To Veil or Not to Veil: Muslim Feminine Identity in France - by Caroline Colbert
In her article, “Reconfiguring freedom: Muslim piety and the limits of secular law and public discourse in France,” Mayanthi L. Fernando analyzes the complexities of French political dialogue surrounding the Muslim practice of veiling. She partakes in participant observation by joining an activist group whose goal is to contest a law enacted in 2004 by the French government that bans Muslim women from wearing headscarves, burqas, and other Islamic clothing in public schools. Given France’s history of promoting a secular government and society, proponents of the ban believe that headscarves violate the neutral and secular nature of schools. They also claim that veiling establishes an unacceptable sense of religious community and oppresses women.
Through participating in the activist group, Fernando seeks to discover the ways that Muslim women are impacted by and respond to the political opposition against their religious practices. She meets Muslim women who speak about their decisions to wear headscarves. Fernando highlights the complexities of French Muslim women who seek to balance independence with religious authority. She discusses the ways they are influenced by both societal and religious expectations. Fernando then reflects on broader processes, such as the hypocritical way that French society simultaneously values individuality and utilizes “laïcité,” the French term for political and societal secularization, as a process that strips individual identities and establishes a dominant discourse intended to “otherize” minority groups.
During Fernando’s ethnographic study, she speaks with a practicing Muslim woman, Khadija, who describes veiling as a process that creates a relationship with God and is influenced by “the internal desires of the practitioner and cannot be imposed by an outside authority.” Similarly, a Muslim student named Nawel describes the importance of being non-judgmental towards others’ decisions regarding veiling. According to these women, religious duties should be voluntary rather than enforced by others. Faithful Muslim practice is a journey through which one actively decides to partake in religious duties that ultimately result in wearing a headscarf or hijab. It is neither choice nor obligation that spurs this practice, rather the idea that one has the ability to choose to submit to God and undertake the duty of veiling.
In understanding the importance of veiling within Islamic societies, Fernando introduces the idea of hybridity between those with multiple identities. For a Muslim woman named Amira, growing up surrounded by non-secular French discourse made her question the veil: “I really had a moment where I wanted to take it off because I thought, this is something imposed by men, I am obeying because I fear God, and men are using my fear of God to make me submit to a command…But then I realized that when I pray and when I put on my veil, everything makes sense.”
French non-Muslim citizens view veiling as an oppressive practice, but Muslim women find it empowering. Amira’s case is an example of how French Muslim women experience a feeling of hybridity in which they are influenced by ideals within both their secular and religious communities. To Fernando, French women who wear headscarves “occupy a no-man’s-land of discursive and legal unintelligibility.”
Along with societal and political influences that cause French Muslim women to question their religious decisions, “these women are consistently compelled by secular public discourse and law to categorize the veil as either a choice or an obligation.” Since the French Constitution claims that freedom of religion is inalienable but methods of practicing religion are not, claiming that veiling is a choice renders its subject to restriction. On the other hand, women who claim that veiling is necessary to practicing Islam are told that it infringes upon their human rights, because they are submitting to a patriarchal religious authority.
By being unable to conceptualize Muslim womens’ decision to veil, the French government encourages discourse that diverts the blame from French policy and renders the question of the government’s ability to intervene unresolvable. Fernando recounts a televised debate on the proposed law, in which French Muslim activist Saida Kada argues against the belief that Islam oppresses women. According to Fernando, “Kada’s…point was completely ignored; the debate’s moderator turned to the unequal status of women in Muslim countries…” Fernando depicts a situation in which dominant discourse blames external factors, like the Muslim patriarchy, rather than laws created by the government. Here, government delegates responsibility onto external sources — such as the patriarchy — and molds discourse so there is no feasible solution.
By protecting the “majority” and enforcing laïcité, the government hypocritically strips the identities and independence of its citizens. This process opposes individuality and freedom, which are claimed ideals of French society. The system of “otherization” doesn’t just occur in France. Freedom of religion is a human right written in the United States Constitution, yet early last year President Trump imposed a travel ban on seven predominantly Muslim countries. In countries valuing independence and freedom, personal autonomy is greatly influenced by political processes and restricted to those deemed “other.”
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Fernando, Myanthi L. "Reconfiguring freedom: Muslim piety and the limits of secular law and public discourse in France." American Ethnologist 37, no. 1 (January 28, 2010): 19-35. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1548-1425.2010.01239.x/full.
"The Concept of Laïcité in France." Normandy Vision. http://www.normandyvision.org/article12030701.php.