French Muslim women on life after niqab ban

Islamic scarves and veils continue to be the subject of intense debate in Europe. Countries’ approaches to the burqa and niqab, which cover the face, range from tolerance in the UK to outright ban in France. The reactions of Muslim women to the restrictions have varied, including protests by some, reluctant acceptance by others and also support for the bans.

But what happens when a woman who has worn the niqab, sometimes for years, decides to give it up?

Hanane and Alexia – whose names are pseudonyms to protect their identity – were both born in France.

Hanane today. Agnes De Féo

Hanane grew up in a non-practicing Muslim family, while Alexia converted to Islam at age 22.

For five years, they both wore a niqab. Hanane started in 2009, just before France banned the full face veil, while Alexia adopted it later. Once ardent defenders of the right to wear the niqab, the two women have now completely abandoned it.

But the transition was gradual and accompanied by a growing distance from extreme Salafist ideology.

“Start living again”

On January 10, during the New Year’s sales in France, Alexia and I met near the Gare du Nord in Paris.

She wanted to buy clothes and “start living again”. In the first store, she bought four slim pants and a jacket with trims. She then tried on Nepalese clothes designed for Western tastes, including a colorful jacket and pants with huge bell bottoms.

Leaving the dressing room, Alexia measures herself in front of the mirror: “It’s really me, I finally feel myself again after years of confinement.

Event of the Salafist group Forsane Alizza in August 2011. At the center is its leader, Mohamed Achamlane, who was imprisoned in 2015 for criminal conspiracy in connection with a terrorist enterprise. Agnès De Féo, Author provided

With her hair brushing her face, she looked like a modern woman, fully alive. I was in awe of her makeover: it’s hard to imagine that she wore a niqab for five years and was one of the most radical women I have ever met.

I met Alexia in August 2011 as part of my research on the full veil during a demonstration by the Salafist group Forsane Alizza (literally Knights of Pride) in a city near Paris. She wore a niqab and introduced herself as the wife of one of the leaders of the group.

Alexia remembers that time: “We considered all Muslim supporters of the French Republic to be unbelievers. We were doing the takfir (excommunication) against those who did not practice like us. We were opposed to the label (idolatry in the broad sense), that is, the state and institutions. We defined ourselves as ghulat, which means “extremists” in Arabic.

Estimates of the number of women who wear the niqab vary widely, from a few hundred to several thousand. Even in terms of the Muslim population of France, the percentage is tiny.

“The niqab protected me”

I’ve known Hanane longer than Alexia. We met during a demonstration of women in niqab in January 2010 at Place de la République in Paris, then in front of the National Assembly. She and others were protesting a proposed measure that would ban facial concealment in public.

Hanane, whom I met on the sidelines of a demonstration in front of the National Assembly, 2010. Agnès De Féo, Author provided

At the beginning of 2017, Hanane contacted me to ask me to help her write a book about her life. In the book she would like to write, Hanane does not want to denounce the niqab, but to tell the story of the rapes that she says have been inflicted on several occasions by her stepfather. For her, they help explain her involvement in Salafism:

“Religion has brought a lot that has helped me escape the trauma of rape. I was 19-20 when I started wearing the niqab, I took it off when I was 25.

“The further I went, the more I wanted to cover myself up. The niqab protected me, I liked to hide from men. I could see them, but they couldn’t see me.

Peer pressure

Unlike Alexia, who decided to wear the veil on her own, Hanane remembers the influence of those around her at the time:

“We were a bunch of girlfriends and almost all wore the niqab at the same time. In our group, the first was Ayat Boumediene, who adopted it more than two years before the law.

“At first everything was normal with her, then she started to organize rallies to encourage us to take up arms. It was her husband, Ahmadi Coulibaly, who turned her head – he was discreet until he went to jail.

“Ayat wanted to introduce me to a man she said I should marry, she really insisted. He was then jailed for murder. Thank God I did not give in, I would be in Syria today.

On January 9, 2015, Ahmadi Coulibaly attacked the Hyper Cacher market near Paris. Boumediene left Paris a week earlier and was spotted at Istanbul airport. She remains free. Coulibaly killed five people in his attack and died when police assaulted the grocery store he was holding hostages in.

Movie trailer Sailing prohibited, directed by Agnès De Féo and produced by Marc Rozenblum, 2017.

Public pressure

When France banned the full-face veil in 2010, some of the women who wore the niqab switched to the jilbab, which covers the entire body except the face, while others bowed to public pressure and stopped wearing it. Alexia and Hanane are both different: they say they have completely turned the page.

Alexia has even become a staunch opponent of the Islamic veil and Salafism. She continues to define herself as Muslim but reads the texts with a critical eye.

Hanane admits that she has become less diligent in her rituals: “I often skip prayers or delay them. Some days I don’t even have time to pray. When I wore the niqab, I was a little more consistent, although I was often late.

Both say they have put aside the more radical texts they once favored and no longer frequent fundamentalist sites. But this process did not happen all at once, it took several months.

“I felt like I was coming out of prison”

Alexia says she decided to remove the niqab on the advice of the man who shared her life at the time. A convert to Islam and Salafism, he was a supporter of conservative dress for women, but nevertheless suggested that she stop wearing the niqab:

“When he saw my physical condition, he asked me to take off the niqab – he feared for my health. I had worn it to please Allah, but due to the lack of sunlight I was no longer synthesizing vitamin D – my health was declining. I followed his advice, but it was long and difficult.

“Since I took off my veil, many of my Muslim sisters don’t want to talk to me anymore.

Alexia remembers: “When I took off the niqab, I felt like I was coming out of prison. But that doesn’t mean I was released – I still felt bad. It takes years to get by and I haven’t finished cleaning my head yet.

Hanane dropped her veil after the attacks on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in 2015 because she feared for her safety, facing more and more insults in the street. She said the hardest part was excluding her from her social circle:

“Since I took off my veil, many of my Muslim sisters don’t want to talk to me anymore. I find them stuck and unfair because anyone can choose to remove their veil. A few speak to me, but it’s not like it used to be.

Move quickly

For a long time, Alexia put on her veil when she returned to her old district in the north-east of Paris where social and religious conservatism is strong in some communities. Then she finally completely changed her life:

“My life started to change when I signed up for a gym, which allowed me to break out of the Salafi social networks that were my only source of socialization before. Then I got a job and finally said goodbye to my past.

And it is in this position that she meets the man she will marry. He is not a Muslim and the civil marriage took place at the town hall, an unthinkable choice for this woman who once hated French institutions.

Alexia visits a booth at the annual exhibition of French Muslims at Le Bourget, north of Paris, 2017. Agnès De Féo, Author provided

A bitter taste

Looking back, neither Alexia nor Hanane spoke of their “exit” from the niqab as a release.

Instead, the experience left them with a bitter taste. They say they were convinced at some point in their life of the importance of wearing a full veil: Alexia believed in achieving Muslim perfection and giving meaning to her life – she imagined meeting the pious and virtuous man who would save her with her life. of a single mother.

For Hanane, the goal was to heal the wounds of an adolescent torn by family trauma and foster care.

For them, the full veil has become something of a long past, representative of a transitional stage in their life.

Alexia now believes that this period cost her years of her life and expresses her anger at the propaganda coming from Saudi Arabia.

She blames the whole system that indoctrinated her, even though she admits that it was, in a sense, voluntary. According to her, the Islamic State takes advantage of the naivety of those who believe they are attached to Salafism for legitimate reasons.

Forcing new identities

Even though they have both given up on the niqab, neither Hanane nor Alexia supports the 2010 ban.

Hanane told me recently: “The law is counterproductive. The only way out is by yourself. The ban will never convince any woman to take it off.

Alexia has the same reaction, saying that the law that led some women to cut themselves off from society and that some might pass it as a rebellious move.

The testimonies of those who have chosen to “leave the niqab behind” are rare.

The number of women who have adopted it is extremely low, and those who then choose to give it up often have to sever their old relationships and adopt what is in many ways a new identity – they change their email addresses, phone number and move. on completely. For them, the full veil has become something of a long past, representative of a transitional stage in their life.

Agnès De Féo, sociologist, School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences (EHESS)

This article originally appeared on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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