Muslim women excluded from the headscarf debate

France is locked in a row over Islam, Islamophobia and the headscarf. But one key voice is almost completely missing from the debate – that of the women who wear the veil. By Nadia Pantel

By Nadia Pantel

They’ve gathered in this cafe to talk about their understanding of destiny. Eight men and six women who have responded to the Facebook invitation of Chahira Coach, posted in the group "Muslim Meetup" in Paris. Coach is a practicing Muslim and this afternoon she wants to discuss the subject of spirituality. Coach covers her hair with a scarf that she’s tied into a turban. "Because that’s how I live my faith," she says.

But the headscarf has yet again become a political symbol in France this autumn. And as a result there is no one at this meet-up, over milkshakes and chocolate, who doesn’t want to talk about how it feels to belong to a country that is locked in a permanent dialogue over how – and ultimately also whether – co-existence with practicing Muslims should be managed.

"I’ve only got to turn on the TV and there’s someone explaining how dangerous I am," says Sarra. She works as a secretary and prefers not to divulge her family name. She also doesn’t cover her head. "I’d actually like to wear it," she says "but it would make a lot of things more difficult."

Coach relates how in the past, she would swap her headscarf for a cap to avoid being hassled – "at some point it started feeling schizophrenic" she says. These days, she makes sure her headscarves are brightly coloured. "If you wear black, the response is even more negative," she adds.

Hatred sells

Depending on your perspective, the current debate in France over Islam’s place in society either began on 28 September or 3 October. On 28 September, at an event held by the right-wing extremist figurehead Marion Marechal, niece of the politician Marine Le Pen, the journalist and commentator Eric Zemmour gave a speech that could justifiably be interpreted as a call for a civil war broadcast live on television.

Police outside the mosque in Bayonne, France,  following the attempted arson attack on 28.10.2019 (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Der Hass verkauft sich: Ende Oktober versuchte ein 84-Jähriger, die Moschee im südfranzösischen Bayonne niederzubrennen und schoss zwei Gläubige nieder. Es dauerte nicht lange, bis die Ermittler verkündeten: Der Täter war Zemmour-Fan.

Zemmour spoke of the "war of annihilation against the white, heterosexual man", of the  "totalitarianism of Islam" that has destroyed democracy in France, of the "population replacement" and of the "demographic" takeover of France by Muslims.

The radical nature of the speech was no surprise; Zemmour has twice been condemned in the courts for his regular racist and Islamophobic statements. But hatred sells. Viewing figures for the broadcaster CNews have tripled since Zemmour began appearing on the channel four nights a week to comment on global news stories. When an 84-year-old tried to burn down the mosque in the south-western city of Bayonne last week, shooting two worshippers in the attack, it wasn’t long before investigators declared: the perpetrator was a Zemmour fan.

France is now conducting a debate on Islamophobia, on violence against minorities and on media standards. And no one is listening. This is because it must compete with a new production of the favourite French debate being aired at the same time: the headscarf row.

A convergence of many divisive issues

The debate is an old one; it began back in the 1990s. But in recent years, its tone has been heightened by the series of Islamist terror attacks costing more than 200 lives in France since 2015. And so it is not surprising then that the latest round of the headscarf discussion began shortly after the attack on the police headquarters in Paris. On 3 October, an employee at the agency killed four of his colleagues. Investigators believe there was a terrorist background to the attack; at the funeral service for the victims, President Emmanuel Macron spoke of the "Islamist hydra" that must be brought under control.

Officially, the current discourse is focussed on the question of whether Muslim mothers who wear a headscarf should be allowed to accompany their children on school trips. Last week, the conservative-led Senate approved a bill banning mothers from wearing headscarves on school field trips. And the government has so far failed to agree on a common position.

The debate pulls in all the divisive issues that have the power to trigger political trench warfare in their own right: immigration, domestic security, gender equality, the division of church and state, the colonial past and the Algerian civil war.

And arguments are raging over all these matters – but do not include everyone. The voice that is missing from this huge debating circus is the voice of the headscarf-wearing woman.

The newspaper Liberation analysed how often the headscarf debate came up on the four French rolling news channels BFM, LCI, Franceinfo and CNews between 11 and 17 October. It counts 85 talk shows on the subject. Across the four channels, a total of 286 people expounded their views on the headscarf issue. Of all those, only one single person was a Muslim woman who wears a headscarf.

Heated atmosphere

In such a heated atmosphere, it is of course difficult to find women willing to give their full names and appear in public to talk about their situation. Fleurette wears a headscarf and doesn’t want to give her real name to protect her two children. She has also responded to Coach’s invitation to talk to other Muslims about their faith. Is she also willing to talk about how she experiences the non-stop talk shows, the grappling with the headscarf issue? Yes, absolutely. But anonymously, please.

French President Emmanuel Macron (photo: picture-alliance/AA)
Gewachsener Unmut: Seit im September ein Abgeordneter der rechtsextremen Partei Rassemblement National eine muslimische Mutter aufforderte, während eines Schulausflugs das islamische Kopftuch abzunehmen, wird in Frankreich erneut über muslimische Symbole in der Öffentlichkeit diskutiert. Staatspräsident Emmanuel Macron rief zu gesellschaftlicher Einigkeit auf und warnte vor einer Stigmatisierung muslimischer Franzosen.

Fleurette is 44 years old, a student of psychology, her son is 11, her daughter eight. "If the law requires me to remove my headscarf so that I can continue to accompany my children, then I will have to consider whether I would rather move to a country that accepts my religious freedom. But I’m fighting to prevent things going that far," she says. Everyone was talking about having to protect the children from religious influences, says Fleurette, "but I think people are just afraid to openly say that they don’t want to see Muslims in France."

Not a rejection of the Republic

Fleurette’s parents come from Algeria. For her, the headscarf symbolises her religious development. It is also part of her identity: "I’m a French-Algerian Muslim woman, and I stand by that." People talk about the headscarf as though it has been "brought to France by foreigners, although we’re part of the country," says Fleurette. For her, the headscarf is "not a revolt, not a rejection of this republic, to which I am grateful for many things. It has simply helped me to find myself."

Nilufer Gole often hears statements like Fleurette’s. The sociology professor is conducting research on how French Muslims’ attitude to the headscarf has changed over the past 30 years.

In times gone by, women wore the headscarf for traditional reasons. Today, it is often well-educated women who have an intellectual connection to their religion and wear the veil, not because of family pressure, but out of personal conviction, says Gole. "The majority society sees it as a form of aggression," she says in an interview with Le Monde. Young women wearing headscarves are entering areas of society where they were previously not seen. The conflict is arising, says Gole, because the women are integrated but at the same time, because of their headscarf, they not adapting to all norms.

Nadia Pantel

© Suddeutsche Zeitung 2019

Translated from the German by Nina Coon