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Hijab revolution

May 1968 was a month of revolution for France. It was a series of student protests and a general strike that caused the collapse of the De Gaulle government. The events were seen as an opportunity to shake up the “old society” and traditional morality, focusing especially on the education system and employment.

And 40 years later, the legacy of the 1968 clashes live on in the cafés and on the streets of Paris. This April, students and teachers have taken to the streets to demonstrate against government cuts. Thousands of school students and teachers demonstrated on the streets of Paris against a proposed reform of the French education system and government plans to cut education jobs this year, including thousands of teaching posts.

Cafés are deeply associated with political and intellectual life in France, and with rebellion. Whether standing at the bar and drinking espresso or sitting on the old, plush furniture and munching a delicious pastry, the settings seem to change rarely. It was from a café at the Palais Royal that the French Revolution started. And today, there is a new symbol present in the cafes — the hijab (the headscarf worn by Muslim women).

Statistics show Muslims in France count between about five and six million, which is about 10% to 12% of the French population. That is the highest percentage of Muslims in any Western European country.

Until the early Sixties, Muslim immigrants to France came mainly from Algeria, which was still a French colony at that time. As France traditionally had no coordinated labour immigration policy, many immigrants also arrived from other North African countries such as Morocco and Tunisia.

Today, most Muslims in France live in and around industrial centres such as Paris, Marseilles, Lyons and Lille. As many Muslims are part of the unskilled or semi-skilled work force in France, they tend to live in the suburbs (some would call them ghettos) where the living conditions are rather difficult and the crime rate high.

The concentration of Muslims and problems in these areas led to the denomination of these areas as “suburbs of Islam”. As more and younger Muslims realise the discrimination and disadvantage in the system (especially for education and employment), the protest movements increasingly base their critique on a renewed Muslim identity.

As one of its basic principles of state, France has the “Laicite” system (a total separation between state and religion). In 2004, a law was passed that forbids state school students from wearing “conspicuous” religious apparel. The hijab, Jewish skullcaps, Sikh turbans and large Christian crosses were banned. The prevention of Muslim students from wearing the hijab to school led to protests by Muslim youth groups and anti-discrimination groups in France.

Young Muslims saw this as a chance to express their growing frustration about cultural and religious marginalisation and discrimination in French society. A growth of right-wing movements in some parts of France are said to be xenophobic and discriminatory towards Muslims.

In the 1968 revolution, barricades were used in the streets and became the symbols of the revolution, so perhaps the hijab is the symbol of a current revolution. While the hijab is banned in schools, it is not banned in universities. Speaking to a group of young girls wearing the hijab at the Jussieu University, I was told that when a woman wears the hijab, many doors are closed for her — she perhaps can’t get a job in government, and it will be very difficult to find employment elsewhere unless she removes her hijab.

They said that many French are prejudiced and some think that the hijab is a veil of the mind as well. The girls, students of biology and maths, said that even though future employment options look bleak, they still seek knowledge for personal satisfaction. They hope to show other young Muslims that a woman in hijab can fight the prejudice by excelling at university and expressing herself in a good way. “One day we will have Muslim women in hijab that are doctors, lawyers and teachers,” said one girl.

So what can be done to speed up the positive change that these students are so confident about? “Muslims need to start communicating,” a student said. “There is not enough communication between Muslims and the rest of French society. For example, people don’t understand that Muslim women choose to wear the hijab.” A student group, the EMF (Étudiants musulmans de France), is trying to build bridges of understanding between Muslim students and others.

For the male Muslim students, life and opportunity is not that much different — they also face discrimination, especially those from immigrant backgrounds, together with immigrants of all other faiths.

“A student from an immigrant background needs to work harder to succeed, as he may not have the same opportunities as others who are more settled and stable,” said a student of history at the famous Sorbonne University. This student is of Tunisian and French parentage and has already completed a degree in nursing.

“Many of my friends from immigrant backgrounds are becoming lawyers, doctors and teachers — they are proving to the youth out there that even though we come from the ghettos, where things may not be that easy, with hard work, determination and the blessings of God we can accomplish things and make change!”

This is the new spirit of revolution: to be confident, determined and still faithful to one’s beliefs.

So while students complained to me about the discrimination, the widely perceived lack of opportunities and the difficulties associated with growing up in the suburbs, some French Muslim youth are driving change and continuing the French tradition of revolution — as the hijab revolution!

“So what do you think needs to be done to integrate into mainstream French society?” I foolishly asked.

The female student snapped a fierce retort: “We are French! We were born here and have lived here our entire lives. We are already integrated — others need to accept us for who we are: French Muslims!”

I remember reading a quote of a veteran of May 1968: “Barricades close the street but open up the way,” and I wonder just how similar the hijab is to the barricades; it covers the head but opens up the mind.



  1. Miriam Mannak Miriam Mannak 18 April 2008

    Nice piece, very nice. In Holland, there are similar issues with the Hijab. Actually, there has been quite a big anti-Islam wave. I think it is very simplistic from French (or the Dutch) to say that Muslims need to communicate more. Isn’t communication a two-way thing?

  2. me me 18 April 2008

    The Hijab goes against French secular law, the same laws that made French Christians, Jews and all others who accepted them as part of living in France to work together instead of killing each other and build a better society, which in turn created prosperity which attracted these migrants in the first place. If they feel they are been discriminated against why don’t they piss off to one of the many Muslim countries (I know only one secular muslim society Turkey) that don’t have these laws, see if their views are appreciated in those Facist,Religious states, would these Woman even be allowed to attend university in Saudi or Afgahistan? Once again liberal theory working to exterminate itself…

  3. Bob Bob 18 April 2008

    It is a tough one… as far as I am aware, there are no Christian churches in Saudi, as well as it being illegal to show a cross or have a bible.

    Surely there needs to be some reciprocity when it comes to living the lifestyle, and following the religion one wants to, in this day and age of global mobility? If someone feels unhappy because they are as not as accepted in a different country to where they come from, surely the easy answer is to move to a society that more fully shares your morals and traditions? Besides, in any society, there are people that struggle and don’t get the opportunities they may feel they deserve. Life is not fair, deal with it.

  4. me me 18 April 2008

    Even better would the house of saud allow anyone to even question their ‘rules’ especially some liberated teenage woman, I doubt it. If the different christian communities and the jews can live with the rules so can the muslims until they are in majority and can push their facist rules down the throats of everyone else.

  5. Hax Hax 18 April 2008

    It is the same secular law system in France that
    did not oppose torture in Algeria. It are rather similar law systems that did not oppose European-committed atrocities, which are now called “crimes against humanity”. The Dutch in Indonesia, the UK in Kenya, Portugal in Mozambique.

    Concentration camps run by the oh so Christian Pinochet government (with ample support from the West). Need I go on?

    Oh wait, when non-Muslims do these things, then of course it is justified. The act itself, is justification enough. Sheer brilliance.

    And we will not even speak of the virtues of allegedly Islam based apartheid in South Africa.

    Oh wait, that was not the Muslim faith responsible for the religious justification of said system. So, we should blame the Muslims for not being responsible for that? Brilliant.

    Shall we talk about fundamentalist Hindus, Christians, Muslims, and Jews? It is not hard to find acts of utter insanity commited by any of these groups.

    But it is important to keep in mind that these fundamentalist idiots are a small minority and totally not representative of the religion as a whole.

    Not all Christians need to have three wives to have a chance of going into heaven. Yet, the “Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints” in the USA requires just that of its believers.

    As for the house of Saud, ever wonder how that came into power? The truth is not that pretty.

    In the allegedly liberated West and other Christian countires, they have a hard enough time not to blame the victim of rape for the crime, instead of the perpetrator. All kinds of special laws have been devised to at least allow the woman a choice in whether or not she wants to carry a rapist’s child.

    Life is not fair. But it is ironic that those who spout their xenophobic vitriol are the first to reject the principle of Affirmative Action. What gives?

    If you complain about it, should you not go back to the Netherlands, France, England or whence you came from ‘me’?

  6. Alisdair Budd Alisdair Budd 18 April 2008

    For your information:


    The British Police allow muslim female officers to wear hijab on duty and it is being currently finalized and designed as a nationwide standard uniform option.

    The British police have had a “Police turban” in black with white cheque stripe for Sikhs since the 1970’s, though the irish wont allow it.

    Any time you’d like to notice how easy it is to make allowances for people’s religious symbols as part of a national identiy and public uniform for a govt body, let alone private or public services feel free.

    The idea of hijab as freedom doesn’t come up since no-one is stopping them here. (Though some schools stop short of the full face mask, since the children cant see the mouth speaking, and in case of identification.)

    Doesn’t solve racial or religious problems but does make the minor ones disappear and then you can concentrate on solving those issues that really matter, like housing, jobs, employment, discrimination, healthcare, etc etc.

  7. jislaaik jislaaik 18 April 2008

    A poorly informed article, even if engagingly written. Any society has an interest in replicating itself: why should mainstream France abandon laicite as a central tenet of their social contract? It has guided France since the country overthrew the violent and despotic relationship between church and ruling elite. Now, I do not doubt that French Muslims are discriminated against and that any signal of ‘difference’ (like the hijab) probably arouses racist/sectarian sentiment and sometimes hostility. But that is their lot, and their appeal for equal treatment succeeds only to the extent that the indigenous citizens’ mores and values (nominally liberal and democratic as they may be, which I suppose the author of the article is trying to highlight) allow it. I think what critics of this article (and the whole Islam in Europe deal) fail to articulate is that the French Muslim position seems to be be a distinct contradiction, an apparent use of French liberal democratic language/processes for the purposes of striking down one of the hallmarks of liberal democratic France – laicite. Proponents of laicite do themselves no favour when they contend that a couple of thousand French hijab-wearing schoolgirls signal the end of French society and the beginning of a fundamentalist Muslim onslaught. Really the lack of willingness to itegrate on the part of French Muslims – the desire to disinguish themselves – separate themselves from established and closely-held French societal norms and values – is what drives indigenous French fears. Could such a group that chooses separateness ever be trusted, would they not foster some of political Islam’s admittedly disturbing tendencies? After all , France can hardly draw comfort from multicultural Britian where a group of born-and-bred British Muslims suicide-bombed the Tube a few years ago. But after decades of exclusion, social injustice and poverty meted out to them, the indigenous French have only themselves to blame.

  8. aussie aussie 22 April 2008

    nice article Bilal. :)

  9. queen_Lestat queen_Lestat 27 April 2008

    I think these ‘anti’ hijab/conspicuous religious identifiers or whatever they want to call it, go against the very notion of European-ness and French-ness.

    The French Revolution and consequently French society was based on a principle of Liberte (Freedom) and for me, Freedom encompasses the right to practice one’s religion freely or to be totally secular if you want to as well.

    If they believed so strongly in the concept of Freedom as they claim they do,then perhaps it might be a better show of commitment to the values of Freedom if they just let people practice their religion(or not)as they see fit.

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