Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Ban of the Hijab in France (by Caitlyn Brown)

Caitlyn Brown
Anthropology 597.02
The Ban of the Hijab in France
May 23, 2010
For this paper, I have researched the issues concerning the recent ban of the Hijab in France. The law banning the Hijab in 2004 has greatly affected the lives of many French Muslims. They are unable to wear their headdress to school as children which is forcing a decision between education and morals. The French republican model of government forces assimilation of all immigrants and citizens for an attempt at equality of all citizens. However, due to the forced assimilation and ban of the Hijab, Muslims are facing more discrimination. Discussed in this paper is the history of the Hijab, the effects of the ban, and the future of the French Muslims.

“For an African, France is a land of dreams” an African immigrant is quoted saying (Keaton 2005). Many African immigrants come to France from northern African countries that practice Islam. For the same reasons as many other immigrants, these Muslims are coming to France for better employment and education opportunities (Killian 2002). Until the 1970’s the immigration of northern Africans was strictly labor related where the immigrants would work in France during times of expansion and move back to their country during recessions (Van Zanten 1997). However, during the seventies, women began to immigrate into France for higher education opportunities as well as better women’s rights (Killian 2002). Today there are more than five million Muslims living in France, which makes Islam the second largest religion in France (Hamdan 2007; Warner & Wenner 2006). However, regardless of this high population, the Muslim immigrants are facing discrimination against their religious and cultural practices. On February 10, 2004 France passed a law which made it illegal for these Muslim women to wear the Hijab in public places, including the education system (Hamdan 2007). The ban of the Hijab has placed many limitations on the Muslims in France and made assimilation completely necessary for them.
History of the Hijab
The Hijab is a head scarf that is worn by Muslim women. The original wearing of the head scarf began as a symbol of social class; only the wealthiest women would wear the head scarf. However, it became used religiously as protection against the males’ gaze and to avoid being judged based on appearance; the women felt safe wearing the covering. Many Muslim conservatives do view the Hijab as a symbol of women’s seclusion and confinement, but it was not seen as oppressive in any way until colonialism. During British rule, the Muslim societies used the veil to show their rejection of the Eurocentric ideals, resistance against Western imperialism, and a way to bond with other Muslims (Hamdan 2007). Therefore, the Hijab is not necessarily meant as a religious symbol to every woman who wears it and can mean something different to every person. The idea that the headscarf is oppressive came from Western ideals (Hamdan 2007). There is no reason for France to attempt to recover the women’s “oppression” through banning the headscarf because many of these women enjoy wearing the scarves.
French Law
The law passed by France in 2004 bans all religious symbols within the public sphere of life, including large crosses worn by Christians. However, the group that is facing the most severe punishment, by far, is the Muslim women (Hamdan 2007). Due to the republican model used by France, there is a huge emphasis on assimilation of all immigrants and for citizens’ appearance to be similar. This model has a focus of integration of all citizens but generally turns into alienation instead (Van Zanten 1997). The French claim to produce equality between all citizens and immigrants through assimilation of everyone. There is a French law that prohibits identifying any citizen by their national origin, race, or religion (Giry 2006). This extreme notion of ‘sameness’ is creating harsher forms of racism against those that do not physically appear to be European or French.
French Education System
The education system is used as the main transmitter of assimilation in France (Van Zanten 1997; Keaton 2005). The French claim that their school system is meant to promote equality and national unity for the future generations of France (Limage 2000). In one study, 76% of the teachers agreed with the ban against the head dress (Keaton 2005). The French teachers view the Hijab as a way for students to cut themselves off from the French world of education and opportunities (Hamdan 2007). These Muslim girls in the French education system, however, do believe that education is their main means to obtaining a higher social status (Keaton 2005). Therefore, these girls are following the rules for fear that they will be kicked out of school and unable to obtain full equality. Even yet, some girls fear they will be sent back to their parents’ original country (Keaton 2005). Therefore, these Muslim girls are, out of fear, attempting to assimilate as much as possible. In an article by S. Giry in Foreign Affairs, it was found that due to the homogeneity of French culture, the French sociologists claim that the integration of these Muslim immigrants into French society has gone very well and has happened in a ‘healthy’ manner (Giry 2006). However, the girls feel the need to keep quiet about their feelings so that they will not be punished (Van Zanten 1997).
Muslim School Girls
Many of the Muslim girls who do wear their scarves to school are often expelled or suspended (Van Zanten 1997). More recently, however, the schools are considering keeping the girls in school rather than expelling or suspending them; if the girls are there at school there is more of a chance for the education system to convince them to assimilate than if they are at home with their Muslim families (Van Zanten 1997). Because the education system is the main transmitter of assimilation, it would seem only logical for them to keep the students in school in order to enculturate them to the fullest extent possible. The government’s main fear is that the children will be enculturated and educated by their Muslim parents and it will be more difficult to convince them to assimilate into French society later in life as adults.
However, many of these school-aged Muslim girls are facing a very difficult choice between education and their cultural beliefs. The Muslim “way of life” including the differences of culture, language, religion, etc. is seen as a threat to the dominant French society (Keaton 2005). Therefore, these girls attempt to hide their true identity to fit in with French society and be fully accepted by their peers. There has been an increased amount of racism against these girls such as rapes, beatings, etc. from French citizens since the law came into place (Keaton 2005). As a young girl, the most logical way to avoid being physically or emotionally abused is to fully assimilate to the French culture. Similar, but less drastic instances of the attempt to fit in can be seen within the American school system and the need for girls to ‘be cool’ which causes them to change their dress, hairstyle, morals, etc. It is common knowledge that a majority of youth want nothing more than to fit in with their peers. Therefore, are we really giving the Muslim girls much of an option? Even attempting to fully assimilate is difficult for these girls and they are being caught between two worlds and not being fully accepted by either (Keaton 2005). Although it seems these girls are assimilating by choice, there is little choice in the matter. If they do not assimilate, they will live a much more difficult life than if they do assimilate.
However, there are those that are not assimilating. When the law in France was first passed, there were many protests by the Muslim women demonstrating that this law was stripping away their rights (Gueye 2006). On February 15, 2004, nearly 2,000 Muslim women gathered in the streets of Paris to protest (Warner & Wenner 2006). These Muslims are mainly trying to gain control of their lives and their ability to produce and reproduce their identities (Gueye 2006). Therefore, we can see that the Hijab representing ‘seclusion’ and ‘confinement’ was proven untrue by these strong Muslim women protesters. Not all Muslims in France believe they should assimilate to become like every other French citizen. It is generally the older Muslim immigrants that are expressing this power and freedom; it is the younger Muslims that are facing the most racism through their education experience. Therefore, the ban of the Hijab is having a larger effect on school-aged children than any other age group. In order to come up with a solution, the most common explanation behind the ban should be evaluated.
Political Power Struggle
A majority of those asked believe that the ban of the Hijab directly relates to the position of power in France (Gueye 2006). There is a fear that the Muslims will seek too much political power if they are able to rise up as far as the French citizens. Through the ban of the Hijab, the French government is putting limitations on the production of identity because it is the easiest aspect for the government to control in post industrial societies (Gueye 2006). Although the government claims to be attempting to create social equality through the ban, some believe it is only keeping the Muslims as less equal within society. Many blame the ban on fear alone. Due to the rising numbers of Muslims in France, there is a fear that they may obtain political positions and affect the status of trade relations with other countries to favor their countries of origin (Warner & Wenner 2006). As mentioned before, the school system was facing the issue of whether to suspend or expel students for wearing the Hijab or to keep them in school to encourage further enculturation. This would be one example of the government keeping control of the Muslim population in every way possible.
Hope for the Future
Although this is a very important issue and popular debate, there have been signs of hope for many Muslims in France. Many younger Muslims within France are actually French citizens now because they were born in France. Many of these Muslims are identifying as ‘French of x-origin’ which could be an indication that the classification system that has been used in France is changing (Keaton 2005). There are many thriving Muslim businesses such as ethnic food or clothing shops (Van Zanten 1997). However, whenever there is an economic recession, these businesses are the first to be affected and closed down.
Even though the Muslim immigrants in France are making some progress to gaining equality, it is important to recognize the reality they face everyday. Many of these immigrants are facing more prejudice since the ban because the government is forcing the Muslims into a lower status through their blatant denial of them as free people. A huge risk the French government is facing is the loss of individuality and differences within their country. Because the Muslim population is so large in France, by eliminating those cultural and religious beliefs and practices, they are eliminating a huge portion of a very important culture within the world. As anthropologists, we are concerned with keeping differences alive and maintaining multiple cultures, so what the French government is doing goes against our beliefs. The entire system set up in France that removes differences between individuals, on a micro and macro level, needs to be reevaluated and the government needs to set their priorities straight to guarantee equality for all citizens.


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