French hijab wearers must navigate politics to keep their identity


Few subjects trigger as many reactions in French politics as Muslim women wearing the veil and headscarf, or the hijab, who once again find themselves at the center of the controversy as far-right leader Marine Le Pen has last week proposed a national ban on clothing on the streets and in public places.

The day before World Hijab Day, February 1, activists from the feminist group Nemesis, dressed in floating black burqas, organized a demonstration in front of the Trocadero, overlooking the Eiffel Tower. They were holding a large banner that read “France in 50 years”, visually affirming that it is the future of the country if the “creeping Islamists” are not brought under control.

“World hijab day is an ideological weapon aimed at trivializing the veil, it is a real insult to women who are forced to wear it. As identity feminists, we wanted to show the French the face of France in 50 years if the Islamists and their accomplices win, “the group said in a statement, adding that the Paris police had arrested the group’s president for this. peaceful action. “It’s not a fantasy, for our daughters, let’s fight before it’s too late,” they said.

France has some of the most restrictive laws in Europe against public display of religion and religious symbols. Girls in school are already banned from wearing the hijab, while full-face burqas were banned in public in 2010. Several municipalities have adopted a burkini ban prohibiting women from wearing full-body swimsuits. beaches, although this was later challenged in court and suspended but continues to be in force irregularly.

Nevertheless, clothing associated with Islam and Muslims is often attacked on the grounds that it is a “symbol of Islamic extremism and separatism”.

Still, a growing number of French fashion brands run by veiled women have popped up in recent years, selling modest fashion options ranging from hijabs and turbans to full coverings like jilbabs and burkinis. The 36th edition of “Oriental Fashion” week, which just ended, alongside Paris Fashion Week in January, featured kaftans, dressing gowns and wide-legged palazzo pants, illustrating well the growing clientele for such a fashion.

The popularity of these companies shows that beyond politics and discrimination, there is an ever increasing demand and a vast market to tap into in France, which is home to the largest Muslim minority in Europe.

“The bans imposed will not change the behavior of Muslims, quite the contrary. The more we ban such fashion, the more enthusiasm it arouses,” said Bassma Wehbe, founder of Nice designer Zaynab and online brand specializing in Islamic clothing. from comfortable designers. Its range of high-end bespoke clothing is designed to make veiled Muslim women “feel free and true to our religion,” she said.

“Many Muslim women find it difficult to put together practical and stylish sports and beach wardrobes by doing ‘the best’ with what they have on hand. So yes, there is a very large market to be conquered and the community has great purchasing power too, ”Wehbe said, noting that his brand’s hijabs recorded high annual sales, with demand for burkinis increasing during the year. summer time.

Myriam Garrigues, 32-year-old self-taught stylist and owner of Mimoza, a Toulouse-based brand that designs Islamic outfits for women, men and children, feels that interest is growing modestly thanks to the open-mindedness of the younger generation. . who has no desire to assert his identity and refuses to give up his choices as the older generations have done.

In her own experience as a veiled young woman, Myriam says she has never been the victim of professional discrimination even if her outfit has elicited negative reactions in some cases, almost preventing her from taking the final exams or entering university. “But, as long as the law allowed me to wear it, I was able to assert my rights. To do this, it is essential to know our rights and not be afraid to demand that they be respected” , she said.

Wearing the veil still comes at a high cost for many other professional women who are often forced to choose between their religious identity or their career.

A senior duty officer employed by a private airline, who prefers to be named Rachida in this story, remembers how her French boss was alarmed when she decided to start wearing the hijab seven years ago and refused to help him get a uniform with his head. coating, which was readily available in neighboring Britain. “He was like, ‘But why? You are so beautiful, so why the hijab?'”

Rachida then began to notice changes among the immigration staff at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport. The customs officer, who knew her familiar face, now regularly pointed the finger at her, while in the historic city center of Paris and on the Champs Elysees, she was arrested by the police who asked her to see her papers. “I didn’t understand why they were behaving this way, even though I’m at the airport for work every two weeks. And all of this only started to happen after I started to cover my head. “

While Rachida was fortunate enough to work in a company that supported her and allowed her to wear the hijab as part of her uniform, Yousra, another Muslim woman wearing the hijab who preferred to hide her real name in this article, said faced discrimination which led to her dismissal on two occasions. because of his scarf.

Once, while working in a women’s boutique in Paris, her manager refused to extend her contract, while at a subsequent job at a real estate agency, a client specifically complained about her headscarf. In both places, she was explicitly told that she could not work with her hijab.

A 2018 study by sociologist Hanane Karimi reinforces the general feeling that Muslim women in France are dissuaded from entering the labor market due to Islamophobia and discrimination, pushing them instead towards social entrepreneurship and employment. self-employment.

Karimi’s study found that the desire to “start her own business was both an expression of a refusal to negotiate the right to wear the hijab, which is integral to her identity as a Muslim woman, and a act of overcoming negative stereotypes. to which they are subject.

Yousra’s story is such that it confirms Karimi’s conclusions. A business school graduate, she made the headscarf an asset by creating her own real estate agency. “There are very few veiled women who work in real estate and Muslim or other religious clients contact me because they know that I have principles,” she confirms with a smile.

Rachida and Yousra admit that while things have turned in their favor so far, for many other French women wearing the hijab, the challenges of aspiring to a career and the inner struggle to stay true to their faith are made more difficult in the past. the current political context. environment. Both believe that if the situation in France worsens amid the rise of right-wing politics, they may have to immigrate to other countries.

Bassma also believes that the government does not have the right to prohibit women from wearing the hijab in public places because “it would have an impact on our freedom and our human rights”.

“When the government cannot solve the real problems like health care and rising unemployment, they try to create problems and tell people that they have a solution to solve them,” Rachida summed up his feelings about it. vis-à-vis the legislation proposed by the Macron government against the so-called “Islamist separatist” and the counter-bill proposed by Le Pen, targeting the entire Muslim population. “I won’t take my hijab off for Le Pen,” she said confidently.

Myriam has also noticed a change following debates over the government’s proposal that raises questions about young children wearing the hijab. She revealed that weeks after the issue was raised in the National Assembly in January, her brand was “entitled to scrutiny by authorities including the police, tax system, social security and labor inspector.” . “I guess it wasn’t an accident,” she reluctantly admits.

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