Monday, November 10, 2014

All of them are facing stop signs of one kind or another in French society because they wear the head-covering veil or hijab. “I broke out in tears,” says one of them, recalling the day she was told she couldn’t accompany her small child on a school trip.

women in headscarves
Credit: user:ozgurmulazimoglu from Wikimedia Commons 

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PARIS (WOMENSENEWS)— Since the ban of religious signs in public schools in 2004, French Muslim women wearing the veil say they have experienced a degree of discrimination that intensified.

Closely following the 2004 ban, a cabinet member extended the ban to workers in most public services, such as hospitals and prisons. Two years ago, mothers who wear a head covering were forbidden from attending children on school outings. (On Oct. 28, French Minister of Education Najet Vallaud-Belkacem expressed the wish to rescind the rule, French TV News BFM TV reported.)

The Muslim women in this article share the difficulties of wearing the head-covering veil or hijab as part of their religious practice. They spoke with Women’s eNews recently in interviews conducted in French and translated into English.

Retooling Her Work as a Lawyer

Imen Bichaoui, 24, lives at Meaux, just outside Paris. She is currently working as an intern for the French union, Confederation of Christian Workers (CFTC), and plans to graduate from the Paris Bar School in September 2015. Bichaoui says the veil that covers her hair has hindered her from being hired by law firms. When she sought help from advocacies promoting diversity she was told that “certain diversities are not too good to display.” After numerous rejections, Bichaoui changed her career plans. She initially wanted to be an in-house corporate counselor but has decided it will be too hard to find an employer. So instead she plans to open her own law firm once she graduates. She is worried about pleading a case at a court because of her veil, so she’s shying away from litigation.

Legally, there is no rule that would forbid me from pleading at a court with my hijab on . . . Now because I am afraid that I could harm the interests of my clients, I am not sure that I will dare plead at the court. I would let someone else do it. I think I will wind up doing more counseling than litigation.

Separated from Other Students

Sirine Ben Yahiaten, 17, has been wearing the veil since she was 14. From December 2011 through May 2012, she says she was harassed by the head of her school as well as other staff members who wanted her to stop wearing wide hair bands and long skirts. Eventually Ben Yahiaten left to complete her education at another school.

It was the month of December and it was cold. I had a long skirt and sweatpants underneath. I was wearing a wide hair band on my head. One of the teachers called me upon my hair band and asked me to remove it. I didn’t understand why. He told me that it was an ostentatious sign. There was nothing of ostentatious in my opinion. He asked me three times to remove it. I kept refusing. He then took to me the office of the principal. While waiting for the principal, her secretary told me that I should not be wearing a pair of sweatpants under my skirt because there was a law that bans such dress code. The truth is that there is no law. I tried to explain that the weather warrants my choice of dressing… The principal didn’t show up so I was sent back. But on my way back to class, I was asked to return to the principal’s office. She told me that my skirt was too long and students walking behind me could fall because of its length, so she said that I was posing a threat to the security of the students. As for the headband, she said it prevents me from hearing well during the class. After that episode, I was sent to study period class everyday until I would agree to take off my hair band and long skirt. Every time I entered the school, someone was waiting for me to accompany me to the study period class since I was no longer allowed to have any contact with other students. I was not allowed to go out during class breaks. I was given exercises to do but I was never given makeup material for the courses that I had been missing.

Barred from School Outings

Rabha Chatar, 40, is a practicing Muslim and working mother of three who lives in Meru, a small town located in L’Oise. Chatar is no longer allowed to accompany her children on school outings due to her hijab. Chatar, along with 12 other mothers, has gone to court to fight this school-outing ban, which was imposed first in 2012 by a memo from then-Education Minister Chatel which was followed a year later by a formal document, The Charter of SecularismTheir attempts have been so far unsuccessful.

I am a mother who has always been very much involved in my children’s development. I have always taken part in school activities for their wellbeing. For my son’s first year in kindergarten, I asked to have my name on the list of parents available to accompany for school outings. It was a Monday. The teacher called me and asked me if I could be available to accompany for an outing on Tuesday. I informed her that I would take my morning off from work to be with them. On Monday evening, I reconfirmed with the teacher once my employer approved my time off. On Tuesday morning, the teacher told me that the regional head of education had issued a note during the night forbidding mothers who wear the veil to be part of school activities. I broke out in tears. I didn’t understand what had happened overnight. I had the support and the solidarity from several parents along with the head of the school and the teachers. With other Muslim mothers who are veiled, we started to organize to legally combat this injustice… It took a toll on me, physically and mentally. I was not feeling good at all. I was crying a lot. I was sleeping barely three hours a night and I even lost 10 kilograms due to the anguish… Today, my other daughter, who is 11, attends a private school. I would like to have my two other children in a private school too but they are full. There are private Catholic schools where there is no discrimination because of my religion. At least I know I can be part of school activities with my children…

Disrupting Her Education

Hanane Karimi, 36, who teaches sociology at the University of Strasbourg, is well known among French Muslim feminists for organizing female students hurt by the 2004 ban on religious signs. She was sensitive to the issue because even before the ban was passed, when she was in high school, she had been pressured by teachers to remove her veil in school, which discouraged her so much she stopped her education. From 1999 through 2004, she dedicated her time to her family life. She got married and had two children. In 2004, she decided to resume her education but at first she did that online, from home.

I left the university due to the intolerance toward the veil. In 2004, I decided to resume my education online so I wouldn’t have to deal with other issues due to my veil. I already had a family to take care of. At the same time, I was watching closely the effects the ban started to have on veiled female students. We started to organize and meet to take actions with people defending the same cause. For one year before the law was passed, a lot of female students who were veiled didn’t have access to their classes. They were sent to stay in the library. They were treated like a plague, and were not allowed to have contact with their classmates because they were viewed as dangerous. So we organized to provide them with the lessons they had missed in class… I eventually decided to go to the university to pursue a master’s degree. I came across people who gave me my confidence back. Since then, things are not going so badly. People started to know me, especially in the sociology circle and the feminist milieu… However, I don’t want to be seen as a veiled woman by students, I want to be viewed as a PhD graduate in sociology giving a class. For that reason, I sometimes remove my veil when I teach. I don’t think that I am being less modest by doing so. As I grew older, my relationship to the veil changed. I had worn it in a very traditional way (covering neck and chest) but for the past two years I have worn it as a turban. I feel more comfortable than with a traditional veil, which is often rejected. Yet, even with the turban I stay who I am and I am identified as a Muslim. Now I also think the law of 2004 made me the feminist that I am today. It helped me to see the sexism of certain men in the Muslim community and on the other hand the rejection of Muslim women by the State. Then you have no other choice than to stand up and defend the rights of women to be free and empowered.

Leaving Her Family and Country

Leila Glovert, 33, lives in London. French-born, she converted to Islam 13 years ago and started to wear the hijab a few years later. Four years ago, she decided to look for a job in London after the company where she was doing a training decided not to hire her due to her veil. Despite, the reluctance of her family to let her go, she headed to the British capital where she works as a health advisor in clinic.

I became jobless. I applied to jobs and got called for interviews. Once I showed up at the interviews, I was being told “we will call you back” or simply “we don’t want the Islamic veil.” I sent hundreds of resumes and each interview ended up that way. I started to retreat into myself. I was staying home, keeping myself busy, working out, taking photos, doing my make up. But I didn’t want to stay at home. My children were used to see me working. So I decided to go to London. I had lived over there for two years and I knew that it would not be an issue to work with my hijab. My daughters’ father didn’t want them to come with me. Nobody wanted me to leave. My parents who are very involved in my daughters’ growth didn’t me to go too. Yet, I decided to go and look for a job and come home often. It has been four years now that we have been living apart. It is hard. Very hard. It is very difficult for all of us but my daughters’ father is great. He is supporting me and understands my decision. My daughters now understand. They also witnessed in the past attacks that targeted me. For a child, it is horrible to see their mother being insulted. I remember one woman in particular who started to tell my daughter not to become “a witch like her mother.” I am impulsive and I insulted that woman back. My daughter got so scared that she almost peed herself… Today I am blooming again as a veiled woman living in London. I am not scared to go outside… I will never return to France. The only thing that could make me return would be if my children get tired of the distance.”

Hajer Naili is a New York-based reporter for Women’s eNews. She has worked for several radio stations and publications in France and North Africa and specializes in Middle East and North Africa women in Islam.