ONLINE DISPATCH: Veiled Illusion

Fellows Spring 2003

By Sarah Wildman

June 05, 2009

Paris, France -- If you find yourself in the twentieth arrondissement of Paris this year, you'll see a broad banner stretched across the front of the Marie--the city hall for the district--proclaiming 2004 to be the "Year of Laicité," that difficult-to-translate French concept of secularity. But beneath it, as residents of the district rush past the building, you might find women wearing the hijab, the Muslim headscarf, blithely ignoring the banner's appeal. And should you find yourself there this coming Saturday, you will surely see thousands of such women on their way to a demonstration.

That's because earlier this week the French National Assembly passed, by an overwhelming majority, a law banning the headscarf and other "conspicuous symbols" of religiosity in French public schools. The French government believes that banning the headscarf will reduce radicalism and facilitate the integration of the Muslim population of France into the public school system. But the reason that Muslims aren't better integrated into French society has little to do with the headscarf. And, if anything, the ban will only make France's "Muslim problem" worse.

Probably the chief accomplishment of the uproar over the veil has been to obscure the socioeconomic problems--such as astronomical unemployment, miserable housing conditions, and entrenched racism--that are the true obstacles to Muslim integration in France. Since the early 1990s, Islam has drawn strength from the problems of the banlieue, the gritty urban suburbs that house the poor outside French cities. The unemployment rate in the banlieue hovers above 25 percent, and reaches as high as 40 percent in some areas. Only four percent of the beur--French slang for "Arab"--boys who grow up there reach university. For most, job prospects are dim. As one Tunisian Muslim woman told me recently, young Arab men turn to Islam because it is the only thing that gives them a sense of pride or honor. The future seems bleak, and the laws of the cite, as the housing projects are called, seem unrelated to life in Paris or Lyon. We won't find jobs, boys complain, so why look for them?

"The problem is integration, and it is socioeconomic," says Olivier Roy, senior researcher at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), a government-funded institute in Paris. Roy argues that after the anti-veil law takes effect--following it's expected approval by the French senate next month--"the problems [of the community] will remain the same: the problems of joblessness, the ghettoization of schools in poor neighborhoods, and so on."

Actually, those problems could get much worse. Unlike Americans, Europeans (the French are by no means alone in this regard) have traditionally viewed cultural identity as inextricably linked to national identity. "What is painful to French society is to accept the fact that one can be French without being totally assimilated," says Farhad Khosrokhavar, a sociologist at Paris's prestigious L'Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Science Sociales (EHESS). "That there can be integration without assimilation--that is the new model that people have difficulty embracing."

Yet prior to the current headscarf debate, many French Muslims believed that they could at least strive to maintain a dual identity. Moderate Muslim leaders encouraged the youth of the banlieue to see themselves as simultaneously Muslim and French. And, to some extent, it worked. Perhaps the most prominent example is Muslim soccer star Zinedine Zidane, the child of Algerian immigrants, who was chosen in a recent national poll as the most "respected" Frenchman in the country. Salman Rushdie has said that Zidane "has done more to improve France's attitude toward its Muslim minority ... than a thousand political speeches."

Once the ban goes into effect, the dual identity Zidane symbolizes will be much more difficult to maintain. Young Muslim girls will be forced to make a decision between their headscarves and their public school, and they're unlikely to choose the latter. As Nibelle Belkadi, a bare-headed student from Drancy marching against the government told the French daily Liberation on the day of the last major rally: "This law will create radicalism. Veiled girls will now go to Koranic schools."

Naziha Mayoufi is a 25-year-old masters student in American studies, and an English teacher in France. She is quite modern and stylish in that way that only French women are. She also wears the headscarf, although not when she teaches school. We met last year at the Mosque of Paris and spoke Wednesday by telephone. Mayoufi, too, fears that the law will cause Arabs to drift further from mainstream French culture. "Islamist radicals," she says, "will tell [Muslims who] were trying to work with others, with non-Muslims, who were trying to have a dialogue with them--they will tell them, 'We told you, there is no way possible with [the secular French]. There is only Islam. Islam is the unique path to take.' And things like that."

Of course, it's worth pointing out that the law doesn't directly affect that many girls. Khosrokhavar places the number of girls who insist upon on wearing the veil in school at 1,200, although many times that number wear it in the street. The problem, he says, is that "there is a self-consciousness that is being built that didn't exist [before], among girls and women, even those who do not wear the scarf. And among Muslims generally--a feeling of being rejected." This can only lead to further resentment and alienation, as it did in 1989, after three Muslim girls were banned from school in Creil, outside Paris, for wearing the headscarf. The "veil affair," as it became known, divided the country and bolstered the influence of fundamentalist Muslim groups, who sought to make it a referendum on the place of Islam in France. As prominent French political scientist Gilles Kepel wrote in his 1997 book Allah in the West, "from the autumn of 1989 ... the veil affair allowed the Islamist movements to extend their influence beyond their traditional circles and attract young, educated Muslims."

The great irony of the current episode is that most of those who wear the headscarf do truly want to be a part of French society. One of the original three girls from Creil, interviewed in Le Monde just two days ago, expressed regret at having been forced to leave her public school 15 years ago. And some of the girls protesting the law recently have gone so far as to wear the French tri-color flag wrapped about their heads as a hijab. "These girls demonstrate as French girls, with Muslim principles and Muslim beliefs, but are French above all," Mayoufi says. If only the French themselves could see that.