In early February 2021, France passed an ‘anti-separatism’ bill which has sparked controversy and protests. According to Al Jazeera, this bill aims to limit websites and social media that promote hate speech, implement financial restrictions on foreign donors regarding religious organizations, and ban the use of religious symbols in certain situations, such as the controversial ban on the public use of the hijab for girls under 18. This bill was passed to fight against Islamist separatism and ideology. However, the bill promotes racism, polarization, and a restriction on freedom of speech. Amnesty International condemns the bill as researcher Marco Perolini reports that it is “a serious attack on rights and freedoms in France.”
However, it is not surprising for the country to propose such laws, as France has a controversial history of discriminatory views regarding Islam. According to the Guardian, in 2004, France debated passing a bill that would ban religious symbols in schools, and in 2011, they banned women from wearing the niqab (a face veil) in public places. These laws are aimed at promoting secularism and the fight against Islamic terrorist ideologies.
These controversies have been subject to various responses from the international community. According to the Guardian, the European Court of Human Rights backed the bans in 2014, saying that they were a “legitimate aim” of the French Government. The French President, Emmanuel Macron, openly said in his speech that they “must tackle” Islamist separatism and promote neutral, secularist, and republican values. He also stated that the bans are not aimed at the general Muslim population. However, many disagree with these claims. Protests have been reported by multiple news sites, such as Reuters. Additionally, online protests such as the #HandsOffMyHijab movement have gained traction, where young women are protesting the ban against public use of the hijab for those under 18. The differences between these institutional and societal responses are significant. There is clear dissatisfaction among the public as feelings of discrimination and racism spread, whilst the French government remains deaf to the cries of the people.
Under the guise of ‘republican values’ and promoting ‘secularism,’ governmental institutions allow bills such as this to be passed and condone discriminatory practices. Passive responses such as those of the European Court of Human Rights give the French Government an excuse to justify their misguided intentions. The repercussions of such responses extend to the public. These bills promote discriminatory behaviour towards Muslim women who regard the hijab as a significant part of their identity. Therefore, it is not just the banning of an object, as some may think, it is a symbolic part of an individual’s identity and belonging to a community that is being denied.
On the other hand, the public response continues to be overlooked as an ‘emotional’ response to an otherwise ‘legitimate’ bill. This shows a clear imbalance between higher institutions and public society as institutions primarily act on top-down command. Time Magazine interviewed Associate Professor of Philosophy Alia Al-Saji from McGill University, who stated that these bans are influenced by a colonial mindset where France aims to impose control and secular beliefs over colonies around North Africa and the Middle East, predominantly Muslim countries.
There are several solutions to this issue of discrimination through the law. To begin, governmental institutions should stop viewing other cultures, particularly migrant cultures, and their ways of life as inferior to or a threat to their national identity. Everyone should have the freedom to be able to express their own identity in a way that fits their beliefs and it is a restriction of an individual’s rights for this to be denied. Trying to impose a limit on these expressions creates a culture of discrimination against those cultures and, not only that, but it also creates a culture of fear for the rest of the population. With bans such as the hijab ban, the implication may be that the rest of the French population is led to believe that such an imposition is acceptable and fear those who choose to wear headscarves due to the stigmatization of being associated with Islamic extremism. Discrimination and fear would create an unstable society and may cause alienation.
Secondly, with decisions concerning personal or cultural themes, governments should do the best they can to avoid a top-down decision-making process where higher institutions impose rules and laws without the affirmation or inclusion of those directly affected. These ideas necessitate the participation of the people who are concerned about the implications of such laws, so bottom-up decision-making or a public consensus should be considered. This ensures that those concerned, in this case, Muslim women living in France, feel that their voices are being heard. It ensures they are not alienated from society. It also decreases the chances of discrimination as people are listened to, and they can convey the importance of such cultural items to their identity.
The French Government has a long way to go in convincing government members to stop discriminatory acts. However, reconsideration of bills such as the hijab ban is one step closer to a free, non-discriminatory society.