Laïcité and its rules have never been about protecting Muslim women and girls, they’re always about French control and justifying police surveillance of Muslim communities.
When I lived and worked as an English teacher in France, one of the first rules we learned was not to talk about religion. Laïcité—or secularism—is based on a 1905 law separating church and state in France. The absence of religion from public life was something all of the (white) French people I met were proud of, something that distinguished them from other parts of the world. What was never said out loud was that they meant the absence of religions that aren’t Catholicism. That’s why our first holiday of the school year was for La Toussaint or All Saints Day. That’s why every day I watched a Muslim girl stop outside of the school to take her hijab off before entering, while other white French girls trotted past with their scarves wrapped around their heads because it was raining. That’s why I noticed the crucifix necklaces that never had to come off. That’s why three of my students came to me crying when a teacher got to Islam in their history class. After going over the history of Judaism and Christianity, this teacher told the class that Islam was different because it was an inherently violent religion. He then told the Muslim students in the class that he would fail them if they refused to look at a drawing of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).
That was in 2017. Since then, French hostility toward Muslims has only grown. Remember when President Macron said Islam was in crisis and he was going to reform it? To defend secularism (his words, not mine), France unveiled a new set of proposed laws to further limit Muslim’s freedom of expression. This “Separatism Bill” is being framed as an attempt to promote women’s autonomy, but why are Catholic teenagers allowed to decide for themselves how they can dress, but Muslim teenagers can’t? If the bill passes, any girl under the age of 18 will not be allowed to wear a hijab in public, not just at school; university students will not be permitted to wear a hijab on campus; parents who wear hijab will be barred from accompanying their children on school trips, and public pools would be able to ban burkinis. Even when masks were mandated to combat COVID-19, French officials said they would still fine Muslim women who wore the niqab or burqa—both of which cover the nose and mouth.
France wants us to see this new bill as an extension of laïcité, a protection of their sacred secularism. And it is—because laïcité is and always has been weaponized against and used as a French tool of control over Muslims, as France has been doing for centuries through imperialism and colonialism.
As with the Islamophobic laws France has passed in years prior, France will become even more uninhabitable for Muslims if this bill passes (which is definitely intentional). Muslims make up a large swath of the minority population in France (around 6%), mostly hailing from countries that France colonized in Africa and the Middle East (which the French definitely don’t like). But I’m not sure what they expect, seeing as France colonized TWENTY countries in Africa, many of which were thrown into political and civil strife as a direct result of that colonization, forcing them to flee their homes.
Algerians have been in France for decades. After both world wars, the French were looking for cheap labor to bolster reconstruction, and Algerians living under French colonialism needed jobs. During the bloody Algerian war for independence—during which 1.5 million Algerians were killed—more Algerians emigrated to France, hoping for safety from the war. After the end of French rule, Algeria was destabilized; during civil conflict, more Algerians fled to France. As more and more Algerians and other Muslims came to France, they were pushed into the banlieues (the suburbs outside of Paris/housing projects) to ostracize and separate them from white French society. The Muslim kids I met during my time in France were almost all either from Algeria or Morocco, most of them born in France. Their parents and grandparents grew up under French control and so will they. Since they can’t bring the colonizing to Africa and the Middle East as easily anymore, they’re bringing it to the Muslim communities at home.
If the “Separitism Bill” is passed by the National Assembly, the government can certainly send more police to Muslim communities to ensure that these rules are being followed, giving them more time and resources to harass, arrest, detain, deport, and incarcerate Muslims. Then, when there is an uptick in crimes in Muslim neighborhoods or a stabbing or shooting, they’ll blame Islam, not the purposeful disenfranchisement of French Muslims by the government. These separatism rules have never been about protecting Muslim women and girls, they are about controlling the Muslim population in France and justifying their surveillance.
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