Ever since France’s initial ban on headscarves in 2004, the country has been obsessed with the hijab, with a zeal equal only to the Islamic Republic of Iran. The latter state wants to force women to wear the veil; France wants to force them out of the veil.
The Council of Europe, a human rights body, recently launched a campaign to criticise headscarf bans in Europe. The campaign, which appears to be a largely online initiative, involved slogans like #LetHerChoose and #MyHijabMyChoice.
According to the Council of Europe, such slogans arose out of several online workshops of the Forum of European Muslim Youth and Student Organisations. The issue gets even more complicated as, in the run-up to the Council of Europe’s Twitter campaign, French politicians have made the hijab almost the centrepiece of their politics.
Éric Zemmour, a Far-Right television anchor and a great favourite to challenge Emmanuel Macron in the presidential election, is one of them. A few weeks ago, Zemmour visited an area around Paris that has a large Muslim population. He got into an argument with a Muslim woman and asked her to “prove” that she was “really free” by removing the scarf in front of him. The woman did what he asked, but of course Muslim women in France can never prove that they are choosing to wear the headscarf. Zemmour got what he wanted: a viral, provocative news clip.
Marine Le Pen, the original Right-Wing prima donna of the French political establishment, was not far behind. She called the campaign “scandalous” and “inappropriate”, given that the French state has been fighting for the right to denounce it. The French Left, whose only point of agreement with the French Far-Right is a collective hatred of Muslims, also denounced the campaign.
When the French youth minister, Saira El Haïry, got into the conversation, arguing that one of the posters, which showed a split image of a woman without a headscarf and the other part wearing it, seemed to encourage Muslims to wear the headscarf, the Council of Europe admitted defeat and simply withdrew the campaign.
In reality, it is not just about the hijab. Earlier this year, the French government had declared that they may investigate scholars who teach texts on critical race theory. Critical race theory is the study of history, society, etc. through the lens of race. Born out of America’s Civil Rights Movement, and recently energised by the murder of George Floyd, its project is to study race as a social construct and point out how economic and legal policies are influenced by the views of the dominant social group — which would be white people.
The French minister for higher education flew off the handle when she came across a particular concept connecting Islamists and Leftists, and announced that all researchers and scholars who were teaching concepts like this would be investigated by her ministry.
Since then, thousands of academics have signed a petition denouncing this decision by the minister, pointing out that it goes against the very French principle of ‘la liberté’.
Clearly, many French politicians are extremely nervous about ideas of critical race theory influencing the development of Muslim identity that sees itself as part of a racialised othering instigated by white people. Such a restatement would position Muslims in France as the oppressed within the French context and the state itself as the instrument of oppression with a racist agenda.
There was a time not that long ago when the French were pioneers, home to avant-garde ideas and art and philosophy. All of this seems to be over now, as many among both the French left and right consider bans and investigations as a means of maintaining white supremacy. As many Muslim countries have learned, bans never work. They can pause the forward momentum, but can never stop it.