Hadassah-Brandeis Institute

"Mister Prime Minister, Don't Liberate Us": Secularism and Muslim Women in France

Nov. 9, 2016

By Geraldine Gudefin

Editors note: This blog will be one of three that will appear over the next few months on the subject of laïcité (French secularism).

This summer, more than thirty French towns issued bans prohibiting Muslim women from wearing a "burkini" — the Muslim full-body swimwear — at the beach. In the eyes of politicians who passed or defended these bans, this garment of Muslim modesty posed a threat to "French public order" on many levels. For some, the burkini merely violated the principle of laïcité (French secularism); others described it as an explicit symbol of Muslim terrorism.

These bans led to police patrols intended to ensure that Muslim women would comply with the newly established regulations. A picture that circulated widely on the internet showed four police officers forcing a woman to remove her tunic (note that it was not a burkini). In Cannes and Nice, other women were fined for wearing a hijab, a Muslim veil, at the beach.

Far from denouncing these practices, numerous politicians publicly supported these municipal decisions, including Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who described the burkini as symbolizing "the enslavement of women." Another minister, Laurence Rossignol, declared that the meaning of the burkini "is to hide, to conceal the women's bodies and the position it accords to women is a position that I fight against."

By late August, however, France's highest administrative court (the Council of State) overturned the ban. Regarding a ban recently enacted by the southern town of Villeneuve-Loubet (a neighboring town of Nice, where a deadly terrorist attack had taken place a month prior), the court contended that the municipal authorities had failed to show that a burkini threatened to "disturb public order." Furthermore, the court suspended all burkini bans, considering them a violation of civil liberties such as "freedom of movement, freedom of conscience and personal freedom."

The burkini saga exposed deep fractures in French society and conflicting understandings of laïcité in contemporary France. The contrasting opinions of the mayors who issued such bans, and the Council of State, thus showed at least two diverging readings of French secularism — one exclusionary and discriminatory; the other respectful of freedom of conscience and religion. Of course, these debates and contrasting interpretations of laïcité are far from new; take for example the 2004 ban on "ostentatious" religious symbols in French schools (which primarily targeted hijabs) or the ban on the burqa, the face-covering garment, in 2010. As these bans show, in the past decade many of the most contentious controversies over the meaning of French secularism have focused in large part on Muslim female bodies. And in all three debates, restrictions on Muslim garments have persistently been framed as "protecting" and "liberating" Muslim women from patriarchy. Yet, Muslim women themselves have been strikingly absent from these discussions.

Consequently, when the New York Times published a series of testimonies from Muslim women living in Europe, particularly in France and Belgium, last September, I contemplated the possibility that this situation may change: those testimonies, I then hoped, would help ordinary citizens and politicians in France understand the ways in which burkini bans and the like are affecting their fellow citizens of the Muslim faith.

Not surprisingly, the reality that these testimonies revealed was bleak. In most accounts, the women who testified to the New York Times emphasized the discrimination and suspicion they faced, often in the form of derogatory looks and remarks ("go back home"), and a growing feeling of humiliation which prompted several of them to express their desire to leave France. In the face of constant silencing, several women also welcomed the chance to finally offer their perspective. For example, in her testimony, Khadija Manouach, a 29-year-old teacher from Brussels, expressed her gratitude for having the opportunity to speak up: "Thank you ever so much for viewing us as human beings and for taking into account our opinions. In Belgium, as in France for that matter, we never get the chance to speak, even though we Muslims (veiled or not) are the main people concerned by these recurrent controversies on Islam and women. We are seen as brainless bigots who are submissive to our husbands or fathers. I myself am a Muslim, a teacher, tolerant, feminist AND veiled."

In a remarkable development, France's Prime Minister himself penned a letter in response to these testimonies. Far from welcoming these voices, Manuel Valls expressed his discontent with the New York Times article, and faulted the American newspaper for misrepresenting French secularism. In a rebuttal published in the Huffington Post, he denounced these stories as "spreading an intolerable picture, as it is false, of France, the country of lights and of liberties." Moreover, Prime Minister Valls accused the New York Times of presenting "only one point of view": that stemming from an "ultra-vigorous vision of Islam." Instead of favoring Muslim female voices that portray a France "that oppresses them", the paper should have explained "what the republican principles are: liberty, equality, fraternity, and the secularism of the French."

Once again, Valls also defended the burkini ban, arguing that it helps promote gender equality and liberate Muslim women from masculine domination and radical Islam. The burkini, Valls insisted, "is not an insignificant bathing suit. It is a provocation of radical Islam, which is emerging and wants to impose itself in the public space!" By banning it, therefore, "we are fighting for the freedom of women who should not have to live under the yoke of a chauvinist order. The female body is neither pure nor impure; it is the female body. It does not need to be hidden to protect against some kind of temptation." (As numerous observers noted at the time of the burkini controversy, the forced undressing of Muslim women at the beach seriously called into question the liberating effect of the ban, but Valls chose not to address that issue.)

"Mister Prime Minister, don't liberate us, we are doing it well on our own; however do heed us and, above all, do respect us!", Karima Mondon wrote on Sept. 14 in the French newspaper Libération, in response to Vall's letter. One of the French Muslim women who had testified to the New York Times, Karima Mondon argued that she, alongside her coreligionists who had agreed to share their story with the newspaper, were merely "holding up a mirror" to French society. Mondon's strongly worded letter expressed outrage at the way in which Valls had treated Muslim women, and attempted to silence their voices at a time when "the media is making us invisible and some politicians are even intending to make us disappear from the public sphere… " The following week, Libération even published its own version of the< New York Times article. It featured testimonies from 20 French Muslim women that echoed, rather than contradicted, the anger and worries that women had expressed in the American press. [5]

Hijab-wearing women expressed their growing discomfort and fear of being attacked — thus fearing a double threat of violence from both Muslim terrorists and islamophobes. Most women, regardless of their religious persuasion, raised concern about their future and, most of all, that of their children. Several women also contrasted their childhood in France (characterized by great ethnic and religious diversity and lack of discrimination) with what might await their children in today’s charged environment. Finally, the testimonies converged to reject the burkini ban, perceived as humiliating because it obscured the internal diversity of Muslims in France. As Nada, a 32-year old architect from Paris, explained to Libération: "Muslims are by no means a uniform bloc. It is absurd to ask such a diversified group to be discreet. There are so many Muslims whose [religious] belonging one cannot even guess."

A few months after the New York Times published these testimonies, I am increasingly skeptical that France is willing to hear the diverse and multifaceted voices of French Muslim women. The Prime Minister's attempt to yet again silence them illustrates a widespread reluctance to admit that for many citizens, France is far from "the country of lights and of liberties." The persistent failure to heed these perspectives results in increasing discrimination toward French Muslim women, garbed in the language of feminism. By silencing their voices, politicians and newspapers are also suppressing alternative visions to the type of laïcité that they are promoting — a laïcité that denies multiple meanings to religious symbols — and they are inadvertently homogenizing the complex and overlapping identities of a large swath of its citizenry. It is time to recognize the potentially negative effects of this particular model of secularism: ignorance of world religious heritages, anti-religious prejudices, cultural misunderstandings, and a lack of religious pluralism. Doing so might in fact be the first step towards building a secularism that promotes trust and understanding, thus bringing the country closer to its professed ideals.

For further reading, I would recommend:

  • Elisabeth Zerofsky, "The French Culture Wars Continue," he New Yorker, 4 May 2016.
  • Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, "Burkini Ban Debate Shows Modernists Muslims Can’t Win," GQ, 12 September 2016.
  • Joan Wallach Scott,"The Politics of the Veil," Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007.
  • Elisa Wiygul, ed., "The Headscarf: A Political Symbol in Comparative and Historical Perspective," Special issue of Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques 34, no. 3 (Winter 2008).

Geraldine GudefinGeraldine Gudefin is a Helen Gartner Hammer scholar-in-residence and a doctoral candidate at Brandeis in the History Department