Banning Full-Face Coverings in France

By Jennifer Selby

Earlier this week, a 32-member French parliamentary panel recommended that several limitations be placed on niqab and burqa-wearing Muslim women. Led by André Gerin, former mayor of the city of Venissieux, the 130-page report suggests barring fully-covered Muslim women from citizenship, social benefits and from access to the country’s public sphere. The six-month 32-multi-party-membered commission considered, among others, the Qur’anic legitimacy of full-face coverings, women’s rights, and secularism in France.

For many outside of France, a possible law banning niqabs and burqas stemming from this commission and its recommendations is surprising. And also that, firstly, a recent opinion poll suggests that 57% of the population fully support an outright ban, and secondly, according to a report last August in Le Monde, fewer than a thousand women in France wear full-face coverings. It is clearly the symbolic value of these garments that is at stake. In this short commentary, I suggest that the proposals from the Gerin Commission are not at all surprising. A likely full-face covering ban later this year in France is the result of a centuries-long concern with the visibility of religion in the public sphere and more recent concern for the protection of women’s rights from religiosity, and namely Islam.

French secularism or laïcité has been at the heart of legal and social debates in France since before the Revolution in 1789. Until the beginning of the 20th century most protests and legislation dealt with the power and prevalence of Catholicism. By 1905 the separation of church and state was fully legalized. By 1946, likely in an effort to reassert French identity following the German Occupation of WWII, the principle of laïcité was enshrined in the French constitution, becoming one of the major characteristics of the Republican state alongside liberté, egalité, and fraternité. In short, unlike in other Western contexts, French laïcité entails a radical separation and removal of what is deemed the religious or the private spaces of morality from domains considered public or political. The removal of all things religious from the public sphere is understood to guarantee equality and to foster shared nationalist citizenship. For the French, celebrating religious heterogeneity or multiculturalism reinforces difference and social stratification. For these reasons, the public visibility of the “private” religion of Islam is perceived as threatening to secularism and national identity. In a speech on national identity in November last year, President Nicolas Sarkozy’s announcement that “France is a country where there is no place for the burqa” was not negatively characterized by French media.

Differing from the previous Catholic-secular debates at the beginning of the 20th century, however, Islam in France is more than a religious identifier. It also characterizes ethnic and cultural identities. Alongside legal shifts securing secularism since the Revolution, the French have kindled deep ties with North African Muslims. Since France’s colonialism of Algeria in the 1830s, headscarf-wearing Muslim women have been at the center of debates about religion in the public sphere, gender politics and, as hundreds of thousands of North African Muslims migrated to the outskirts of industrial cities to work in factories, immigration. The Muslim population in France today is largely of North African origin and is between 8-20% of the population; the actual percentage is unknown as the secular French state does not, in the spirit of laïcité, gather statistical information regarding religious participation or affiliation. Tellingly, data is approximated through figures published on the ethnicity of residents.

In the post-WWI period, Maghrebian migrants were primarily men. With a shift in immigration policy in 1974 from single male workers to family reunification immigration policy, many more Maghrebian women began joining their husbands, and their children entered the public school system. With increased visibility in the public sphere, the question of Muslim immigration began to percolate, culminating in October 1989 with the “Headscarf Affair.” Since this debate about the appropriateness of headscarves in public schools, French secularism is increasingly articulated and defended vis-à-vis women’s rights. After a number of other incidents in French public schools, in 2004, following a similar six-month long commission to the Gerin Report, the government voted almost unanimously to bar “conspicuous” religious signs from public schools. While then-president of France Jacques Chirac claimed that that the law aimed to protect secularism, even a peripheral read of the 2003 68-page report and recommendations makes the hijab-focus and concern for young citoyennes’ rights evident. In the Stasi Report, women wearing headscarves are depicted as “submissive”, “dominated” and “subjugated” political pawns.

The perceived rise in women donning niqabs and burqas thus raised some alarm among French members of parliament. Last August when the Gerin Commission began, Secretary of State Fadela Amara, who elsewhere has called herself a secular Muslim, noted that “The burka represents not a piece of fabric, but the political manipulation of a religion that enslaves women and disputes the principle of equality between men and women – one of the founding principles of our republic.” Full-face covering is therefore not only about women’s rights and secularism, but also reflects a fear of political manipulation. If wearing a headscarf in shared spaces like government offices, on buses and in hospitals is depicted not as a religious choice which in the French laïque model could be relegated to the private sphere, but as political one, there are public implications.

To a great extent, these histories of French secularism, colonialism and Muslim immigration to France help to contextualize last week’s recommendations in the Gerin Report. Yet, beyond concerns of increased fear-mongering in Europe like that with the recent minaret ban in Switzerland, and of racism and Islamophobia, most worrisome to me with this recent news in France is how few religious women are themselves able to voice their choices and complexify the reasons why women choose certain forms of dress and adopt certain social comportments in keeping with their beliefs. While French politicians fight to keep religion and its symbols out of the public sphere, particularly “subjugated” full-face covered Muslim women, they ignore those they fight to protect. Commission reports like that released last week claim concern for women’s rights and their full participation in French public life, but few discuss how and why Muslim women remain the symbolic bearers of national identity in the Republic.