By Nadeya Hussain –
In 2010, France passed a law prohibiting women from wearing a face-covering known as a Niqab in public. The Niqab is a type of veil that covers the face for the sake of modesty.
In the same year, the 2010 Equality Act was introduced in the UK. The act aims to protect rights and provide equality for all, by specifically outlining protections from discrimination. Mentioned in the act is the notion that people must not be discriminated against because of their religion or belief system.
I’m bringing up a UK Act of Parliament specifically because of how France’s new legislation appears to stand in stark opposition to these kinds of values.
What was introduced?
French parliamentarians have introduced a new bill named ‘Supporting respect for the principles of the Republic’. Widely referred to as the ‘Separatism Bill’, the legislation therein includes:
- Banning the Hijab publicly for any Muslim woman under the age of 18. (A Hijab is a religious head covering worn by Muslim women)
- An extension on the Hijab bans on University students.
- Any mothers who wear the Hijab and not allowed to join school trips with their child.
- Pools and swimming areas can refuse to allow the wearing of burkinis.
The French government claims that this legislation aims to tackle hate speech and to give the country the means to fight Islamic radicalism.
Ironically, this ‘separatism bill’ appears to be separating the Muslim community. Though many believe that this bill strengthens the country and its ability to eradicate extremism, others believe such a ban showcases a level of Islamophobia that has now divided Muslim citizens living in France.
Some believe such legislation has breached the religious freedoms of expressions that every person is entitled to while unjustly targeting Europe’s largest Muslim population of 5.7 million.
This bill was initially introduced in October 2020 by French President Emmanuel Macron. After much deliberation, MPs approved the bill by a vote of 347 to 151 on Tuesday, February 16, 2021.
It then was sent to be examined by the senators on March 30. Some amendments were approved and passed, such as legislation around the Burkini and allowing mothers to join school trips.
Although it has been passed by MPs, the Separatism Bill is not yet in effect, as it will first need to be confirmed by the National Assembly.
While this means there is a chance the bill might not fully go through, the ramifications of such a law bring up an important conversation about Islamophobia and the attempt to regulate young women’s bodies in western societies.
Throughout its time being passed through French Parliament, the bill has caused no small amount of controversy for its perceived view on the policing of Muslim women’s bodies. On social media platforms, Muslim women have been posting pictures using the tag #handsoffmyhijab across in protest.
French and British comparisons
In my opinion, the ban on the Hijab in France comes down to two things: Institutionalised Islamophobia and the perceived right to regulate women’s bodies on what they can and cannot wear.
The bill has been justified by many through the concept of secularism, the belief that Muslim women are being forced or otherwise coerced into wearing the Hijab and that they are oppressed. Such a thought process simply shows a lack of respect and understanding of other cultures and religions.
The UK government recently released The Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparity Audit, a report which covers health, education, criminal justice, and employment in the UK. The report positions itself as providing the UK with a road map for ‘racial fairness’.
Although the report has been criticised by many due to controversies around some of the points raised (One part of the report states: “We no longer see a Britain where the system is deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities”), it does yet outline some important ideas.
For example, the report states: “In the last 30 years, attitudes towards racism and hate crimes have changed dramatically, and there is a much greater awareness and willingness to record and monitor such incidents by the authorities.”
Despite the relatively short distance between the UK and France (The shortest route across the English Channel is only 21 miles), the difference in policies and procedure around such legislation appears very different.
In times of strife, Muslim communities in the UK often come together with the common goals of safety and protection in mind.
Within Kirklees for example, we have many Islamic societies that empower Muslim women and men by supporting them in many ways.
The Indian Muslim Welfare Society, established in 1957, aims to promote a positive image of Muslims in British society today and address social and racial deprivation. This society was established before the Equality Act and many other legislations.
Huddersfield Pakistani Community Alliance, established in 1998, wants to improve life opportunities for the community’s disadvantaged members through education, employment, and active participation in civic life.
The University of Huddersfield’s Islamic Society helps serve and support students of all faiths and beliefs.
These kinds of initiatives focus on building social cohesion in the community for anyone living in Kirklees.
Beyond Kirklees, many more organisations and societies across the UK work tirelessly for their communities.
The Muslim Association of Britain, founded in 1997, is well known for its participation in protests opposing the Iraq war and promote Muslim participation in Britain.
Also founded in 1997, the Muslim Council of Britain is the UK’s largest and most diverse national Muslim umbrella organisation with over 500 members, including mosques, schools, charitable associations, and professional networks.
Muslim Engagement and Development is a not-for-profit company that helps empower and encourage British Muslims within local communities.
It was set up in 2014 and aims to work with Muslim and non-Muslim organisations to ensure anti-Muslim prejudice is regarded as socially unacceptable.
None of this is to say that French Muslim communities do not have their own initiatives or that they fail to do as much as those in the UK, it simply aims to highlight the ways in which different legislation can affect the way we perceive and view those in our community.
Different societies and counties will always have different rules and regulation around freedom of expression, but it’s important to recognise the universal human rights that everybody on the planet shares. Muslim women should be able to wear clothing that expresses their faith without there being any forms of discriminative laws and rules.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Kirklees Local Television Ltd.