Wearing hijab in France – what is the problem?

Katarzyna Sosnowska

The main reason which leads me to the decision to write about France was the fact of the existing controversial legal act which forbids Muslim women to wear their traditional clothes. I would like to highlight that there are thousands of different opinions on the subject of hijab and by using them I will try to create and present my own point of view on that problem. In first part I would like write about the issues connected with wearing traditional Muslim clothes and then try to make some conclusions and predictions about what can derive from it.

Firstly, to make the definition clear, it is the best option to write about the hijab not only as a traditional headscarf but mainly as a style of dress characteristic for Muslim women (J.E.C. 2000:279). It will give wider field for analysis. Burqa covering whole silhouette, as well as headgears called niquab or hijab it is a way to express modesty of a woman which do not want to be judged on appearance. Wearing hijab is a visible sign of identity and belonging to Muslims community. But even in their internal environment opinions about the necessity of wearing hijab are divided. Some woman claimed that it is equally important as fulfilling orders included in five pillars of Islam. Sultana Yusufali in her article “Why do I wear hijab?” writes “When I cover myself, I make it virtually impossible for people to judge me according to the way I look.  I cannot be categorized because of my attractiveness (…) When I wear the hijab I feel safe (…)  I can rest assured that no one is looking at me and making assumptions about my character from the length of my skirt..” (www.islamreligion.com). She denied the opinion even of Muslim feminists or so-called liberal Muslims that hijab is a symbol of subordinating the woman to the man, the gender inequality or even social backwardness (M.W. 2005:121). If there is not a uniform opinion amongst Muslims what will happen if authorities from outside of their cultural range start resolving the matter?

In April 2011 in France an act forbidding to wear burqa and niquab in all public places, including buses, shops, parks and streets came into force. It was preceded by the act from 2004 – a ban on wearing scarves and other religious symbols at schools and at universities (at least does not include Catholic schools which are private ones). Secular France does not want symbols closely associated with the religion, in spite of opening to the multiculturalism. They are emphasizing that the forbidding right to wear curtains of this type does not refer only to Muslim women, but is regarding covering the face in public places, including wearing balaclavas and masks. Woman breaking the recalled ban can receive a fine up to 150 euro. Whereas the year of the prison or the 30 thousand euro fine are threatening the person which by force is impelling women to put burqa or other kind of curtain on (Penalties can be twice higher, if the person which is being forced to wear these veils is juvenile). What is quite interesting for me in certain accidents the court can order – instead of or apart from a fine – compulsory participation to the own cost in the refresher course about „republican values”. President Nicolas Sarkozy said, that burqa, clothes covering women from head to toe, will be an affront to their dignity.  He announced  that “we cannot let the fact that in our country women are prisoners behind the net of the burqa, cut off from the social life, deprived of the identity” (www.telegraph.co.uk).

An official justification for such a ban refers to public security. Police must have a possibility of the fast identification of persons during the demonstration and the riot. The UMP party ruling in France claims that wearing the burqa is exposing the public safety to the harm, under that kind of clothes it is easier to hide explosive materials  but first of all to remain anonymous assassins. A lack of unified justification is a crucial problem for the ban or the permission for wearing hijabs. Anti hijab policy is being explained with the fact that they want to provide human rights for women, thinking that they are forced for wear that dresses not taking into account that this is their own, unconstrained choice.

Now I would like to take a step to the next point of my deliberation and try to consider what could derive from that kind of policy toward Muslim community. The lack of approvals for customs and traditions can lead to a tensions among cultures and as a result of it to create the attitude of hostility. What is more that could result in an acts of aggression or the growing intolerance both from one as well as the others side. We have to face the truth that regardless the religion there are persons full of dissatisfaction and aggression. As long as any actions which can be understood as harming are taking there is a possibility that it will result in the escalation of aggression.

There is also a problem of the security of Muslims. We can spot that immediately after the September  11 terrorist attacks a negative atmosphere has been created against Muslims and islamophobia has been reinforced. Report of European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenphobia indicates that the visual identifiers were one of the most common cause of becoming a victim of the retaliation attack (Summary Report on Islamophobia in th EU after 11 September 2001). In France in 2003 special organization came into existence because of enhanced anti-Muslim actions. Collectif contre l’Islamophobie en France (CCIF) published the list of cases  of islamophobic actions  towards private persons which shows that it affected mainly women and girls wearing hijab (M.W. 2005:126). On the one hand we can say that this ban works in favor of the victims of such attacks but on the other we have to remember that it can provoke action from the side of the followers so-called radical Islam. Their acts can lead to aggressive behavior directed not only to non Muslim people, but also to women which will make up their mind for taking the hijab off.

One violation of rights comes after another. It seems like those who claimed that a ban of wearing hijab is in favor of Muslims woman, to make them free from pressures from husband totally forgot about the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

Some people claimed that the most important issue is the discouraging from the assimilation. But here we have to ask very important question – whether combining European system of values with the one which is functional in Muslim world is possible? The example of France shown that in field of religion it is practically impossible. Also, it discovered the brutal truth – situation with hijab depicts that it is hard to expect Muslims integration with the West society if it is being made impossible in the everyday life. As it was written in European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia Report (EUMC) “Muslims feel that acceptance by society is increasingly premised on ‚assimilation’ and the assumption that they should lose their Muslim identity” (news.bbc.co.uk). It is very interesting to show the numbers. According to the report Muslim Population by Country there are about 4,704,000 Muslims in France and as the Ministry of Home Affairs counted about 2,000 women wear hijab (features.pewforum.org). Is it that big number to make it such a significant problem or is just simple action by which they try to beat an entire community?

 Between Muslim theorist there are also two fronts. For example Tarim Ramadan present the view that Muslims should became more self-critical and finish with the “mentality of the victim”. He is convincing that there is nothing contradictory in being a Muslim and European citizen. Another view presenting by Bassam Tibi. He is propagating the coming into existence of the liberal, apolitical version of the Islam (A.D., K.C. 2010:169).

It is essential in my opinion for democratic country to appoint some kind of borders for accepting habits of emigrants. If they would not do that it is very probable that they will never reach the high level of assimilation. But it cannot be only one-way action. To the same degree it should be important for Europeans and for Muslims. In my opinion, conducting such action as hijab bans is definitely a step backwards in field of assimilation. The confrontational attitude would not allow the development, it will rather become a cause for the mutual combating.

Case of the anti-hijab actions in France touch very important component concerning the national system. It makes me think about the problem of democration which should be multicultural, not only in the assumption but also in practice. Meanwhile, France showed us that it is becoming secular and is trying to relegate issues of the faith to the private zone, for what the Islamic society so strongly tied to its religion cannot afford. We could noticed that case of hijab was not the first one and touched not only Muslims.

I notice the tendency for the larger federation between religions against the action of state. Muslim girls which were expelled from school for wearing the headscarf were admitted to a Catholic school (M.W. 2005:122). After the ban from 2004 on wearing visible religious symbols at schools and at universities we could observe waves of protests and demonstrations in which Christians, Muslims and Jews participated one next to another. Europe after thousand years of multiculturalism is reaching for uniting different religions, but the alarming fact is that  this unification is against the national system and against the state.

What seemed to be the tricky action to gain the supporters in the election campaign from the side of Sarkozy (as we already know from two weeks unsuccessful action) spread and affected another countries. Today not only France and Belgium are facing the problem of Muslim dresses. is so also happening of Netherlands, and Germans are considering such possibility. Netherlands and Germany are also considering the possibility of introducing bans on wearing hijabs.

Making my deliberation a little bit wider, we can presume that such action from the side of European countries can influence even the result of the accession negotiation between the European Union and Turkey. We already had an occasion to noticed social dissatisfaction in Turkey where constantly appearing and abolished ban on wearing headscarf is a constant object of social and political disputes. Again, from the fact that the society is the most powerful weapon such social unrests could lead to another problem that I mentioned before – social security.

Situation could reflect not only in such obvious areas as security or international relations but can also affected French economy. Some of Muslims living in France declared that they will leave the country because of the fact of the ban. We have to noticed that they made about 8% of overall population of France. Largely they have a French citizenship, are working legally, are paying taxes. We also have to remember that they have their contribution to the impressing birth rate showing in France (epp.eurostat.ec.europa.eu).

Tourists from the Middle East participated in strengthening the French tourist industry during the crisis in 2008. The number of the guests from that region rose by the 20% in summer months of 2008, in comparing to the previous year. However in 2009 about 215 thousand tourists from the Middle East visited Paris (it makes the 3% of all tourists in 2009). The most expensive hotels are in great measure dependent on entrepreneurs from the area of the Persian Gulf (mainly Saudis) which last year made about 11% of total guests (english.alarabiya.net).

It is already a year after the controversial act in France came into force. Long-term effects are not perceptible and it is hard for us to assess the influence of the ban on any aspect of life. I think that it could affect every field which I mentioned before. I would not be surprised if the situation changed diametrically. New president of France is not hiding his sympathy for other cultures. After he won the election press and of public opinion suggested that Muslims had provided victory for him. His advantage over Sarkozy took out 1,1 million votes and about 93% of Muslims expressed the will to vote for him what in results gives about 1,7 million votes (my.telegraph.co.uk). While ex-president had blocked the way of Turkey to join the European Union Hollande can become a free-pass. As the British journalist wrote: “his government reflects the Leftist-Islamic alliance that brought him to power. It is a government, that for all its assurances, is likely to turn a blind eye to the burqa, a knowing wink to the repression of women, and  a blind eye to the preaching of Jihad on French soil” (frontpagemag.com). Maybe now the problem of Muslims hijab will be again resolved, this time in favor of Islamic community? In my opinion we should observe the situation and wait for the change of the present government and so one which will definitely bring new decisions, probably also in the matters connected with Muslims.


  1. Marta Widy, Życie codzienne w muzułmańskim Paryżu, Warszawa 2005, p.112-129. Print.
  2. Juan Eduardo Campo, Encyclopedia of Islam, New York 2009, p.297-298. Print.
  3.  Anna Diawoł, Katarzyna Czajkowska, „Europa wobec wyzwań imigracji muzułmanów” In: Religia a współczesne stosunki międzynarodowe, Kraków 2010, p.169-182. Print.
  4. Summary Report on Islamophobia in th EU after 11 September 2001, European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenphobia, Vienna 2008. Print.
  5. http://www.islamreligion.com/articles/525/ Online: 05 June 2012.
  6. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/france/5603859/Nicolas-Sarkozy-says-the-burqa-is-not-welcome-in-France.html Online: 05 June 2012
  7.  http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/6189675.stm Online: 05 June 2012
  8. http://features.pewforum.org/muslim-population/ Online: 07 June 2012
  9. http://frontpagemag.com/2012/05/21/france’s-new-burqa-friendly-government/2/ Online: 08 June 2012
  10.  http://english.alarabiya.net/articles/2011/05/27/150780.html Online: 08 June 2012
  11. http://epp.eurostat.ec.europa.eu/statistics_explained/index.php/Population_change_at_regional_level/pl#Dane_.C5.BAr.C3.B3d Online: 08 June 2012.