R. Farris (2017) coined the word „femonationalism“ when analysing French, Italian and Dutch feminist politics. The term helps to define the convergence between nationalists, democrats and neoliberals, under which „the common denominator of their anti-Islam stance is a fundamental agreement that gender relations in the West are more advanced and must be taught to Muslim women who are otherwise taken to be agentless“ (Farris, 2017: 7). A similar analysis of the French, German and U.S. contexts is that of philosopher Cornelia Möser. She denounces „nationalist feminists“ (Möser, 2022) who support discriminatory and racist policies under the pretext of defending women and sexual minority rights. The author claims that there is a criminalisation of Muslims and refugees, because these populations would be „sexually backwards” and this justifies policies that seek to promote a „sexual modernity.” Islam and veiled women represent, for such nationalist feminists, the greatest threat to „man-woman equality.”

Denying Epistemic Agency

However, several authors have demonstrated that this understanding of the use of the veil is not accurate. Philosophers Paola Bachetta (2009), Sirin Adlbi Sibai (2012), Asma Lamrabet (2014) and Hanane Karimi (2023) have pointed out that the veil has variable and even completely opposite meanings and interpretations in different sociohistorical contexts for women wearing it (from neo-Orientalism, to political Islam, to resistance, to an exclusively religious practice). Accordingly, there are different organisations in France and in Europe as a whole[7] opposing legislation that restrict the use of the veil. Further, adolescents who habitually wear the veil but are prevented from doing so at school feel jeopardised by the law[8]. Hence, this law is a case of denial of epistemic agency, with philosopher Moira Pérez defining such denial as happening „when the discussion on a policy excludes the perspectives of those who will be directly affected by it“ (2019: 8), as if they would not know what is best for themselves. In the words of philosopher Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (2015 [1988]), it is another example of the impossibility to listen to the subaltern, who certainly speaks.

Affects and Effects

Teenage girls who wear the veil are those who must every day before entering school, embody the act of stopping, removing their hijab, rearranging their hair, and maybe putting on a wig. This not only strikes their self-esteem but also affects their right to an education. In an empirical research study, political scientists Aala Abdelgadir and Vasiliki Fouka show they are left with very few educational options if they want to keep on wearing the veil or avoid going through the scrutiny this implies. These options are to „leave the education system (if older than 16), switch to a private school, pursue distance learning, or leave the country” (Abdelgadir et al., 2020: 710). Moreover, Muslim girls are more likely to drop out of secondary education, girls who remain in school take longer to complete it and the employment gap is widened (Abdelgadir et al., 2020).

Moreover, the effect of this goes beyond teenage girls who wear the veil. Namely, though it has been shown there are no direct consequences on male students’ achievements at school (Abdelgadir et al., 2020), there is a whole culture that is being downplayed. Each time the public debate refers to this subject, it reinforces a discriminatory image of Muslims in general, a whole culture being targeted as attacking French values.

What is at work here is a cultural fracture. In fact, I indicated earlier that the amendment of the law in 2023 had the effect of extending the definition of „conspicuous” to also include garments – worn by men and women – which are not religious but cultural. The struggle to impose French culture mediated by the veil can be traced to the history of veil politics between France and its colonies. Such veil politics include the dehumanisation of Algerian women by forced veil removal during Algerian colonisation and war, as shown by Fanon (2011 [1959]), Bachetta (2009), Lamrabet (2014) and Benthouami (2018).

Behind the Law, Outside the Gate

Although the law claims that it seeks to promote „man-woman equality,” it seems that it is the equality of certain men with certain women that is reinforced – those whose customs are endorsed by French mainstream culture. At the same time, insisting on binary categories such as „man-woman” when addressing questions of equality tends to strengthen gender dichotomies instead of overcoming them.

In conclusion, it is possible to say that while supporters of the law boast of equality, the law conceals a deep social inequality. While it excludes the veil from public schools because it is a „conspicuous” display, it seems to hide the fact that the public school is a site of social reproduction that must be protected. A site where French Muslims currently can only feel unwelcome. This guarantees that what is kept on the other side of the entrance gate is not only the veil but also any questioning of the law and the social fracture it reproduces.

© Soledad Tuñón

Bibliography

  • Abdelgadir, A. & Fouka, V. (2020) Political Secularism and Muslim Integration in the West: Assessing the Effects of the French Headscarf Ban. American Political Science Review, 114(3), 707-723.
  • Bacchetta, P. (2009) Co-Formations: Des spatialités de résistance décoloniales chez les lesbiennes « of color » en France.  Genre, sexualité & société (1) 
  • Bentouhami, H. (2018) Les féminismes, le voile et la laïcité à la française. Socio. La nouvelle revue des sciences sociales, (11), 117-140.
  • Chakravorty Spivak, G. C. (2015) Can the Subaltern Speak? Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory (pp. 66-111). Routledge.
  • Fanon, F. 2011 [1959] L’an V de la révolution algérienne. Paris: La Découverte.
  • Farris, S. R. (2017) In the name of women’s rights: The rise of femonationalism. Durham: Duke University Press.
  • Lamrabet, A.  (2014) El velo (el hiyab) de las mujeres musulmanas: entre la ideología colonialista y el discurso islámico: una visión decolonial. Tabula Rasa, (21), 31-46.
  • Möser, C. (2022) Libérations sexuelles. Une histoire des pensées féministes et queers sur la sexualité. Éditions La Découverte: Paris.
  • Pérez, M. (2019) Epistemic violence: reflections between the invisible and the ignorable. El lugar sin límites, 1 (1), 81-98.
  • Rancière, J. (2022) Les trente inglorieuses: Scènes politiques: 1991-2021. La Fabrique éditions.

[1] For more information: https://www.education.gouv.fr/l-ecole-au-college-ou-au-lycee-gagne-tous-respecter-la-laicite-324335. Last access on 16 October 2023.
[2] « … que l’État n’enseigne aucune religion et ne permet à aucune religion d’intervenir dans l’organisation de l’enseignement public ».
[3] The survey questioned individuals aged 18 to 59 living in metropolitan France. Around 27,200 people were surveyed. For more information: https://www.insee.fr/fr/statistiques/6793308?sommaire=6793391#:~:text=Les%20musulmans%20repr%C3%A9sentent%20d%C3%A9sormais%2010,parents%20immigr%C3%A9s%20(48%20%25). Last access on 18 October 2023.
[4] Based on different interpretations of the Koran, there is no agreement on whether wearing the veil constitutes an obligation or not (Lamrabet, 2014), but it is a prevalent practice among Muslims.
[5] Available at: https://snalc.fr/foulard-islamique-profs-ne-capitulons-pas/. Last access on 30 October 2023.
[6] „Pour une nouvelle laïcité“ report, François Baroin, Vice-President of the French National Assembly, May 2003.
[7] The „Collectif contre l’islamophobie en Europe” (CCIE) was set up in Belgium to extend the „Collectif contre l’islamophobie en France” (CCIF) to European level. « Touche pas à ma abaya » is an organisation against the ban on the abaya at school. « Une École Pour Tous » organised demonstrations against the law passed in 2004.
[8] For example: https://zep.media/series/nos-foulards-leurs-regards/. Last access on 18 October 2023.

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