Liberty, Equality, Fraternity does not apply to Muslim women in France
By Councillor Rabina Khan
London, (The Muslim News): When is the UK going to start talking about the fact that the mainstream, ‘centrist’ governing party of our oldest, closest ally and neighbour, has embraced bigotry to the extent that it disowns one of its own candidates – a young French woman – for wearing a simple scarf on her hair?
Emmanuel Macron’s La Republique en Marche party barred a headscarf-wearing Muslim woman from running in a local election after she appeared in a campaign flyer photograph, even though French law does not prohibit the wearing of the hijab or other religious symbols on such flyers. The party claimed that “in secular France, there should be no place for the overt display of religious symbols on electoral campaign documents,” even though the flyer headline said: “Different, but united for you”.
When I tweeted the following: “Wearing the #hijab is not an indicator of who a politician cares for, President Macron. Making political capital out of the hijab does seem to be you pandering to the extreme right-wing in #France?” and “Liberty, equality, fraternity! Unless you are a #French woman who dares to wear a #scarf because it is your cultural norm. Then it is more a matter of non, non, non!” I received the following response: “Wonder if Mr Macron would ban this person from visiting”, which accompanied a photograph of her Majesty the Queen wearing a headscarf.
Currently, there is a proposed amendment to an anti-separatism bill, which applies to girls under 18 and has sparked an online protest #HandsOffMyHijab (#PasToucheAMonHijab). Sixteen-year-old Mariem Chourak said: “It’s part of my identity. To force me to remove it would be a humiliation. I cannot understand why they would want to pass a law that discriminates.”
22-year-old Hiba Latreche said: “It is symptomatic of the constant policing of women’s bodies, choices and beliefs that we have in France, as well as the instrumentalisation of Muslim women.”
In 1977, one of the girls in my infant school in Kent asked me if I was a golliwog. I said I wasn’t sure. In 2015, when I ran for mayor in Tower Hamlets, a smartly-dressed white man saw me wearing a headscarf and asked me what colour my hair was underneath it. I gave him a big smile. “Pink,” I replied.
Did I win his vote? I rather doubt it. But I did go on to write an article, deliver a speech at Cambridge University, and write a book called My Hair Is Pink Under This Veil, providing a candid insight into the life of a hijab-wearing Muslim woman in modern Britain. I wrote about my family’s experiences of building a new life in Britain in the 1970s, of the racism they experienced and how they responded politely and with dignity. I then turned my gaze outwards to explore the politics of the veil, white privilege and intersectional feminism, before charting my own battle to build a career in public life.
Although conspicuous religious symbols have been banned in schools since 2004, which include hijabs, kippahs and Christian crosses, it is Muslim women who appear to have been targeted the most. 81 percent of Muslim high school students think the current laws on laïcité (secularism) are Islamophobic.
Two recent legal amendments adopted by lawmakers have prohibited parents from wearing visible religious symbols while accompanying their children on school trips. However, France’s interior minister said that the measures amounted to “suppression of religious expression”, while Socialist Party Senator, Didier Marie, said the amendment would be “dangerous” for suggesting a causal link between the veil, political Islam, radicalism, separatism, and even terrorism. Sadly, such legislation discriminates against the four million plus Muslims living in France.
In 2018, approximately a year following Donald Trump’s Muslim travel ban was imposed, “Punish a Muslim Day” letters were distributed to people in the UK. Sickeningly, they allocated a points system for the Islamophobic tasks detailed in the letters, such as 25 points for pulling a woman’s hijab off, up to 25,000 for “nuking Mecca”. The perpetrator was a white supremacist who was subsequently jailed for 12 and a half years, but who will undoubtedly continue his vile rhetoric upon his release.
Instead of moving forward and “improving our ability to live together”, as Macron stated in October last year, his party’s actions have emboldened the far right and promoted Islamophobia.
Across the world’s media, there are stories about how France continues to discriminate against Muslim women, how Afghanistan extremists continue to target schoolgirls wanting an education, and in East Jerusalem, how Israeli police try to prevent Muslim women and girls from praying.
While we talk about the global fight against war and conflict, poverty, food shortages and Climate Change, let’s not forget the oppression of women and girls, particularly Muslim women, who have so much to contribute to the aforementioned issues.
In my book as I recount the struggles facing Muslim women at its heart is an inspiring story about the power of self-belief and determination to create a fairer world.
Something that Macron cannot take away from Muslim women.
Rabina Khan is Liberal Democrat Councillor for Shadwell, London Borough of Tower Hamlets and Special Advisor in Lords
[Map of France/Creative Commons]
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