Centre for Women's and Gender Research
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The French hijab controversies

In a new article in the journal Ethnos, Christine M. Jacobsen, Head of Centre at SKOK, explores the role French secularism plays in the state's regulation of religion.

Veiled women
Veiled women walking down a public street.

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She does this by focusing on the controversy regarding the use of veils among French Muslim nannies. In the article «Veiled Nannies and Secular Futures in France» Jacobsen discusses the regulation of the use of veil by Muslim women in France, an issue that has been central in French politics for decades, recieving a lot of attention in the ongoing presidential election. Marine Le Pen, the presidential candidate of the nationalist party Front National, has been particularly vocal in the heated discussion on Muslim women's use of veils, an to the framing of the debate as a matter of the future of France. Jacobsen looks at the legal regulation of religion and surrounding debate, and how they shape notions of the "French society" and its future. 

Hijab controversies and the "nanny-law" [loi nounous]

Since they erupted in the 1980s, the French hijab controversies have propelled the juridification of religion, and multiplication of legal rules that regulate the use of religious symbols in public. Through the 90s, the use of veils and hijab by muslim women in public schools was subject to several court cases, and the young women's rights to be veiled was gradually limited. However, Jacobsen stresses that many public schools in Marseille accomodated for the use of hijab under certain circumstances up until 2004, when the French congress passed the law that prohibited the use of religious symbols in schools. In spite of the encompassing formulation of the law, it has generally been accepted that it was primarily a law against the use of veils and hijab. One of the main arguments of the lawmakers was that children should not be exposed to the influence of religion at school. In 2011 the senate passed a new bill that also prohibited the use of religious symbols among women working with childcare. The "nanny-law" was seen by many as the natural expansion of the law of 2004, arguing that children under school-age should also be protected from religious influences. 

Jacobsen claims that the juridical treatment of religion in France and the surrounding debate, have produced a "hijab-ban generation": a generation of women who's relation to French society is defined by the controversies surrounding the use of hijab. The lives of these women is largely shaped by their interpellation as a social problem, and by the sense that they can only be included in the French political community if they renounce the use of veils. Their schooling and working lives have been affected by the legal construction of the hijab as a religious symbol opposed to secularity and to the values of the French Republic.

French secularism or islamophobia?

When the French regulation of hijab is discussed, the issue is often explained either as a product of the historical division between church and state in France, and a neutral expression of French secularism, or as the expression of western islamophobia and racism. This is the kind of polarising debate that Jacobsen wants to avoid: - There is a clear continuity beteween the historical division between state and church in France, and current regulations of religious symbols in public spaces. However, there has also been a shift towards the racialization of the debate, where western conceptualizations of "the other" have become more central. These different discourses on the use of veils are tied together, both historically and in the contemporary discussion on the topic, she argues. 

This argument is brought to the fore in Jacobsen's article, where she shows how the regulation on the use of hijab is generally framed as the need to protect the secular France from religious influence, much in the same way as the emergent French national state saw it necessary to limit the influence of catholic patriarchal structures of authority in the educational system. In France, the school has historically played an important role in the construction of a secular national identity, and traditionally been a space for the assimilation of children with different backgrounds under the framework of the (secular) French Repbulic.

Meanwhile, Jacobsen notes how secularism is increasingly posited as the best guarantee of women’s sexual freedom and equality and as what distinguishes the West from the women-abusing and homophobic rest. Neighborhoods with a high proportion of muslims and immigrants are often configured as the ‘lost territories of the republic’, while Islam is discoursively constructed as a backward religion that works counter to the ideal of the citizen’s individual autonomy.

State, religion, and sexuality

The "nanny-law" can thus be seen as the extention of state power over the regulation of religion, gender, and sexuality into new arenas, including private homes where practices of commercial childcare take place. As such, the law also represents a re-negotiation of the boundaries between public and private spheres. It shouldn't come as a surprise that the right to privacy and religious freedom was mobilised by those opposing the law. Among other things, it is noted that muslim women only need to use the veil in the presence of adult men, and that women working with children in their homes only need to use the veil when they leave the home with the children, or when their fathers come to drop them off or pick them up. I is therefore suggested that the ban will therefore be more effective in tying women to the home, than guaranteeing children religious neutrality during day-care.

The idea that children need legal protection from external influence is recognizable from the Russian law against "gay propaganda". I ask Jacobsen if she sees any parallels between this law and the French ban. - Well, there is a general conception that religion regulates gender and sexuality, while the state liberates the individual from these religious structures. These example show us that this is not necessarily the case. The secular state also regulates gender and sexuality, and there is not a direct link between secular states and religious and sexual liberation.

Jacobsen points to the fact that religion and sexuality are issues that are generally associated with the private sphere in the West, and that they are therefore regulated in a similar manner. - The secular state likes to present itself as a "liberator." This veils the ways in which the state also directs and controls it's citizens.

The transnational debate on the use of hijab

Jacobsen gets eager when I ask her about the similarities and differences between the French debate on women's use of hijab and the norwegian debate: - The debate on muslim women and their use of veils is recurrent in all of Europe, and even in the world. It has been an important topic of debate both in Turkey and Iran, and cannot be said to be a particularly "French" phenomenon. Both prohbitions and obligations to use veils are subject to discussion. The central aspect that the debate revolves around, and that which articulates the many different problematizations of the issue, are the concerns and fears related to the ongoing process of globalization. We see that certain aspects of the French debate are also present in the norwegian one, for instance in the discussion on whether the hijab should be incorporated to the police uniform or not.

Jacobsen places emphasis on the fact that these debates are transnational: - Just look at how muslims in Norway protested against the French prohibition in 2004, she says. The debate on this issue is also an example of how women and the female body often plays a central role in different nationalist projects. - There are fidderent theories regarding the central position of women in these political projects, among other things the central role of women in reproduction, both biological and social, has been signalled to explain why the female body has become such an important symbol of national identity.

Jacobsen has succeeded in getting the article published as "open access", which means that it is available to everyone online. You can read the full text by following the link below.