Hi­jab: A very French ob­ses­sion

Tehran Times - - WOMEN -

An an­gelic voice em­a­nat­ing from mil­lions of tele­vi­sion screens cap­ti­vated au­di­ences across France on Fe­bru­ary 4. A con­tes­tant on the pop­u­lar tal­ent show, The Voice was singing Leonard Co­hen’s cult an­them, Hal­lelu­jah. The spell­bind­ing per­for­mance caused all four mem­bers of the show’s jury to turn their chairs around in a mark of ap­proval. The young can­di­date, Men­nel Ibtis­sem, was an in­stant fa­vorite.

But Men­nel was not just an­other suc­cess­ful can­di­date on the show - her pho­to­genic face was framed by a head­scarf worn tur­ban-style. Also, she sang the sec­ond verse of the song in Ara­bic.

This de­tail was enough to rat­tle some mem­bers of the au­di­ence who were not com­fort­able with the pres­ence of a vis­i­bly Mus­lim woman in a main­stream en­ter­tain­ment pro­gram. Of course, some view­ers were not at all both­ered by the faith of the can­di­date - they only fo­cused on her voice. But oth­ers, shaken by Men­nel’s “au­dac­ity” to ap­pear on the show wear­ing a hi­jab, em­barked on a de­mo­niza­tion cam­paign.

They started dis­sect­ing her so­cial me­dia pres­ence. They went through her Face­book posts and dis­cov­ered that a cou­ple of years ago she showed sup­port of con­spir­acy the­o­ries about ter­ror at­tacks in France. No doubt, she was mak­ing some se­ri­ous as­ser­tions in these posts - but no­body both­ered to re­mem­ber that she was only 20 years old when she wrote them. No­body both­ered to think about what other French 20-year-olds put on their pri­vate so­cial me­dia pages on a reg­u­lar ba­sis.

Peo­ple started call­ing for her dis­missal from the show. The cam­paign against her swiftly snow­balled into a na­tion­wide witch-hunt, and the young singer was even­tu­ally forced to an­nounce her de­ci­sion to leave the singing con­test.

But what do we know about the ideas of the dozens of other can­di­dates who have par­tic­i­pated in The Voice since

2012? Noth­ing. Did we dis­sect their so­cial me­dia pro­files the way we did Men­nel’s? Of course not. Be­cause in France we do not ex­pect singers to be per­fect in ev­ery as­pect of their lives be­fore they find fame and suc­cess. French artists are al­lowed to make mis­takes in their youth.

As long as they are not Mus­lim women wear­ing hi­jabs. In France, we are not ac­cus­tomed to see­ing hi­jabi women on prime-time tele­vi­sion. Their pres­ence still causes shock and anx­i­ety.

The ques­tion of hi­jab (The hi­jab is a head­scarf worn by many Mus­lim women who feel it is part of their re­li­gion.) is om­nipresent in French pub­lic dis­course, yet hi­jabi women are very rarely granted op­por­tu­ni­ties to ex­press them­selves in pub­lic. Men­nel’s ex­pul­sion from The Voice is yet an­other sign that our hi­jab-ob­sessed coun­try is not ready to hear the voices of the women who choose to wear it.

Why is a piece of fab­ric caus­ing such vir­u­lent and ir­ra­tional re­ac­tions in France? Why are we not able to ac­cept that hi­jabi women can be reg­u­lar mem­bers of French so­ci­ety?

The hi­jab con­tro­versy in France started in Septem­ber

1989, when three Mus­lim school girls were sus­pended for re­fus­ing to re­move their head­scarves in class in a mid­dle school in Creil, a sub­urb of Paris. A month later, the state coun­cil, the high­est ad­min­is­tra­tive body in the coun­try, ruled that the girls’ head­scarves were com­pat­i­ble with the “laicite” (sec­u­lar­ism) of French pub­lic schools. But the con­tro­versy did not end there. At the end of that year, Ed­u­ca­tion Min­is­ter Lionel Jospin is­sued a state­ment declar­ing that it was ed­u­ca­tors, and not the state, who had the re­spon­si­bil­ity of ac­cept­ing or re­fus­ing the wear­ing of the hi­jab in classes on a case-by-case ba­sis.

Af­ter 15 years of re­cur­rent de­bates about whether hi­jabs are ac­cept­able or not in French schools - and pub­lic life in gen­eral - French par­lia­ment passed a law in 2004 ban­ning women from at­tend­ing classes while wear­ing it. In 2010, France passed an­other con­tro­ver­sial law that banned the wear­ing of the full-face veil any­where in pub­lic (even though at the time there were only 367 women in the en­tire coun­try that wore such at­tire).

Since then, sev­eral other con­tro­ver­sies about the Mus­lim head­scarf - and Mus­lim women’s clothes in gen­eral - have emerged in France.

The sum­mer of 2016 was marked by an epi­demic of “anti-burkini de­crees”, with may­ors across the coun­try try­ing to ban Mus­lim women from wear­ing swim­suits that cover their bodies com­pletely. It be­gan with the can­cel­la­tion of a “burkini” event at a wa­ter theme park in Mar­seilles. Then the Riviera town of Cannes banned the full-body swim­suit on its pub­lic beaches. The then Prime Min­is­ter Manuel Valls ex­pressed his sup­port for the bans, say­ing the swim­suit rep­re­sents what he calls a “provo­ca­tion” and “an ar­chaic vi­sion”. Later, pho­tographs have emerged of armed French po­lice con­fronting a woman on a beach in Nice and forc­ing her to re­move some of her cloth­ing to make her com­ply with the “burkini ban”. The state coun­cil even­tu­ally put an end to these anti-burkini de­crees when it ruled that they were a “se­ri­ous and man­i­festly il­le­gal vi­o­la­tion of fun­da­men­tal free­doms”.

These con­tro­ver­sies high­light France’s colo­nial and Is­lam­o­pho­bic ob­ses­sion with the hi­jab. The in­ca­pa­bil­ity of French in­tel­lec­tu­als and politi­cians to ac­cept Mus­lim women’s right to take con­trol of their bodies is symp­to­matic of the French brand of “sec­u­lar­ism” that has made the fight against the vis­i­bil­ity of Mus­lims its pri­or­ity.

The dom­i­nant dis­course in France is that the hi­jab is an op­pres­sive tool used by Mus­lim men to hide and si­lence Mus­lim women. This is why, when French Mus­lim women come out and say that they choose to cover their heads in pub­lic spa­ces, their agency to make this de­ci­sion is be­ing ques­tioned.

In France, dis­cus­sions sur­round­ing the hi­jab are fre­quently shaped by the cir­cum­stances of other - fun­da­men­tally dif­fer­ent - coun­tries. In these dis­cus­sions, hi­jabi women in France are com­pared with their for­eign coun­ter­parts, even though they are as French as any other cit­i­zen of the coun­try. The hi­jab does not carry a sin­gle mean­ing that can be used in any given con­text. How can a piece of cloth­ing carry the same mean­ing in France as it does in an­other coun­try where women are of­fi­cially op­pressed by the law? In one con­text, for some women, the hi­jab can be a tool of op­pres­sion used by men in gen­eral and the state in par­tic­u­lar to make them com­ply with the rules im­posed on them by so­ci­ety. But in a coun­try like France, where it is not the norm, the hi­jab can be a tool to make the Mus­lim iden­tity vis­i­ble.

Of course, one can le­git­i­mately ques­tion the ori­gins and pa­tri­ar­chal char­ac­ter of the wear­ing of the hi­jab. It is per­fectly ac­cept­able to de­bate the ways in which fem­i­nin­ity is ex­pressed; but French hi­jabi women - and no one else - should be the ones defin­ing the mean­ing of the hi­jab in France. How­ever, they are rarely in­vited to ex­press their opin­ion on this sub­ject. The me­dia do not give them the op­por­tu­nity to join the dis­cus­sion as full-fledged French women with rea­son.

But hi­jabi women are not be­ing re­moved from the dis­cus­sion just be­cause they are Mus­lim.

France has a prob­lem­atic re­la­tion­ship with women in gen­eral. For ex­am­ple, there has been fierce op­po­si­tion to the #MeToo move­ment by such em­blem­atic fig­ures as Cather­ine Deneuve and Brigitte Bar­dot. Deneuve was among the sig­na­to­ries of an open let­ter - in which a col­lec­tive of 100 women tried to de­fend men’s right to “an­noy” women - in re­sponse to the #MeToo move­ment. This text, which placed the de­sire of men at the cen­ter of a de­bate that aims to pro­mote the lib­er­a­tion of women, is symp­to­matic of a cul­ture that re­duces women to ob­jects of de­sire that should con­stantly seek the ap­proval of men. This men­tal­ity is not un­re­lated to the re­jec­tion and con­dem­na­tion of women who vol­un­tar­ily choose to hide their hair and wear mod­est cloth­ing.

In a coun­try that views “the se­duc­tion of women” as an im­por­tant as­pect of its na­tional iden­tity, it is easy to un­der­stand why hi­jabi women can at­tract crit­i­cism. In France, men who “se­duce” are adored and ad­mired as “Don Juans”; in such a con­text, one can imag­ine that women who vol­un­tar­ily de­cide to with­draw parts of their bodies from pub­lic view can be per­ceived as sub­ver­sive.

In a coun­try where so­ci­ety tol­er­ates ev­ery­day ha­rass­ment and even pro­tects men’s right to ha­rass, it is easy to see that hi­jabi women are per­ceived as a chal­lenge to im­plicit gen­der norms. As a re­sult, the hi­jab con­tro­versy in France can­not be viewed only in the con­text of Is­lam­o­pho­bia. To un­der­stand the French ob­ses­sion with the hi­jab, so­ci­ety’s re­la­tion­ship with women and dif­fer­ent ex­pres­sions of fem­i­nin­ity also needs to be ques­tioned.

France de­cided long ago that Is­lam has some­how be­come “prob­lem­atic”, and con­se­quently adopted par­tic­u­lar be­hav­iors to hide Is­lam and Mus­lims from so­ci­ety’s field of vi­sion. Men­nel Ibtis­sem was only one vic­tim of a prob­lem that af­fects the lives of mil­lions of French cit­i­zens. To­day, the con­cept of “laicite” is be­ing used by the French state to make ex­pres­sions of Mus­lim iden­tity il­le­gal. How­ever, sec­u­lar­ism is and must re­main a prin­ci­ple based on equal­ity and not pro­hi­bi­tion. Its vo­ca­tion is to en­able ev­ery cit­i­zen to freely ex­press his or her faith with­out fear of be­ing stig­ma­tized.

French-Mus­lim singer Men­nel Ibtis­sem was forced to pull out of a singing com­pe­ti­tion fol­low­ing back­lash over old so­cial me­dia posts in Fe­bru­ary

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