The Veil in France: Dialogue of the Deaf

22 December 2003

The Veil in France: Dialogue of the Deaf

By Gwynne Dyer

The backlash in the Arab world has been so strong that the satellite news channel Al-Jazeera, which never allows its presenters to wear anything that might indicate a particular national or religious affiliation, had to let one of its stars, Khadidja Benganna, appear on-screen wearing a brightly-coloured silk scarf. She was only wearing it as a symbol of protest (she fled her native Algeria in 1994 because of death threats from Islamic fundamentalists), but it is a measure of how profoundly France’s decision to ban the ‘Islamic’ head-scarf from schools has shocked its Arab neighbours.

French Muslims themselves are in shock, and thousands marched last weekend in Paris, Strasbourg and Avignon to protest against the law banning the display of religious symbols in state institutions that President Jacques Chirac formally proposed on 17 December. The law is carefully even-handed, banning students and civil servants from wearing Christian crosses, Jewish skullcaps and political party symbols as well, but it arose out of a year-long national controversy about head-scarves in schools and it is almost universally seen as a sign of French ‘Islamophobia’.

Wrong. Or at least, largely wrong. There are many people in France who fear or even hate Muslims, and the fragmented nature of the French political system creates space for single-issue anti-immigrant parties that are much more visible than their counterparts in countries like Britain and the United States that have a strong two-party system. But the fact is that the racist Islamophobes never get more than twenty percent of the popular vote in France, even though the country’s Muslim minority has grown from almost nothing to one-tenth of the total population in a single generation.

For a truer picture of relations between Muslim immigrants and ‘the French’, go to the high-rise public housing that surrounds most French cities. These are the dumping grounds for the old white working class and the first generation of new immigrants alike, and they are often dreadful environments. Inevitably, teenage gangs are a chronic problem — and while there is often little contact or sympathy between the adults of the different ethnic groups, the gangs invariably mix native-born French and immigrants from the West Indies, the Arab world, former French African colonies and the Pacific islands in a quite violent but completely colour-blind society.

There’s still a fair amount of social mobility in these ugly high-rise suburbs — not all these kids are in a permanent dead-end — but it’s hardly surprising that some Muslim parents, trying to protect their children from the violent and immoral society they see around them, start to emphasise their Islamic identity more than they might in a Muslim-majority country. Part of this, for their daughters, is a demand that they wear headgear the parents think of as ‘Islamic’.

There is actually nothing particularly Islamic about covering women’s heads. It was a way of distinguishing upper-class women from peasants, slaves and prostitutes in the Middle East at least from Babylonian times, and was taken over from the Byzantines by the Arab conquerors of Syria. A sensible response would be to say that if fitting their daughters out with the same headwear as Roman matrons and Roman Catholic nuns makes Muslim parents happy, fine. If some of the daughters are less happy about it, they can just take it off as soon as they are out of their parents’ sight.

So far, so good. Exactly the same phenomenon occurs in big working-class housing estates in British and Dutch cities, for example, and nobody minds at all. Everybody assumes that it is a transitional phenomenon that will probably fade away with the next generation. In France, however, it runs up against one of the core principles of the French republic: ‘laicism’.

The word barely exists in English, not even in a secular republic like the United States where there is a formal constitutional separation between religion and the state. In practice, most other Western countries have adopted the same secular principles over the past half-century without making a legal song-and-dance over it. But in France’s history, the same transformation was a long and bitter war with many casualties.

In the century after the great revolution of 1789, which overthrew not just the monarchy but established religion, there were two ‘restorations’ and two further successful revolutions in France. When the king or the emperor came back, he brought the Catholic church back with him, and together they hunted down the revolutionaries. When he was overthrown, the church was driven out again too. A hundred years of this, hundreds of thousands of dead, and French republicanism, triumphant at last, emerged with an anti-clerical, ‘lay’ tradition that has lasted until this day.

The few other countries with similar histories — notably Mexico in Latin America and Turkey in the Muslim world — have similarly strong anti-clerical reflexes, which can lead sane and tolerant people there into foolish and intolerant positions. This is what is happening in France right now. The real Islamophobes are all in favour of it, of course, but they could never have sparked a national debate about what teenage girls should wear to school, let alone a law banning them from wearing Islamic head-scarves, if there were not this underlying memory of a war to the death between the republic and another religion.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 8. (“There is actually…sight”; and “The word…casualties”)