Tunis, Tunisia — During the seven years I spent in French public school in Tunisia, I learned a lot about French culture and the history of France. I remember that we spent at least two years learning about the French Revolution and Enlightenment philosophers, both in history and literature class. I was impressed by how France abolished the monarchy and established a republic based on democracy and values such as equality, freedom and justice. Now I wonder if those values are at risk.
On March 30th, the French Senate voted in favor of a ban on anyone under 18 wearing a hijab in public. It’s not law yet, without the confirmation of the National Assembly. But many people, both Muslims and non-Muslims, not only in France but all around the world, were outraged. As a young Tunisian woman who studied in a French public school, I was stunned too.
Despite its colonial history in Tunisia, I perceived France as a country ruled by civil rights and tolerance. In my school, students already weren’t allowed to wear hijabs because of a French law passed in 2004 restricting all “conspicuous” religious symbols in state schools. Although this law restricted the freedoms of many of my fellow classmates and even teachers, I liked it because it put everyone in school on an equal footing, regardless of their beliefs. I feel differently about the new proposed ban on hijabs in public. It promotes Islamophobia and the segregation of Muslim people. If the French Senate wanted to be equitable, the ban would have involved all religions and not only Islam. Instead, this kind of effort just promotes the anti-Islam hate and bullying that’s spreading across Europe and the Western world.
The Somali-born model based in Norway, Rawdah Mohamed, shared on Instagram her experience with bullying in school, as a girl who wears the hijab, under the hashtag #HandsOffMyHijab. The model described how her bullies would “take off my hijab so often that I had to bring an extra hijab for the times the boys would take it and refuse to give it back.” Mohamed even faced injustice from her “teacher who confiscated my hijab because it disturbed the lesson.” The model’s account is one of many stories of Muslim girls who face bullying and unfairness, from their classmates and even adults.
The core of these hijab bans is something that Western countries, among them France, have often blamed Muslim countries for: not giving women the freedom of choice. France is allowing the oppression of Muslim girls, under the pretext that the hijab is a sign of women’s submission. As a feminist Muslim girl who doesn’t wear a hijab, I wonder whether the French senators see how much these laws go against their republic’s values since they restrict the freedoms of Muslim girls and make them feel inferior to girls from different religions. Doesn’t all this make Muslim girls feel as if they were second-class citizens, which contradicts the value of equity? Isn’t this interfering in women’s clothing choice, a form of controlling women’s bodies that goes against gender equality? I wonder what Simone De Beauvoir or Gisèle Halimi, fierce French feminists, would think of this hijab ban.
As a non-white woman whose country was colonized by the French, I can’t help but link these laws with France’s history of colonialism. By prohibiting hijabs and burkinis, the French government is trying to impose a certain way of dressing on Muslim girls, which is the modern Western one. These practices are part of neocolonialism, which aims to reinforce white supremacy and promote a conformist culture. That’s what the Jordanian-American activist Amani al-Khatahtbeh, wrote in her post on Instagram. Al-Khatahtbeh said “it’s very forcefully about dominating and subjugating a religious minority.” As far as I can tell, these kinds of laws contribute to dividing the French nation, which goes against the principles of the Republic as being indivisible.