In early February 2021, France adopted an “anti-separatism” bill that sparked controversy and protests. According to Al Jazeera, this bill seeks to limit websites and social media that promote hate speech, put in place financial restrictions on foreign donors regarding religious organizations and ban the use of religious symbols in certain situations, such as the controversial ban on public use of the hijab for girls under the age of 18. This bill was passed to fight against Islamist separatism and ideology. However, the bill encourages racism, polarization and a restriction on freedom of expression. Amnesty International condemns the bill because researcher Marco Perolini reports that it is “a serious violation of rights and freedoms in France”.
However, it is not surprising that the country is proposing such laws, as France has a controversial history of discriminatory views against Islam. According to the Guardian, in 2004 France debated passing a bill banning religious symbols in schools, and in 2011 they banned women from wearing the niqab (a face veil) in places. public. These laws aim to promote secularism and the fight against Islamic terrorist ideologies.
These controversies have been the subject of various responses from the international community. According to the Guardian, the European Court of Human Rights supported the bans in 2014, saying they were a “legitimate aim” of the French government. French President Emmanuel Macron openly declared in his speech that they “must tackle” Islamist separatism and promote neutral, secular and republican values. He also said the bans did not target the general Muslim population. However, many disagree with these claims. Protests were reported by several news sites, such as Reuters. Additionally, online protests such as the #HandsOffMyHijab movement have gained traction, where young women are protesting against the ban on public use of the hijab for those under the age of 18. The differences between these institutional and societal responses are significant. There is clear discontent among the public as feelings of discrimination and racism spread, while the French government remains deaf to the cries of the people.
Under the guise of “republican values” and the promotion of “secularism”, government institutions allow the adoption of such bills and tolerate discriminatory practices. Passive responses like those from the European Court of Human Rights give the French government an excuse to justify its misguided intentions. The repercussions of such responses extend to the public. These bills encourage discriminatory behavior towards Muslim women who view the hijab as an important part of their identity. Therefore, it is not only the ban on an object, as some may think, it is a symbolic part of an individual’s identity and membership in a community that is denied.
On the other hand, the public response continues to be overlooked as an “emotional” response to an otherwise “legitimate” bill. This shows an obvious imbalance between higher institutions and public society, as institutions operate mainly on a top-down order. Time Magazine interviewed McGill University Associate Professor of Philosophy Alia Al-Saji, who said that these bans are influenced by a colonial mindset where France aims to impose secular control and beliefs on the settlements of ‘North Africa and the Middle East, mainly Muslim countries.
There are several solutions to this problem of discrimination through the law. To begin with, government institutions should stop viewing other cultures, especially migrant cultures, and their lifestyles as inferior or a threat to their national identity. Everyone should have the freedom to express their own identity in a way that matches their beliefs and it is a restriction on an individual’s rights to deny it. Trying to put a limit on these expressions creates a culture of discrimination against these cultures and not only that, but it also creates a culture of fear for the rest of the population. With prohibitions such as the ban on the hijab, the implication may be that the rest of the French population is made to believe that such an imposition is acceptable and fear those who choose to wear the headscarf due to the stigma of be associated with Islamic extremism. Discrimination and fear would create an unstable society and could lead to alienation.
Second, with decisions about personal or cultural matters, governments should do their best to avoid a top-down decision-making process where higher institutions impose rules and laws without the affirmation or inclusion of those directly concerned. These ideas require the participation of those affected by the implications of such laws, so bottom-up decision making or public consensus should be considered. This ensures that those concerned, in this case Muslim women living in France, feel that their voice is heard. It ensures that they are not alienated from society. It also decreases the risk of discrimination when people are listened to, and they can convey the importance of these cultural elements to their identity.
The French government has a long way to go in convincing members of the government to stop discriminatory acts. However, the reconsideration of bills such as the hijab ban is one more step towards a free and non-discriminatory society.