PARIS (WOMENSENEWS)–Sarah B. is giving herself five years before she seriously considers leaving France.
"I am telling myself that my future is maybe not here," she said in an interview at a fast food restaurant in Paris in September. "If I cannot be accepted as I am, I will leave. I don’t want to fight my whole life to be accepted. I also want to live peacefully and be free like any other woman."
The 18-year-old native of a Parisian suburb is thinking of other possible countries. "Maybe Canada or England. Or I will simply return to my parents’ homeland: Morocco."
Like everyone interviewed for this article, she spoke in French and her words are translated. She asked not to use her last name because of fear of repercussions for expressing her opinion.
Sarah B. said she suffers discrimination that’s tied to her religious beliefs and appearance in France, a country that partially bans religious head coverings. For Muslim women, that means the hijab that covers their hair and chest.
In 2011, Sarah B. decided to start covering her hair with a veil and to dress modestly. She wears loose, long skirts and dresses that hide the shape of her body. But due to France’s 2004 national ban on any religious signs in public schools, she takes off her hijab every time she enters the high school where she is pursuing her nursing studies. "It hurts," she said, when asked about how she feels when she removes it.
"I love France," she said. "It is a country that has offered me a lot but I am also entitled to my freedom. I have the right to be myself. The first thing when you live here is to feel French, but I don’t feel French. The problem is that we will never be seen as French, we are just seen as Muslim."
A dozen French Muslim women interviewed for this article echoed Sarah B.’s sense of discrimination and rejection.
In the absence of any official studies assessing the economic and social impact of the law on Muslim women in France, the Feminist Collective for Equality, a Paris-based advocacy group, is conducting research that it plans to release in March 2015.
"This work falls on us since we are the ones committed to see the end of that law," said Ismahane Chouder, co-president of the collective. "No one cared up to now, neither the Ministry of Education, nor the government, not even the human rights groups or women’s groups."
Conflicts Between Schools, Families
The Ministry of Education withdrew its decision to let Women’s eNews interview the mediator in charge of solving conflicts between schools and families of veiled students.
"All conflicts were solved within two years of the passing of the law," Mireille Sibille, a ministry spokesperson, said in a phone interview.
Instead of leaving France, some Muslim women are taking "e-jobs," such as telemarketing or phone surveys, where they are hidden from the public and work either remotely or from behind a screen to not have physical contact with the outside world.
In one possible bright spot, some are launching their own businesses instead of continuing to fight for acceptance. The trend was detailed in an article in the French newspaper Le Monde in September. Many of the women featured in the article were working online, creating websites to sell clothing and accessories. One source in the article saw good markets for such women in the halal food industry, finance, tourism, cosmetic and beauty, pharmaceutical products and learning games for children.
But for many veiled women, the ban is exclusionary. They withdraw into their own communities and look for jobs and internships with Muslim-owned businesses or organizations.
"Most of the interns we had at the CCIF were veiled women," Elsa Ray, the spokesperson at the Collective Against Islamophobia in France, said in an interview in the group’s Paris office. "Because they know that we will accept them without questioning their veil."
Ten years after the 2004 ban, Ray describes the law as catastrophic for Muslim girls and women. "The consequences are not only terrible for the young girls directly affected by the law but also because of all the drifts that ensued . . . The voice of Muslim women has been taken away."
Rey is referring to other restrictions that followed the 2004 ban. In 2007, the government issued instructions to extend the religious sign restriction, including the hijab, to businesses serving the public, such as hospitals. In 2012, a memo issued by then-minister of education, Luc Chatel, banned women from wearing the hijab when accompanying their children on school outings.
Ray said the bans have made Muslim women more vulnerable to discrimination and violence than Muslim men "because they are more visible due to the veil they are wearing." Sixty-eight percent of Muslims in France were victims of Islamophobia in the form of violence or discrimination or both at least once in their lifetimes, found a June study by the Collective Against Islamophobia in France. Among those suffering discrimination, 76 percent are women.
For instance, once they enter an office, some Muslim women are told they cannot interview for a job because of their veil, Ray said. Others are asked inappropriate questions during an interview, she added. "’Do you pray five times a day?’ or ‘do eat halal?’ are some of the illegal questions asked of Muslims when they show up at interviews."
Psychological Harassment Too
When veiled women manage to secure employment, Ray said her group has noted "several cases of psychological harassment in the workplace, co-workers and employers using insulting and degrading terms." There is no data to say how many women are turned away from the workplace and are now staying at home. "It is not necessarily their primary choice but the law has had an impact on a couple’s life too. It becomes hard for the husband to see his wife being rejected everywhere she goes," said Ray.
Last year, however, an attempt to extend the ban to universities failed. The recommendation from the High Council of Integration didn’t receive support from the presidents of universities, the Ministry of Higher Education and the National Observatory of Secularism.
Pierre Tevanian teaches philosophy at a high school in Drancy, about 6 miles from Paris. In 2008, he co-authored the book "Les Filles Voilées Parlent" (The Veiled Girls Speak Up). In it about 40 women who were students when the law was passed in 2004 share their stories.
Tevanian said that veiled Muslim women suffer such a shortage of work opportunities that they tend to pass on their jobs to another one Muslim woman when they leave or hear of an opening. "That is what they call ‘les plans voilées’ – ‘the veiled network.’"
During an almost two-hour interview at a cafe in the Belleville district of Paris, Tevanian related numerous stories of Muslim women choosing expatriation, giving up work and educational opportunities and secluding themselves. Some, he said, spend years at university to keep themselves active, while some women choose to create their own business.
Laila Glovert, 33, left France four years ago for London, where she works as a health advisor in a clinic to help smokers quit. For all that time she has lived apart from her daughters and husband.
Career opportunities keep her in London but she is also hindered from returning to France by the memory of a woman who yelled at her to go back to her own country and hit her multiple times with her shopping trolley in the streets of Paris.
"I will never return to France," Glovert, who converted to Islam 13 years ago, told Women’s eNews in an email interview. "The only thing that could take me back is the day my children can no longer deal with the distance. For now, I visit them often and they come see me during holidays."
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