Lifting the Veil on Prejudice against French Muslim Women


France's Muslim women feel the sting of prejudice whether they choose to cover their heads or not -- and many are beginning to speak out in a deluge of books, online postings and open letters. 

Traditional feminism is failing many Muslim women, to judge from an outpouring of complaints that they suffer prejudice on as many as three fronts at once -- sex, religion and national origin.

"Don't liberate me, I'll do that myself," sociologist Hanane Karimi, a prominent French Muslim feminist, said on Twitter.

France is home to the largest Muslim population in Europe, with people from Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisian backgrounds as well as from other former French colonies such as Senegal and Mali.

A small minority of Muslim women in France are "forced" to wear a veil, documentary filmmaker Sarah Zouak told AFP. "That's a reality, we mustn't deny it."

But, she said, those who choose of their own volition to wear a veil or hijab headscarf are "lumped together" with those who are forced to, and it is assumed that they all do so at the behest of a father, husband or brother, she said.

A recent book of essays by journalists, sociologists and activists titled "Voiles et Prejuges" (Veils and Prejudice) accuses French society of "appropriating the voices" of Muslim women.

The hijab has become the preferred target of Islamophobes, they say, arguing that France's strict rules on separating religion from public life encourage identity politics -- even though secularism is meant to protect religious and other freedoms.

The hijab was banished from the classroom and government offices in France in 2004, but it is a common sight in the streets.

Prejudice against the garment comes from both the left and the right, causing unnecessary tensions and even fueling radical Islam, Muslim women activists say.

Last summer, the appearance of the body-concealing burkini swimsuit on French beaches became a burning campaign issue in the run-up to this year's presidential election.

"The right has clear racist positions but the Socialist government of the last five years was among the worst for us," said Zouak, who founded an association to "give a voice to women who are the victims of racist and sexist oppression."

She recalled comments last summer by then prime minister Manuel Valls backing several rightwing mayors who tried to ban the burkini from their beaches.

Valls, who stepped down in December to mount a failed bid for the Socialists' presidential candidacy, said during the controversy that the veil was synonymous with "women's enslavement."

- 'Submission to God' -

Zouak also pointed to a remark by women's rights minister Laurence Rossignol likening women who wear the hijab to "Negroes who supported slavery" in the United States.

Karimi and five other feminists denounced Rossignol in an op-ed, saying she was supposed to "defend the cause of all women."

Rossignol later retracted the remark, which she made last March in reference to designers creating high-fashion burkinis and hijabs targeting the Muslim market. 

Zouak went further, accusing Rossignol of being a "white feminist, fighting oppression by men telling us how to dress, think etc. but copying oppression against other women, thinking she has a monopoly on feminism."

Another Muslim woman to speak out is Hanane Charrihi, who recently published a book in memory of her mother who was killed in last July's jihadist truck attack in the southern city of Nice.

"My veil is not submission to a man but to God," Charrihi told AFP. "It's the result of an intimate journey in faith."

She added: "You fight for freedoms, so that a woman can wear a veil if she wants to, or a mini-skirt if that's her choice."

Sociologist Eric Fassin said it was striking that women were speaking out on the issue "after long allowing debate to rage without their voices being heard."

"We were given to understand that the women were not allowed to speak out, but in fact we contributed to this silence" by not giving them a voice, he said.

At a screening of a documentary by Zouak about Moroccan women, an audience member initially did not want to discuss the subject with AFP.

But then the woman, who works in the public education sector, opened up, complaining about "prejudice" against her.

"If I say I am Muslim, and wear a veil outside work, you automatically think I have a horrible husband. But I'd like you to meet him!"