The French and the Hijab. The Never-Ending Story

On March 19th, 2013 the French Court of Cassation (the highest administrative court in France) annulled the 2008 dismissal by a private day care center called “Baby-Loup” of one of its employees – Ms. Fatima Afif – on the grounds that she had refused to stop wearing the hijab. The hijab is a general term that refers to a variety of head coverings that can range from an ordinary head scarf to the nikab, which covers the whole face but only leaves the eyes open, and to the burkaq, a mesh-like gauze which shields even the eyes from others. While distinct in color, texture and style, reflecting different ethnic and geographic backgrounds, these clothing items are said to follow Islamic strictures obliging women to exhibit modesty in public spaces.

The Court’s reversal of the decision to dismiss Ms. Afif created yet another firestorm in French public life over what is commonly referred to as “l’affair du foulard” (“the scarf affair”), leading President Hollande to call for a law that would extend restrictions on wearing “prominent religious symbols” not only to all public institutions, where they are already banned, but to the private sector as well. Although the details of such a law are murky at this stage – would private firms, civil and religious associations as well as privately-funded educational institutions have to comply with it? – the ambition of French authorities to regulate religious life so intrusively is astonishing.

The Recent History of the “Foulard Controversy”

French law already bans pupils and students in public schools as well as state employees from wearing “ostentatious signs of religious belongings in the public sphere” such as Muslim headscarves, Jewish skullcaps, large Christian crosses and Sikh turbans. Passed in 2004 by the overwhelming majority of the French National Assembly, this law was the culmination of a long series of confrontations referred to as “l’affair du foulard,” which began in 1989 with the expulsion from their school of three scarf-wearing Muslim girls and continued with the mass exclusion of 23 others in November 1996. After nearly a decade, with this law the French National Assembly affirmed the principle of “laicité.”

Laicité is hard to translate into the familiar American terms of the separation of Church and State or even of secularization. It can best be understood as the public neutrality of the state toward all religions, institutionalized through a vigilant removal of sectarian signs, icons and items of clothing from official public spheres. Laicité can be traced back to the strident anti-clericalism of the French Revolution. The manner in which such laws affect many religions requiring specific forms of attire, diet and prayer from their adherents seems to occur almost as an “after-thought” in French public life, and ironically, if French law would forbid the wearing of “ostentatious” religious symbols not only in public but also in private organizations, orthodox Jewish kindergarten and schools could be no more exempt from dress code regulations than could Muslim ones. But as Esther Benbassa, an academic and senator from the Val-du-Marn, has observed, the real issue is that “Derriere la laicité, l’Islam” (Behind laicité, lies Islam).

Muslim Integration in Europe

France today is home to an estimated 5-6 million Muslims who have their origins in former colonies such as Algeria and Tunisia, some sub-Saharan countries such as Mali, and more recent immigrants hailing from Morocco, Turkey, India, and Pakistan. It is at the forefront of the general challenge faced by European countries about how to integrate sizeable group of religious minorities into their societies. Belgium and The Netherlands, in addition to France, ban the wearing of the niqab and the burqa in public places and impose fines on women who do. Germany as well as has had its own version of the “scarf affair,” – “die Schleieraffaire” – in which an Afghani-German teacher, Ms. Farashda Ludin, was banned from teaching history in German schools. With the exception of Berlin, all German Länder forbid teachers from wearing the hijab.

In Turkey as well, which is a majority Muslim country, adhering to its own version of laicité, the scarf affair, referred to as the “turban meselesi,” has led to many confrontation between the ruling AKP Party and the Turkish Constitutional Court, in an attempt to change the Turkish law which bans university students and public servants but not pupils from wearing the hijab. Common to all these cases is the assumption that wearing the hijab is not a free act of religious choice but an ominous symbol of something else.

The Symbolic Politics of the Hijab

For many women’s rights activists the hijab is a symbol of female oppression and the repression of women’s free agency and sexuality. For security theorists, the hijab is a manifestation of radical Islam’s growing influence among migrant communities in Europe. For secular democrats and republicans, it is a warning sign of the end of Enlightenment and modernity and of the belief that individual rights should prevail over communal norms.

Very often missing in all these interpretations are the young girls’ and women’s own voices. While undoubtedly, sometimes the hijab is a manifestation of female oppression, imposed on girls and women without their voluntary choice, often the hijab itself is an ambivalent sign of struggles around ethnic and gender identity. Many French pupils and students consider themselves proud French citizens and defy their parents’ wishes by wearing the hijab; others, from more conservative background, use the hijab to prove to their families that they can go to school, hold a job and become “modern Muslim” women while being pious. Yet others, such as those in Turkey, wear the hijab as an act of political and cultural defiance against the heavy-handed modernization and secularization efforts of the Kemalist elite.

There is no singular meaning of the wearing of the hijab. It is a symbol of the dilemmas faced by many communities of believers, and not only or exclusively by Muslim ones, in coming to grips with the religious pluralism of modern societies. Freedom of conscience and the free exercise of religion are human rights guaranteed by Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the European Convention on Human Rights. Balancing the free exercise of religion by all citizens and residents with concerns such as the maintenance of public order and security is never easy and that is why the docket of the European Court of Human Rights is full of cases concerning violations of Article 9 of the European Convention by France and other countries. Nonetheless, laicité is a top-down strategy that stifles the democratic negotiation of religious difference in modern pluralist societies.

  • Husam Said

    are the french the only ones in Europe who care about “equality”? i do not think so, i think what they are doing to the Muslim women is racist and disgusting.

  • Noor Aza Othman

    As a Muslim woman, I finally realized, after being so stupid for a long time, how the CIA/US/EU/NATO-led Western world are using the issue of “Muslim women’s rights” to launch further, their most racist neo-Nazi Imperialist Genocide and State-robbery of OIL/GAS/MINERALS/LAND-rich Third World under War Crimes/Crimes against Humanity! They couldn’t give a damn about any poor people’s suffering (including by bombing them to pieces with Drones and invading their sovereign nations whenever they like or through sending corrupted Saudi/Qatar/Turkey-based armed Jihadist terrorists to completely destroy the country and population including women and children like in Libya, Mali, Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and many more), especially from the Third World (they can even rob their own Western poor – look at the low quality housing and goods for the poor for example, even in supposedly “high-quality” Germany here – but the rich live like kings, even tiny toys for their kids can worth thousands of Euros)! All these most greedy and corrupted Neo-Nazi elite monsters care about is acquiring more wealth for themselves and their own future generation, but to hell with the poor masses, especially from the Third World! Completely hypocritical and without any ounce of morality, guilt nor conscience! So stop your fake vomit-drenched preaching to the Muslim or Third World, including by imposing your disgusting bare breast of supposedly but laughable ‘femen-ism’!

  • Mglass

    As an Australian I really can’t understand why there is all this fuss about the hijab. I feel sorry for women who wear this covering, especially in hot weather, but that is up to them. I think it is better not to make an issue of it. It should be up to the woman to decide for herself whether to wear the hijab or not.


    Quite simply, democracy and Islam are incompatible. Shame to politicians who have sold out their countries to a massive influx of democracy-hating people. Democracy is freedom for individuals to speak their minds, not some forced barbaric party line religious doctrine. Vive Femen! Those women are remarkable! Their tenacity and courage are remarkable in the face of inhumane Islamic butchers like the ones who slaughtered Van Gogh, Pym Fortin, and others. Democracy will defeat Islam. It must defeat Islam. The war is NOW!

  • topbudget

    Good luck, Germany…

  • Noor Aza Othman

    Yeah, the pathetic and the most evil hypocrite German Left who is supporting the CIA-US/NATO-led Imperialist Genocide, and state-robbery and destruction, in Syria – what a fake Left (see –,
    Germany’s Left Party mobilizes for war against Syria, By Johannes Stern, 21 December 2012)! No wonder many of the 6 million Jews were cut up in pieces to be burnt in ovens in Germany, after being raped, robbed and tortured – if this is the kind of leftist Germany has! And no wonder the world still distrust Germany – but the leftie in Der Spiegel are now claiming pathetic victimisation of experiencing ‘German-phobia’, such nonsense! I remember too meeting a so-called German hard-leftie who even denied that German Nazi Concentration camps exist in Germany itself – including amongst the so-scenic old villages at Sachsenhausen Camp, right near the so-cosmopolitan Berlin! Such fake leftie makes want to vomit!

  • Noor Aza Othman

    CORRECTION: Yeah, the pathetic and the most evil hypocrite German Left who is
    supporting the CIA-US/NATO-led Imperialist Genocide, and state-robbery
    and destruction, in Syria – what a fake Left (see –,
    Left Party mobilizes for war against Syria, By Johannes Stern, 21
    December 2012)! No wonder many of the 6 million Jews were cut up in
    pieces to be burnt in ovens in Germany, after being raped, robbed and
    tortured BY GERMAN NAZIS (many still exist and believe Nazism secretly – a few hundreds openly)- if this is the kind of leftist Germany has! And no wonder the
    world still distrust Germany – but the poor-me-lefties in Der Spiegel are blaming pathetic victimisation of ‘German-phobia’, such
    nonsense! I remember too having a heated discussion (she tried to stop my freedom of speech – wow, what a leftie!) with a so-called German hard-leftie who even
    denied that German Nazi Concentration camps exist in Germany itself –
    including amongst the so-scenic old villages at Sachsenhausen Camp,
    right near the so-cosmopolitan Berlin! Such fake lefties makes me want to VOMIT!

  • Noor Aza Othman

    So, Genocide and state-robbery-loving CIA-US/NATO-led Western Imperialists love Democracy? What a joke – but an evil joke! These racist and supremacist neo-Nazi inhumane butchers who slaughtered the poor and Black Africans in OIL-GAS/MINERALS/LAND-rich Libya (i.e Third/Muslim world) through their corrupted Saudi/Qatar/Turkey-based armed Jihadist terrorists, and now in Mali and Syria, have also slaughtered Democracy!

    UNACCOUNTABLE pro-US/CIA/NATO South Korean ex-Foreign
    Minister Ban Ki-moon-led UN and International Criminal Court’s (ICC)
    administration, who have betrayed the Nuremberg principles from the Nuremberg Nazi War Crimes trial [which convicted top German Nazi leaders and punished AGGRESSIVE wars by nations/individuals, (that gave rise to ICC and modern post WW2 international laws)], must be convicted! Poor Third World women, children, youth and men are being mercilessly burnt and bombed to pieces (as how the German Nazis did it), raped, robbed and tortured in continuous Genocide and state-robbery – all due to the ever AGGRESSIVE Western Imperialist neo-Nazi US/CIA/UK/France/Germany/NATO-led War Criminal regimes, who are now clearly supporting or even using/training/arming openly, and most immorally and arrogantly, the Saudi/Qatar/Turkey-based Jihadist terrorists that include the
    Muslim Brotherhood-led Talebans, al-Qaeda, Hamas (that divides Palestinians and PLO’s genuine Independence struggle, and world’s opinion), Somalia’s al-Shabaab, Nigeria’s Boko Haram and many more. This is through their CIA/US/Western-PUPPET corrupted, treacherous and most greedy Saudi-Qatar-Gulf Arab kings/Turkey’s ruling Muslim Brotherhood’s regime, to commit Genocide or Terrorism, fundamentally, to “divide and rule”, and destabilize oil/mineral/land-rich Third/Muslim World SOVEREIGN
    nations and populations, especially the ever resisting poor!

  • cherl

    please wear them in islamic countries why do islamic people even want to leave their country?

  • Weneedpeace

    France is known for fashion. A hijab is very anti fashion and anti France. Women who don’t like French culture shouldn’t live in France. Women who want to shove their Islamic culture in everyone’s face by wearing a hijab should proudly move to an Islamic country where it is welcome and leave France where they are very much not wanted.

  • Weneedpeace

    Because they want to spread their heinous Islamic culture on others. You are right. If they love Islamic cultures they should live in an Islamic country and leave the West alone.

  • whosaidislamisntpeaceful

    first, hijab can be fashionable. pls do the research first before you state your argument. fyi, you can see there’s A LOT of hijab fashion show out there :-)

    i wear hijab and i really like the french culture. but hijab is my personal choice for the faith of my religion. and i dont intend to shove the french culture–i dont intend to mix the french culture and the islamic culture anyway. what is the effect for you if i’m the one who wears the hijab? it’s my rights. it’s my bussiness whether wearing hijab or not. why are you people concern about this so much?

    well, western people shouldnt go to africa and asia then, it’s the biggest muslim population. if western people are allowed, why’s muslim ppl arent allowed to go to western countries? ROFL you are so funny

  • whosaidislamisntpeaceful

    well why do western people want to go the thirld world?
    why do western people who have different culture from east country are allowed?
    “why do islamic people even want to leave their country?” WHY DO THEY WONT? it’s their bussiness!

  • A Lady

    I don’t understand what the fuss is all about. The hijab isn’t just in Islam, it’s in womanhood. Any female of any religion or culture can wear a scarf. A cloth on their head. By banning the hijab, people are discouraging modesty. So someone doesn’t want to be on display for the world. The want virtue, is that a crime? Some woman don’t want to be seen for how they look, whether that is pretty or ugly. They want to be seen for who they are, their mentality. The media has programmed the believe that being modest is oppressive into our minds. Not wanting to sell your body to the scrutinizing gazes people is oppressive? Personally I think that the hijab should be left between the person doing it and what or who they’re doing it for. It may be for them, for God or Allah, or for anything else. Who are we to judge them by a piece of cloth. They still are them right? Isn’t being yourself the only tho that matters! So please, don’t care if they are housing fabric atop their head, Firstly it’s not our business what they do and how they look, and secondly is their personality all that matters? Who they are, and how they feel, is what we should be looking at if anything.

  • sugar

    Who’s telling ulot to cover up. Live and let live

  • sugar

    Why doesn’t anyone feel sorry for nuns when they are covered from head to toe.

  • Mea

    I actually feel the same way for nuns. Must be warm but they choose it so I am happy if they are.

  • Mea

    I am neither against or for hijab – But I do believe in freedom. So if someone wants to wear a hijab, a tent, or a carrot cake on their head, its fine by me!

    If they are happy and they aren’t hurting anyone then Im okay with it.

    HOWEVER it frightens me that so many people don’t know what Racism is.

    This is not about race, its about religion. I know many different races who are muslims and I know plenty arabs who aren’t. Being against hijab is not racist.

    All this talk about slaves, war and blaming an entire race for what happened is crazy.

    How about we just support each others difference, try to understand each other and bring peace? .. as long as no one is getting hurt and there is room for all of us what are we complaining about?

The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.

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