French Muslim women who are not afraid to wear the headscarf
IIt was, for many observers, a simple campaign poster. Two women and two men, dressed casually, were smiling in front of what looked like a park. Above their heads, in bold but cheerful letters, read the words “Different, but united for you!” ” in French.
But leftist candidate Sara Zemmahi wore a headscarf – a decision that has become decidedly unusual in French politics.
Zemmahi, a 26-year-old Muslim woman and laboratory technician, ran for local elections in Montpellier on Sunday with the support of the party of French President Emmanuel Macron, RÃ©publique en Marche. The party withdrew its support for the poster in May; its secretary general, Stanislas Guerini, said his values ââwere “not compatible” with “the wearing of ostentatious religious symbols” on a campaign document.
Sara Zemmahi, 26, is a candidate for the local Montpellier office.
âIt’s part of my personality. It’s part of me, but that doesn’t prevent me from being a French citizen, from working in my neighborhood, from participating. I am free, I work, I have a diploma. It’s part of me, but it doesn’t stop me from doing anything.
âFor me, with or without a veil, I continue to work in my neighborhood, and that’s it.
The controversy was the last to bring the headscarf issue back into the conversation in France, whose secularism has for years placed restrictions on where and when Muslim women can wear headgear and face coverings. In April, the French Senate voted to ban girls under the age of 18 from wearing headscarves in public – a move that is unlikely to become law because it lacks political support in the lower house of the Legislative Assembly and is widely regarded as unconstitutional. Another amendment would prevent mothers who wear the hijab from accompanying their children on school trips.
In 2010, the government passed a law banning full face coverings, including the burqa and niqab, in public, citing concerns about security and inequalities. In 2004, France passed a law banning overt religious symbols – such as headgear – in public schools.
“This is nothing new,” said Rim-Sarah Alouane, a French lawyer and expert on religious freedom. âIt is interesting that more and more Muslims are constantly accused of not assimilating, of not participating in society. This is not true. The more they participate in society and democratic life, the more of a problem it becomes.
Zemmahi and the three candidates on his ticket present themselves as independents. “We are not giving up,” she told Reuters. âThis is my neighborhood, I was born here. The scarf was not a problem for the four of us.
It is a clear voice but rare in the debate. Analysts have noted that when the issue emerges in French politics, the voices of Muslim women are generally conspicuously absent from the conversation.
While Zemmahi’s story has captured national attention, Muslim women across France – teachers, writers, entrepreneurs, mothers – face challenges around their headscarves every day.
Nine of them said The Washington Post their stories. Although many in France may see it as a symbol of submission, for these women, the hijab is a symbol of strength and commitment to their culture and religion.
(The translations have been edited for clarity and brevity.)
Nawel Boumedhdi, 33, lives in Nice.
âPeople think that all veiled women are the same, whether the one in Saudi Arabia is the same as the one in the United States or the one in France. But we are all different, with different values, different histories and different heritages. We are diverse in our complexities and our unity.
âI am Nawel Boumedhdi. There is only one. I have my hobbies, my passions, my jobs. I want to be defined by my actions, my ambitions, my projects, my values. And not by what I wear.
Saliha Koussa, 57, is a writer who lives in Cannes.
âOnce again we see powerful men deciding what women should wear. “
“[They say:] âWe give them the veil, they have to wear it. We don’t give them the veil, they can’t wear it. Women should stay at home. They can’t supervise school trips, they can’t swim, they can’t play sports. We must be invisible.
Amira Zeiter, 31, is a caregiver living in Saint Jeannet.
âThe more we talk about Islam, the veil or separatism, the more we are singled out in the street … This creates state Islamophobia, as well as Islamophobia in our daily lives.
âAlthough I am allowed to wear the veil in a private area, I chose to take it off at work because I wanted to avoid silly criticism from my colleagues. But they found out that I wore the veil outside of work … and I had to take days off because I was sick of hearing them say, ‘Oh, Amira is going to drop a bomb!’ All because I was wearing the veil.
Nathalie Bendjilali, 44, is a housewife of seven children and lives in Marseille.
âThis latest legislation goes against the values ââof the republic. We are one community: the French community. It is not because we are visibly Muslim that we cannot be an integral part of the French Republic.
âWe are in France, we all have a choice. Most women in France choose to wear it. If tomorrow I want to take it off and start wearing short skirts, that’s my personal choice, and no one can help me.
Lili, 40, is a writer and mother of three children in Nice. She agreed to speak on the condition that The Washington Post withhold their last name to protect their privacy.
âDuring school trips, a veiled mother will not ask if the children believe in God. They are there to make sure that nothing happens to the children.
âChildren have an innocent view of the world. When they see a mom, they say, âThis is her mom. They don’t see the veil. What we do is impose a stereotype on children that they did not see before; the stereotype of the stupid veiled woman who speaks nothing, who does not master the language of MoliÃ¨re, who has no opinion.
Hager Barkous, 27, is a student from Nice. She said she was fired from her job in 2018 because her employer felt she did not follow the company dress code.
âBeing able to wear the veil is a right guaranteed by the constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But in France, that’s not how we live it. Each time, we have to justify why we wear the veil. When you go to a job interview, we don’t ask you about your skills, we ask you about the veil.
âIn 2021, we have to choose between staying at home or removing the veil for a career. We are told that a veiled woman is submissive, but it is today’s society and laws that make her submissive.
Najla Marzouki, 34, is an entrepreneur with a master’s degree in risk management living in Nice.
âPeople are looking at us strangely. When the media talk about “separatism”, it creates a false equivalence. I can see it in people’s eyes.
âWe wear the veil, but we have a brain under it. It is a brain that allows me to communicate, to speak, to love. We are human beings with or without a veil.
Ines Lachhab, 46, has seven children and lives in Nice. She applied for citizenship twice and was refused twice – once because of her headscarf, she said.
âFrench society is so focused on the veil, but the veil doesn’t hurt anyone. Most people think that a veiled woman is a submissive woman, that she is oppressed.
âBut my husband doesn’t even practice Islam. I’m free. It’s my choice. It’s my life.”
Nora Belmahi, 43, is a life coach and lives in Nice.
âThere is a minority of extremists in Islam, but people put everyone in the same basket. During this time, most Muslims live in peace.
âWhat I want to say to veiled women is to keep fighting. Those with degrees: Start your own business. Be confident. We have to show our competence, our potential. We have to be motivated. We must be proud of our religion, of our veil.
Â© The Washington Post