When the French debate on the full-face veil was launched in April 2009 by Communist MP André Gérin and later championed by President Nicolas Sarkozy, the political stunt appeared too obvious to swallow. A government only too happy for some breathing space as it struggled to overturn its widespread unpopularity. And yet, as the testimonies of 32 naqab-wearing women I interviewed for a study reveal, many French people fell head first for the diversionary strategy and overnight came to believe it was their right, even their republican duty, to behave as members of a secularist enforcement squad.
Despite lukewarm protests against the ban, no genuine resistance was offered by French opposition parties. And the resounding silence of civil liberties groups and anti-discrimination advocates on the day of the law’s enforcement was hardly a surprise.
The testimonies of the 32 women interviewed from across France challenged many of the myths relayed during the controversy. Rather than reflecting an attempt to subvert society, the adoption of the naqab was, in most cases, the result of a personal journey, a modern spiritual approach in an effort to transform the self. Most of them were the first members of their family to adopt the veil, their attendance at their mosque was minimal, and their affiliation to any Islamic bodies almost nonexistent.
The report also opened a window on to the reaction of the wider Muslim and Arab populations in France towards the controversy. “I find the Muslim community as manipulated as the rest of the French population,” said Eliza, a 31-year-old naqab-wearing entrepreneur who, like many respondents, has decided to leave France. Most representatives of Islamic institutions adopted a conciliatory tone, opposing the ban while criticising the practice of wearing the full-face veil, arguing either (and rightly) that it was a minority practice or (wrongly) that it wasn’t “part of the religion” at all. Without offering support for the women, they allowed their discourse to be instrumentalised by the French ruling elite.
The dismay and even the deep anger many naqab-wearing women felt over the lack of solidarity shown by fellow Muslims was a recurrent theme that arose in most of the testimonies. “The community hurts us more than the others,” confided Aisha, a 19-year-old former national sports champion. Adding insult to injury, a significant number of the women interviewed had also been abused by either Muslims or people of Arab descent, sometimes venomously. Hurtful accusations that they were making the lives of Muslims harder in France, “shaming” the community, and “dirtying the religion” said much about the accusers.
The lethargy that gripped a significant section of the Muslim and/or Arab communities can be partially explained by its unsurprising internalisation of a largely unchallenged paradigm that for decades has depicted French religious and ethnic minorities as responsible for some of the country’s main ills. It’s an inferiority complex that, according to many testimonies, seems to have left the younger generations relatively unscathed.
This might explain why ten young women decided to adopt the full-face veil, some clearly in an act of defiance, after the launch of the debate. Bushra, a 24-year-old former rapper who did not even wear a hijab in April 2009, explained: “The controversy put a flea in my ear... Already, for Eid, they don’t allow us to slaughter our sheep, they don’t let us go to school with our headscarves, they don’t let us do anything!” Giving them a taste of their own medicine, she adopted the veil. She adds, with a laugh: “Thanks to their nonsense, I stopped mine.”