Just a week ago, the world was celebrating the International Women’s Day, exalting ideals of freedom, equality and dignity. Behind the words, what reality? If we have to consider the progress made on the female rights issue, we must also denounce the abuses related to the instrumentalization of the French concept of laïcité – close to the idea of secularism – which has been seriously distorted.
The French law of 15 March 2004, regulating the wearing of symbols indicating religious affiliation in public educational establishments, was introduced and legitimized as being in compliance with the principle of laïcité. This claim is absolutely striking when you know that the concept of laïcité, in its original meaning, has been developed to ensure freedom of conscience and freedom of worship. Yet, this concept has been totally betrayed to be reinterpreted as a restrictive, repressive and exclusive ideology. It no longer promotes freedom of expression within a pluralist and neutral public sphere, but it aims to neutralize religious expression in the public sphere, and especially one of them. Indeed, laïcité-based laws and measures increasingly and dangerously foster a feeling of islamophobia.
The ban on Islamic headscarf in public primary and secondary schools, as it clearly was the main concern, was only the first step of a series of discriminatory laws and measures, which would from then on explicitly target Islam, through the headscarf. In the public debate, voices raise to express their wish to ban the veil from universities, and private companies – although it is already the case in most of them despite the fact that the Labour Code strictly forbids religious discrimination. Not only these practices aims to eradicate Muslim women considered as being too visible from the educational and professional landscape, they also mean to keep them away from social and cultural spheres. They are prevented from accompanying their children during school outdoor activities while they are willing to enhance educational experience, they are pushed back from charity organizations while they are willing to help disadvantaged people, they are illegally expelled from private places such as restaurants and gym clubs while they are just willing to have a good time… Worse, not only Muslim women are victims of discrimination on a regular basis, they also face an escalation of verbal and physical violence, which often remain unpunished.
Sometimes seen as an oppression symbol, sometimes interpreted as a provocation, the headscarf tends to embody, in the collective imaginary, the “otherness” that doesn’t have its place within the society. The surrounding political atmosphere, darkened by populist ideologies that are spreading all over Europe, reinforce this feeling through fostering and instrumentalizing fears, in order to draw “the other” as the representation of a threat jeopardizing “our” identity, “our” values and “our” future. Together, we must fight against these stereotypes and apprehensions driven by ignorance, by giving Muslim women back their full citizenship, by considering their singularity beyond their outfit, and by granting them the full enjoyment of their rights, the first of them being the control over their own bodies. In a time of deep political, economic, social and identity crisis, it is high time to seriously consider and fight against multiple discrimination faced by Muslim women because of their gender, their religious beliefs and their race.
Democracy, responsible citizenship and social prosperity are at stake.