France and the veil – the dark side of the law

French anti-veil laws are steeped in racism and have opened the door to abuse against Muslims.

In 2004, France introduced the law on “secularity and conspicious religious symbols in schools” which banned wearing conspicuous religious symbols in French public primary and secondary schools. Its supporters argued that this was keeping with the long-established principle of laïcité – the separation of Church and State – but it was clear to all that Muslim girls were the principal target of the law. How did this happen and what does it tell us about contemporary France? A story in five parts.

Leaving school

“When the headmistress saw that I was wearing a veil outside school she told me that I couldn't wear my long skirt. She said I was to dress properly, with jeans and a top, or to leave school. So I left.” Nineteen-year-old Aurélie, from Paris, knew that there were no grounds to expel her from school – the 2004 law that bans wearing “conspicuous religious symbols” in French schools only applies to headscarves, it doesn't extend to long skirts – but she couldn't face the confrontation. “She [the headmistress] was telling me all sort of things, that I wouldn't find work, that God wouldn't feed me. A counsellor told me she was saying nasty things about Muslims in the staff room. I thought it was unfair”, she says, “Why could I not be free to practise my religion and go to school?”

Since then, Aurélie has taken up a paid correspondance course and is training to be a child minder. She managed to pay for it by finding work and minds two little girls for a (non-Muslim) family. Of her employers, she says: “They don't care that I'm wearing a veil and never asked any questions. They're just very open. A few times, one of the little girls has told me: Aurélie, you've got beautiful hair, why do you hide it? –  but I won't go into it with her. I don't want to put her into my religion – everyone has to choose freely.”

Aurélie, whose Catholic family comes from Ivory Coast, converted to Islam when she was 16, as did two of her siblings.  Many members of her family object to her wearing a veil. “It took me a long time to decide to do it,” she says, “I used to be really into boys – a boys' girl – but then I thought, if I am to meet a man, it doesn't have to be in a nightclub.” The teenager objects to laws banning the veil. “Forbidding religious symbols doesn't make sense. Of course, France is a secular country, but when nuns are wearing a veil in the street, everybody smiles at them, and when it's Muslim women, it's another story.”

The media storm

Pierre Tevanian teaches philosophy in high school. He is a writer, a member of collective Les Mots sont importants (“Words are important”) and has been one of the leading figures of the secular opposition to the veil ban in France. When I meet him in his Belleville apartment, he tells me how a series of isolated cases opposing headscarf-wearing girls and their teachers in the 90's became a national debate in France after 9/11. In a climate of economic crisis and growing islamophobia, it led to a quasi-unanimous national consensus.

In April 2003, Nicolas Sarkozy, then Interior Minister, attended the biggest Muslim annual meeting in France (the “UOIF”) and declared that women had to unveil themselves for identity photos. He was booed by the audience, which made the headlines – and was deemed outrageous. From then, media attention grew. “There were constant debates about the veil, the veil, the veil, the veil”, recalls Tevanian. In July 2003, president Chirac set up a Parliamentary Commission to reflect upon the application of laïcité (the separation of Church and State, a principle that has been enshrined in French law since 1905). Named after its chair, Bernard Stasi, the commission consisted of 20 members.

But the more people talked, be it in talk-shows or in front of the Commission, the less they seemed to talk about what the problem really was: a girl, wearing a headscarf, in a classroom. “There was a high level of generalisation, a lot of discussion about Iran or Afghanistan”, says Tevanian. In this general conversation, the veil was depicted as a unequivocal symbol of oppression, and the main argument against it appeared to be a feminist one. When I speak to her on the phone, Marie-Pierre Martinet, general secretary of Planning Familial, a leading feminist organisation in France, which has worked for decades to enable women to have access to sex education, contraceptives and abortion, tells me that “all religions impose a domination of men over women” and that “the veil is a symbol of this domination”. In practice, of course, she puts her views on the veil aside when she welcomes hijab-wearing women who need help in one of the Planning centers – but on a theoretical level, her unease remains. For most French feminists, a veiled feminism just can't be.

Racist stereotypes

Karima Ramdani, a 31-year-old sociology researcher currently completing a PhD on the history of indigenous women during colonisation, remembers her reaction to the 2003 debate: “When I saw the image of submissive veiled women that was pushed by the press, I was startled. It didn't correspond to the veiled women I knew, some of them from my family, some of them my friends. So I started researching the image of the veiled woman and found out that during Algerian colonisation, the veil had been used as an argument by the French to justify the civilising merits of colonisation – the image of a meek submissive veiled woman seemed to date from that time. During the Algerian war, a ceremony where women took off their veils was even staged by the French occupier to show they were liberating Algerian women.” The veil, Ramdani adds, wasn't considered a problem when women – some of them veiled – joined their husbands who had emigrated to France to work in the 1960's and the 70's. “This generation was a silent one,” she says. “They would work and keep their mouth shut. It was only after the descendants of immigrants marched against racism and stood up for their rights in the 1980's, that problems appeared.” Among the new generation that had grown up in France but was still not perceived as French, many started questioning what being Arab meant – and some of them looked for answers in religion, says Ramdani.

For Ramdani, a new stereotype arose thanks to people like Fadela Amara, a long time member of the Parti Socialiste, who created the Ni Putes Ni Soumises feminist organisation (“Neither Whores Nor Submissive”) in 2003, to oppose violence against women in the suburbs, contributed to creating new clichés. “She contrasted the image of the beurette, the young French Arab woman who wears mini-skirts and wants to be freed, with the image of an oppressed veiled woman.” Laïcité and the ban of headscarves in school would be the magical solution to the problems facing French suburbs and French schools. “Fadela Amara racialised violence against women,” says Tevanian, “just after the first extensive national study on violences against women came out – a report that showed that this violence was well-spread in all society. And, to people watching tv, she gave the impression that the ban on the veil was what the suburbs wanted.”

Most feminist associations failed to defend the rights of veiled girls, says Ramdani, because they saw the veil only as a symbol of oppression. “Feminists did not rise to a challenge that would have shown they were interested in what happens to all French women”, she says. “ We were in a country that was to pass a law establishing positive values of colonialim, yet it was as if they could envision only one feminism, and only one way for women to be emancipated.” But new feminist groups sprang up during the fight against the 2004 law, such as Une Ecole Pour Tous Et Toutes (“A school for all”), where young and old, veiled and non veiled women, experienced feminists and newcomers took part. More recently, in her book Libérez le féminisme ! (“Liberate feminism”), Morgane Merteuil, representative of the Strass (a trade union for sex workers) argued for a feminism that would be open to all, and accept veiled women, as well as prostitutes in its ranks.


Jean Baubérot, a historian and an expert in the sociology of religion, is the only member of the Commission Stasi who abstained from the vote recommending a ban. He remembers the isolated case that sparked the scarf controversy in 1989, when three girls were suspended for refusing to remove their scarves in class in Creil. “Then,” he says, “the Conseil d'Etat issued a judgment ruling that proselytism didn't lie in someone's clothing but in someone's behaviour. I didn't agree with the shift It essentialises religion and prevents thinking. Based on the way a person dresses we peremptorily imagine the way she lives. To me, this seemed naïve and even obscurantist.”

For Tevanian, the 2004 law marks a reactionary departure from the concept of laïcité, a conservative revolution. “People kept saying that we had to go back to laïcité, go back to the French politician Jules Ferry, which was a fallacious rhetoric,” he says,”the fact that a new law had to be created showed that we weren't going back to anything, but revising something.” According to him, laïcité, as it was applied in France since the separation of Church and State in 1905, “guarantees the neutrality of the agents of the State, but not of the users of a public service. Like in a football match – it's the pitch that needs to be neutral, not the players, who need to be free to elaborate their game.” For Tevanian, shifting the obligation of neutrality to the users breaches the first article of the 1905 law, which guarantees freedom of conscience and freedom of worship. It also denies the right to education for all. “Proselytism,” he adds, “that is to say, trying to convince the other, is, as long as you don't try to intimidate the person in front of you, fundamental in a democracy.”

A decade of abuse

Following the 2004 law forbidding religious “conspicuous religious signs at school” (of which 3 Sikh boys were the collateral victims during the first year of application), Tevanian and others decided to make their own assessment of the law. They counted the girls who had been expelled for wearing the veil but also those who had resigned or failed to show up at the start of the school year and interviewed those who had agreed to take their veil off. Very quickly, they found numerous abuses of the law: cases where veiled girls had been denied the right to sit at an exam or to enrol at university, cases where veiled mothers had been barred access to a school when they had come  to pick up their child's end of term report – or barred from accompanying a school outing. And also cases where banks and gyms had refused access to veiled women. Actions against the veil had multiplied in higher education, in the workplace and in in public spaces

Anti veil sentiment was not confined to the right. When the far-left Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste stood the headscarf-wearing Ilham Moussaid as a candidate in a local election in 2010, indignation rose from inside and outside her party. In an interview with Marianne magazine, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the Front de Gauche, condemned Moussaid candidacy: “Political debate mustn't take place on religious ground. Someone who takes part in an election must represent everybody and not only those whose religious convictions she shares.” France seemed to have forgotten having had a few cassock-wearing MPs, among which the famous abbé Pierre. At the end of 2010, Moussaid left the NPA and has retired from public life. She politely declined to be interviewed for this piece.

The 2004 ban also opened the door to other restrictions. The project of a law banning full-face veils from French streets arose during Sarkozy's presidency – Baubérot, the historian, tells me why he opposed it. “There was something dishonest about this law. All legal experts agreed that it would be impossible to argue on the grounds of laïcité, since we were talking about public space, so instead 'security' was used as an excuse. When I gave evidence to the Parliamentary Commission set up to reflect on the law, I said I didn't think people should have to constantly give proof of who they are.”  The scholar mischieviously points out that Eric Raoult, responsible of the Commission and author of a report defining the full-face veil as a rejection of the values of the Republic is currently being investigated by the police for domestic violence against his wife, allegedly sparked by an argument about the way she dressed - too revealingly, apparently.“To me this is symptomatic of the level of hypocrisy surrounding this law,” says Baubérot. “It was never intended to defend the freedom of these women.

Successive veil bans have resulted in a rise of abuse directed at veiled women. Lila Charef, legal officer at the Collectif contre l'Islamophobie, who runs a hotline helping victims of islamophobic acts, notes that the attackers generally refer to the  existence of a law and to the concept of laïcité. I spoke on the phone to Nina, who was assaulted while she was in a fun fair in Nantes with her kids, in September 2010, and she told me: “I felt a big blow and thought the merry-go-round had stopped. It was only when I saw this man saying: Now you're respecting the law that I realised what had happened – he had pulled my veil violently.” On that day, Nina called the police, immediately stating that she was wearing a full-face veil and therefore breaking the law, but was calling because she had been the victim of an assault. She is currently waiting for her attacker to be prosecuted. For her, the ban has done the opposite of what it said it would do: “It was meant to liberate women but it has forced us to stay home. In the past, the fact that I was a wearing a face-covering veil never dictated where I would go. I'd go to the movies, to the bowling, to the ice-skating rink, on holidays to India... Now I have nightmares at night about what happened and I stay at home a lot more.” To university-educated Nina, who's been a convert for 10 years, there is a difference between women who are forced to wear the veil and women who, like her, choose to do it (her husband told her that he would rather she wore cute beige skirts and a veil that leaves her face exposed). “If you're forced to wear the veil,” she says, “it loses all meaning. I am for every gothic kid to wear whatever he pleases, and for every woman to be free to do whatever she wants.”

Valeria Costa-Kostritsky is a French journalist based in London. This post first appeared on openDemocracy 50.50 here.

Veiled women carrying their ID demonstrating in Paris in January 2004 against plans to ban the Islamic headscarf from French schools. Photograph: Getty Images

Valeria Costa-Kostritsky is a French freelance journalist. She reports on social issues and contributes to the LRB, the Guardian, Index on Censorship and French Slate, with a particular interest in France and Russia. She is on Twitter as @valeria_wants.


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With the Greek summer at an end, the refugee crisis is just beginning

Refugee camps are battling floods – and even arson. With each passing day, the chances of a fatal incident increase.

The Greek summer came to an abrupt end at the start of September. Nowhere was spared the storms or the floods. At the Katsikas refugee camp, near the north-western city of Ioannina, the effects were dramatic. The site, formerly a military airport, flooded. The gravel turned to mud, swamping the floors of tents that were completely unsuitable for this terrain or weather.

Hundreds of people were relocated to hotels in the city. Officials from the municipality and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees scrambled to find families suitable shelter. A former orphanage on the outskirts of the city was supposed to have been renovated to house the refugees, but bureaucracy has held up the work.

Autumn falls heavily in the western region of Epirus. The danger of refugees being caught outside is real.

“We all know that when the morning fog from the lake [of Ioannina] comes in, the tents will rot away,” Filipos Filios, a former mayor of the town and now the co-ordinator between the state and the charities in the region, tells me. “They [Europe] need to relocate 20,000 people from Greece. That would have solved pretty much all of our problems. Instead, they’ve taken 3,000.”

Around Epirus, the facilities available to refugees are in good shape. Empty civil-service buildings have been repurposed to host families or single people separately. Special measures are in place for Yazidi refugees, who are in danger from others in the camps. As at the other centres across Greece, however, the problems here are not organisational.

“We have 500 people living in tents with bathrooms available, grills and cleaners, with a fully stocked food storage space and doctors always present. There’s even a centre for creative activities for the children,” Filios says. “It’s the very existence of the camp, and the need for more like it, that is the difficulty.”

On 19 September, tents at the overcrowded Moria detention centre on the island of Lesbos were set on fire. False rumours had been circulating that large numbers of Afghans were about to be sent to Turkey. Four thousand people were evacuated and a night of anguish followed. Refugees slept on the streets and local people, who oppose the presence of the camp, seized the opportunity to attack refugees and activists.

The Greek far right, led by followers of the Golden Dawn party, is stirring up anti-refugee sentiment. Attacks on journalists on Lesbos and the nearby island of Chios have become more frequent. There is talk of vigilante-style citizen patrols around the camps, staffed by residents worried about their livelihoods.

During an anti-refugee demonstration in Chios on 14 September, Ioannis Stevis, the editor of the Astraparis news website, was attacked.

“No trouble had started when the representative of Golden Dawn attacked me,” he told me. “The invitation [to march] wasn’t from the far right, but the direction of the demo once there was very specific; they had the upper hand. Some who had gone in good faith left when they heard chants like ‘Greece of Christian Greeks’.”

The march in Chios took a nasty turn when extreme elements headed to the Vial refugee camp. There, they were confronted by riot police. The refugees also fought back, throwing stones at the marchers from inside the camp.

“There was no plan to attack the camp and not everybody followed that march,” Stevis says. “We have 3,700 people here in inadequate conditions, and there is some small-scale delinquency – we can’t hide that. But there are people who try to magnify that. There definitely is a desire for citizen patrols, and not just from the far right. Especially in the village near the camp, people want to organise without being [associated with the] far right.”

With every passing day, the chances of a fatal incident increase. It has become clear that the relocation programme, designed to distribute refugees proportionally across European Union member countries according to population, is not working. These refugees are now stuck in Greece. Mere dozens leave every month for other EU countries, and fewer still depart for Turkey.

The rumours that they will be sent back to the places they have fled are no longer just rumours. On 5 October the EU and Afghanistan announced an agreement to repatriate Afghans who have been turned down for asylum. EU data shows that in 2015, 213,000 Afghans arrived in Europe, and 176,900 of those claimed asylum. More than 50 per cent of these applications were rejected. Later, a leaked memo from the negotiations showed that Afghanistan was threatened with a reduction in aid if the country did not commit to accepting at least 80,000 returning refugees.

What does all of this mean in the camps? It is the most vulnerable refugees to whom we must look to understand.

At the Moria detention centre on Lesbos, four teenagers have been arrested for allegedly gang-raping an unaccompanied 16-year-old Pakistani boy. The actions of these children, who are perhaps the ones receiving the most direct support, expose how stretched and inadequate the system is.

Even for unaccompanied children, the focus of much international attention, conditions are terrible. Officials have been saying for months that the Moria camp, which has no private rooms or locks on its doors, is unsuitable for children. An activist there, who didn’t want to be named in order to protect their work, told me that they had witnessed a teenage girl being confined in the same space as 80 boys for weeks on end.

Back at the Katsikas camp, autumn is settling in. Rain, humidity and cold have replaced the warm summer days. There is word that this camp and the others like it might soon be evacuated permanently, though there is no hint where the people might go. If they are deported to the war-torn countries they have escaped, as the EU wishes, there is little to prevent them making the journey back here. They are desperate, and many are barely surviving. Yet the message from the EU governments is clear: we’re hoping they won’t make it. 

Yiannis Baboulias is a Greek investigative journalist. His work on politics, economics and Greece, appears in the New Statesman, Vice UK and others.

This article first appeared in the 13 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, England’s revenge