Religion & Women

In France, women’s clothing is a significant marker of the visibility of the Muslim community and discourse around the Islamic veil (foulard) is politically charged. The veil was banned alongside other religious symbols in public schools in 2004, and in 2010 the Constitutional Council affirmed the legality of a ban on the Islamic face veil (niqab) in public spaces.[1] These laws are informed by interpretations that the veil, and especially the niqab, implicitly represent women as inferior, that they are forced upon women by male family and community members, that they bar individuals from fully participating in public space, that they challenge  the equal status of women and in so doing encourage violence against women, and that they represent a “symbolic violence” against all women.[2] Anti-veiling narratives were ultimately dominated by the notion that banning the veil would preserve women’s dignity.[3] 

The controversy did not emerge from a vacuum. The public school system had long been a site of contestation over the role of religion in the public sphere, and France was among the first majority Catholic nations to end the Church’s institutional influence over public education. Additionally, the public school system is regarded as a place where French citizenship is inculcated and migrants integrated. Thus, some viewed the veil as an incursion of religious symbolism that threatened to differentiate some students from others in contrast to the mandate of a unified French citizenship. 

However, questions around veiling in schools also occurred in the fraught political and economic context of the 1980s and 1990s, during which immigrants—and especially immigrants of North African descent—were vilified, and veiled women personified as the vanguard of a foreign and dangerous Islamic “infiltration” of France.[4] 

Finally, the discourse of veiling is grounded in the history of France as a colonial entity; within the former French colonial states of North Africa, colonial leaders promoted “unveiling” as a means by which Muslim women could become “modern” women, and justified this with the claim that women themselves sought to be free of the “oppressive” and “backwards” culture of Muslim society. Simultaneously, efforts to unveil the colonial subject turned the veil into a symbol representing the identity of the colonized, such that the veiled woman herself embodied resistance to colonialism.[5] The veil today continues to carry a range of meanings that shift according to perspective, including assumptions around oppression/independence, tradition/modernity, Muslim/French, isolation/assimilation and, especially, them/us. 

Notably, major French feminist organizations and outspokenly feminist politicians participated in the highly politicized debate over the foulard from the start, claiming that it is a symbol for the oppression of Muslim women. Emphasis on the headscarf heightened assumptions that Islam represented the main cleavage in French society over other potential factors, such as socioeconomic status, and assumed that Muslim women needed to be rescued by the benevolent, secular state.[6] French feminists and others were and continue to be criticized by Muslim activists—many of whom also identify as feminists—who denounce their inability to hear Muslim women’s voices and concerns, or to recognize their problematic role as white women in a post-colonial context speaking on behalf of Muslim women.[7] 

Though the ban on the face veil is popular in France—a 2013 survey showed that 86% of French people supported it and 83% supported its expansion to include private businesses—it has been challenged.[8] In November 2013, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg began examining the ban after an unnamed French Muslim plaintiff asserted that it violated her religious, speech, and privacy rights accorded by the European Convention on Human Rights. She added in her submission that she wears it of her own free will and that she is willing to remove it for security reasons if requested. In June 2014, the Court determined that France is legitimately protecting its societal norms by banning the veil, and in doing so is protecting its diverse citizenry.[9]


[1] Olivier Roy, Secularism Confronts Islam (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013).

[2] “French veil law: Muslim woman’s challenge in Strasbourg,” BBC, November 27, 2013, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-25118160, accessed April 2, 2014.

[3] John Bowen, “How the French State Justifies Controlling Muslim Bodies: From Harm-Based to Values-Based Reasoning,” Social Research, Vol. 78, No. 2 (2011), pp. 325–348; Bowen, Why The French Don’t Like Headscarves: Islam, The State, and Public Space, p. 208.

[4] Freedman, “‘L’affaire des Foulards’: Problems of Defining a Feminist Antiracist Strategy in French Schools,” pp. 295–312.

[5] Reza Rahbari, “Unveiling Muslim Women: A Trajectory of Post-Colonial Culture,” Dialectical Anthropology, No. 25 (2000), pp. 321–332.

[6] Riva Kastoryano, “Territories of Identities in France,” Riots in France, June 11, 2006, http://riotsfrance.ssrc.org/Kastoryano/, accessed April 2, 2014.

[7] Jane Freedman, “’L’affaire des Foulards’: Problems of Defining a Feminist Antiracist Strategy in French Schools,” pp. 295–312.

[8] Soeren Kern, “France: Muslim Woman Sues Over Burqa Ban,” The Gatestone Institute, December 6, 2013, http://www.gatestoneinstitute.org/4079/france-burqa-ban-lawsuit, accessed April 2, 2014.

[9] Alan Cowell, “French Ban on Face Veils Upheld by European Rights Court,” New York Times, July 1, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/02/world/europe/european-rights-court-upholds-frances-ban-on-full-face-veils.html, accessed July 2, 2014.

Image Sources:

French Muslim woman Kenza Drider, BBC World Service (2010), Flickr Creative Commons

Veiled protesters in Cairo (1919), photographer unknown, Wikimedia Commons