Muslim woman

PARIS (WOMENSENEWS)–Many French Muslim women say the doors of national sisterhood are closed against them if they wear a religious head covering.

"They have always viewed the veil as a symbol of enslavement, submission, alienation," Marie Laure Bousquet, a retired English teacher, told Women’s eNews during a recent interview at her home on the outskirts of Paris.

A key moment of realization about that, says Bousquet, came a decade ago, when feminists in France sided with the government when it passed a law in 2004 banning religious signs in public schools.

The law, which has had a discouraging effect on schoolgirls who wear the hijab, breaks a key rule for Bousquet. As a French Muslim feminist and a teacher she believes it is mandatory to never refuse access to education to girls after years spent fighting to earn that right.

Islam and feminism, she says, are often viewed as an impossible combination in Western countries, such as France. "Muslim feminists are denied existence here….It is an odd feeling when you find yourself in a gathering of feminists and for them you are non-existent." (Her comments and those of the other women quoted in this article have been translated from French.)

Bousquet currently serves as secretary for the Paris-based French Collective of Feminists for Equality, which has been demanding the cancellation of the 2004 ban. The group members say the ban is discriminatory because the main group it singles out is Muslim women who wear the hijab.

Ismahane Chouder and Louisa Belhamci are co-presidents of the French Collective, whose members include Muslims and non-Muslims. Chouder wears the veil and Belhamci does not, a combination that reflects the group’s mission to both represent and promote diversity and tolerance.

"We do not promote the wearing of the veil yet we defend the right for each woman to choose," Chouder told WeNews in an interview at the group’s office. "That is the root of feminism. Things are locked in France because we don’t discuss rights but we look at issues in a binary way, you are either for or against."

Seeking Broader Agenda

Although Muslim feminists have their own fights to lead, Chouder chafes at being constantly tied to a fight over how women choose to practice their religion. "I am a feminist! We have to stop using the term Muslim feminist because somehow it restricts the possibility that I could show solidarity to women and people who are not necessarily Muslim."

Like the other women interviewed for this article, Chouder criticizes those who base their gender equality arguments on France’s 1905 law of "laicite" or secularism, separating church and state.

"It is nonsense to think secularism gave French women their rights when in the ’40s we were still fighting to get the rights to vote," says Chouder. French women attained voting rights in 1945, 25 years after suffrage for U.S. women.

In France, male lawmakers have no interest in gender equality, Chouder says, but they suddenly become feminists when it comes to imposing a restrictive law on Muslim women.

French "feminism has been redefined by the State and is selling this image of a woman freed from spirituality and religion," Chouder says.

The women interviewed all underlined the interconnection of sexism, racism and feminism in France.

Shadows of Colonial History

Like others who were interviewed, Elsa Ray, spokesperson of the Collective Against Islamophobia in France, or CCIF, links France’s restrictions on the veil to its history in North Africa.

As a former colonizer of several countries in that region whose populations are mostly Muslim, France has developed what Ray calls "a misconstrued vision of the indigenous woman, head down and wearing a veil."

"We have to understand that there is a diversity of feminism across the world," Ray says.

Chouder, however, says few non-Muslim French feminists grasp that. "They are convinced that they are on an emancipatory mission to civilize women born in France but from various ethnic backgrounds," she says.

Chouder says French politicians are ignoring the realities in France and keep referring to abuses perpetrated against women in foreign countries. Saudi Arabia and Iran are often used as indicator countries when it comes to the status of women in Muslim countries.

"Should I be held accountable for all the violations committed towards women in these countries?" wonders Chouder. "Every time, we try to engage in a discussion in France, we are being told about abuses and practices happening somewhere else."

Rahba Chatar is a mother of three who can no longer accompany her children for school outings due to a ministerial ruling issued in 2012 by the Ministry of National Education. Along with 12 other mothers, she petitioned a court to overturn the rule. She refuses to be viewed as a "submissive" woman.

"I think I proved it through my legal actions that I am far from being silent. I am far from being that mom who spends hours in her kitchen like they think. I have a professional life. I have a personal life and I have a social life," she told WeNews in a phone interview.

Chatar denounces the double standards of French policies. "They sell us this idea of gender equality and how much they want women to take a bigger place in the society, yet they have excluded Muslim women from the French society."