Woman in hijab on roof

PARIS (WOMENSENEWS)– Rabha Chatar is scared to walk alone in a big city like this. "I am afraid that I could be attacked, especially if I am with my children," she said.

Chatar, 40, who spoke with Women’s eNews in a phone interview in September, lives in the small village of Meru, in the Picardie region of France, with her three children and husband. But her fear isn’t that of a small-town person in a big metropolis. It’s due to her custom of covering her hair with a hijab, part of her way of practicing her Muslim faith.

In her town, Chatar feels that her neighbors both know and accept her. But the stories of Muslim women in big cities getting singled out for hate crimes scare her.

Workers at the Paris Opera recently drew international headlines by ejecting a woman wearing a full face veil, or niqab, which Paris outlawed in 2011. But Chatar’s fears are not about the niqab, which she doesn’t wear. All she wears is a head covering.

France began frowning on women in hijab in 2004 when the Parliament passed a ban on the display of religious signs in public schools, which meant schoolgirls could not wear the hijab. In 2012, a similar government rule extended to thousands of older women such as Chatar, forbidding them from escorting their children on school outings.

Both bans apply to school settings but for many Muslim women in France today the rulings reach much further, creating a pervasive sense of social prohibition about wearing the hijab that they break at their own risk.

Out of 1,417 Muslims interviewed last year, 2 percent – 30 individuals –reported a physical aggression, found a June 2014 study conducted by the Paris-based Collective Against Islamophobia in France. Women were almost all–97 percent–of those 30 victims.

Elsa Ray, spokesperson for the Collective Against Islamophobia, said street aggressions have been more violent in recent years. In the past veiled women were mainly targets of verbal violence, but the aggression has become more physical.

"The majority of aggressors are men and we have noticed that some women physically attacked were subjected to sexual touching while they had their clothes ripped off. These are signs of male domination," Ray said in an interview at the collective’s office.

Last year, a 16-year-old Muslim woman recounted being attacked by two men in a Paris suburb in a piece published by the Huffington Post. "Then, he grabbed my arms trying to push me to the ground and he started to press his body against mine while he was holding my head. At that moment, the first guy started to touch my breasts. Then, he took a sharp object and started to scar my face with short and quick movements while the second guy was pressing his body against mine and he was blocking my head," the victim, named Aissetou, wrote.

Re-Veiling as Political Act

Ray traces the "re-veiling" trend among younger Muslim women to decades of neglectful treatment by the French government of immigrants from North African countries such as Algeria and Morocco, its former colonial sphere.

"We realized that the concessions made in the ’70s and ’80s didn’t help the Muslim community to feel accepted," Ray said, referring to the generations of parents and grandparents who hid their religious practice in order to gain social acceptance and earn livelihoods.

Today, younger Muslims born in France are pushing back and claiming their religious identity. The hijab, Ray added, is a piece of cloth worn by women to protect themselves from societal rejection.

Ismahane Chouder, co-president of the Paris-based Collective of Feminists for Equality, agrees, citing successive French governments’ failure to embrace the children and grandchildren of North African immigrants.

French-born people of North African descent, Chouder said, do not feel accepted as truly French. If they say they are French they will be pushed to describe their family’s deeper roots. "Someone who is constantly sent back to their origins cannot feel part of this country, of its history. When you keep emphasizing their origins in an exclusive way, in 8o percent of cases, they will withdraw into themselves," she said.

Chouder added that French governments and politicians have been using the principle of "laïcité," or secularism, to impose a specific dress code upon Muslim women.

"They keep introducing secularism like a guarantor of gender equality but we are instead witnessing a denaturation of the principles of secularism," Chouder said in an interview in her group’s Paris office. "France can’t yet tolerate the idea that a woman could define her own identify. They refuse to see women defining themselves and especially in a different fashion from what is seen in the media."

Ray, from the Collective Against Islamophobia, added: "France still owns a colonialist and paternalistic spirit."

Two Groups as Highest Risk

Ray said two categories of veiled women are the most vulnerable to incidents: young women aged 13-20 and mothers accompanied by their children. "For young women, it is believed that they are forced to wear the veil, thus they are indoctrinated and it could then be more dangerous," said Ray. "While a mother with her children represents the head of a family along with the values she could pass on to her kids."

Two French police unions, Alliance Police Nationale and Synergie Officers, declined to be interviewed about the insecurity faced by Muslim women. "It is a sensitive and complicated issue. And we don’t have enough data," Synergie Officers’ press person, who didn’t want to be identified, said in a brief phone call.

Ray said more than 60 percent of the discrimination that veiled women reported came from state-run institutions, citing the findings of her collective’s report. "In France, we are mainly facing a ‘state-made Islamophobia’ practiced by the representatives of the state and public employees."

A veiled woman, for instance, will be asked to remove her headscarf when picking up identification documents at government facilities. She might also be denied access to employment agencies even though no law stands in her way.

Ray also cited cases of women who were not allowed to buy gym memberships and restaurants that refused to serve Muslim couples when the women’s head was covered.

One French town even tried to ban women from wearing hijab on its public beach this summer. The effort was overruled by a French court after two mothers wearing their headscarves were denied access.

Ray says the discrimination against Muslim women is spurred by media organizations and politicians who conflate Islam with extremism, fanning Islamophobia across the country. It’s been going on for years in two ways, she said; one by the Right and one by the Left.

"Right-wing parties will use a discourse to emphasize the importance of national security. They will use fear, the danger of Islam, the fight against terrorism," Ray said. "Left-wing parties will use discourses promoting the liberation of women, the importance of gender equality, the necessity of freedom, etc."

The result is the same: telling Muslim women how not to dress, said Ray.

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