Why France’s Hijab Ban Is About Racism and Misogyny

I am a Muslim woman, and I do not wear the hijab. Because it is my choice not to wear it. I am also an American woman who has seen the repercussions of Islamphobia in her country. I am outraged, yet not surprised, with France’s recent decision to add an amendment to its “separatism bill” that would ban girls under the age of 18 from wearing the hijab in public spaces. 

This isn’t the first time France passed legislation regarding the clothing of Muslim women. 

In 2010, the law was passed to ban the concealment of the face in the public space (which is ironic given that it happened when masks were mandatory all over the world). By 2011, France became the first European country to impose a ban on full-face veils in public areas. Why? According to one popular opinion in France, face coverings prevent the clear identification of a person, thereby undermining national security concerns. Another reason is the French populace’s belief that women, specifically Muslim women, should not be “forced” to cover their faces. A segment of the French populace believes that Muslims who continue this practice should be forced to assimilate into traditional French social norms. 

The real reason? Racism. They are disguised in these French laïcité-based laws. Statistics suggest so, too.

2015 poll revealed that more than half of the respondents would be annoyed if they saw a woman covering her face with a veil in public in France. Almost 90 percent of the respondents blamed poor Muslim immigration on Muslims themselves for “refusing to be open to society.” This antagonism is felt by Muslims deeply: 42% of Muslim respondents in another survey declare having experienced discrimination in the country. This rises to 60% among women who wear a headscarf.  

Female participants who wore the niqab were interviewed in France for a 2011 survey. The survey showed that the participants started wearing the niqab after 2005 — once the French ban on hijabs in public schools was implemented in 2004. The vast majority of participants stated that they decided to wear the niqab without pressure from their family, and that they have been in conflict with their family and mother in particular, following their decision to wear the niqab. Therefore, the study contradicts the common beliefs that women wearing a veil are victims of coercion and represent a cultural threat. In fact, wearing the veil in France is an expression of resistance and control in the face of severe discrimination. 

In fact, wearing the veil in France is an expression resistance and control in the face of severe discrimination. 

Banning aspects of cultural identity has led to the perpetuation of stereotype threat for Muslims living in Western countries. Muslim women find it particularly challenging to gain employment in the U.K., with 71.2% of younger Muslim women unemployed according to a 2018 study.  Other findings show that when applying for a job in Germany, women with a Turkish migration background are less likely to be invited for an interview, the level of discrimination increases substantially if the applicant wears a headscarf. With the media’s constant discussion Muslim women in the media, it has escalated religious and gender stereotypes associated with these groups.

A recent Stanford University study  revealed that banning headscarves in public schools led to the detrimental effect on the ability of Muslims girls to complete their secondary education and their trajectories in the labor market. Furthermore, the study also found that the ban strengthened both national and religious identities for young Muslim women who were most affected by it – leaning into the notion of identity affirmation theory. In other words, it had the opposite intended effect that France wanted. French Muslims girls, who identified as members of both their religious community (by wearing the headscarf) and their country of birth (France) were made to believe that their two identities were incompatible.  

Women should have the ability to decide what they want to wear. It should not be a state-sanctioned opinion turned legislation. More discussion on the clothing of Muslim women prompts in-group and out-group bias, leading to greater societal cleavages and tightening the thread of Islamophobia within France’s fabric. 

Women choose to wear hijabs for many reasons. Some see the hijab as a way to identify with the Muslim community and to assert themselves as a human being.  Some Muslim women wear it to communicate identity, on the premise of self-categorization theory, in order to navigate their social environment in a strategic manner. Others, like me, simply choose not to wear it. Psychologist Viren Swami has found that more modest or conservative clothing is associated with a healthier body image. “The hijab might offer a sort of protection,” Swami said of his study on Muslim women in the U.K. Regardless of the reason, no one should have to justify why they wear or do not wear something. 

The stereotype that women who wear the hijab are oppressed, and that Muslim women have no agency or power is demoralizing and incorrect. We must stand in solidarity with the #HandsoffMyHijab campaign. We must rise up to bigots around the world when they threaten our very existence. We must hold the media accountable for perpetuating these disturbing stereotypes about Muslim women. We must elect leaders that will stand up for our basic rights as human beings.

Psychologist Viren Swami has found that more modest or conservative clothing is associated with a healthier body image. “The hijab  might offer a sort of protection,” Swami said of his study on Muslim women in the U.K.

Muslim women will continue to face subtle and overt forms of discrimination, including microagressions, social exclusion, and verbal attacks — negatively affecting their mental health, causing feelings of isolation and a lack of belonging. Culturally relevant mental health interventions that include the recruitment of mental health practitioners from Muslim and other marginalized communities are also essential to appropriately respond to the negative impacts of discrimination experienced by Muslim women. 

At the heart of the issue, this comes down to how the West perceives Muslims should have to prove their loyalty to a country. A Muslim couple found the vaccine to the most gruesome health crisis of our lifetime. Seven Muslim men have consistently led France’s soccer team to victory. Over 100,000 Muslims died fighting for France in World War I. It’s never enough. So, when is it the country’s duty to protect its citizens from hate? Where is that loyalty? There is one thing I am sure of — banning the hijab will not cure the racism that continues to permeate in France.