French Muslim Women

By Yassir Louati

Muslim women take their cases to court.
After years of heated debate on the French political scene, the French Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin administration pushed for a law banning "visible religious signs in public schools" in 2004. The law in itself was only a cover up for a clear prohibition of the Islamic veil or hijab worn by either French citizens or residents.

Whether the law is enforced or latent remains unclear. Despite the argument brought forward by all administrations since 2004, Muslim women have not been “protected” –as many MP’s have argued- by this law but rather, have been urged to choose between their education and their religious beliefs. In other words, they have to choose between an active social life and exclusion.

The French public opinion was only relieved by the vote and implementation of such law. Companies followed the government’s lead and began denying employment to veiled Muslim women and firing those few who still managed to find a job.

Years later, the law has raised the question of how can Muslim women fulfill their potential if even the corporate world has been eager to implement the "anti-veil" law as it is often referred to. For instance, many women have been asked to choose between their jobs and the veil pushing others to hide their beliefs in order to be hired or keep their jobs.

Seeking Assistance

The anti veil hysteria has virtually faced no opposition in the non Muslim sector in France. Not one single political party dared to go against the trend and failure of official Muslim organizations to raise their voices and be heard by the government has left the French Muslim community helpless, and the protagonists of the law feeling powerful.

Cases of ridiculous implementation of the so called "anti-hijab law" currently range from being unable to attend driving lessons as it happened in the Seine Saint Denis Department (North Side of Paris) where a young Muslim woman was asked to "find a another training school"; to banks denying access to their veiled clients as the famous BNP PARIBAS branch in Fontenay Aux Roses, Hauts de Seine Department blocked the doors on its client due to their "visible religious sign."

Having found no official assistance from either the French government or official Muslim organizations, the French Muslims are more and more rising up and taking their cases to court by themselves.

It is a general trend that has been reported by the French Observatory on Islamophobia (CCIF).

A case has become a reference for most Muslim women that have been discriminated against. In 2002, Dalila Tahri won her case against her employer who had laid her off because of her Muslim veil. Despite the pressure, she took it to court and won the right to be rehired and get all her lost salaries.

Other most notable cases include Samia Said, PhD, who had been denied access to English classes she had been attending since October 2008. The school manager stated the fact that her veil was prohibited by the law in his school. However, Mrs. Said’s lawyer argued that "this is an erroneous interpretation of the law and an attempt to extend the March 2004 law which was meant to public schools students."

Can 2,500 Signatures Help?

In Toulouse, Southwest of France, a young researcher has been laid off by the Paul Sabatier University, again because of her "hijab." The University stated that because she was on a government contract, her wearing the Islamic veil is not acceptable. Others would argue again that she is not a student in a public school and that the law does not apply to higher education institutions.

Sabrina has managed to gather 2,500 signatures of support and her case is being considered.

In its 2008 report, the CCIF concludes that there is a rise in Islamic veil related trials. French Muslims are more than fed up with the hidden official discrimination. Younger generations are no longer shy or scared to stand up for their rights and it is expected to see more cases being brought up to court.

France’s Muslim population accounts for around 5 million people and for the past 10 years, it has been noted that there is a massive return to Islam as a way of life. The increase in the number of mosques and the many Muslim oriented projects such as schools and community services spread throughout the country are perhaps a sign that despite the pressure, Muslims a firmly establishing themselves as citizens like any other.