Secularism and the Veil Controversy in France


In the United States, freedom means being able to wear a veil. In France, freedom means being forbidden to wear one.

Behind this extremely basic interpretation used to reveal (no pun intended) a certain understanding that the U.S. has of the current debate surrounding the Muslim headscarf across the Atlantic, we can analyze two drastically different conceptions of “secularism”.

For France, an individual has the duty to assimilate a certain number of values that are at the core of the French system, such as democracy, freedom of conscience, the concept of “laicité.” Similar to secularism, this idea not only stresses the importance of separating religion from the state but also clearly forbids religious conduct in the republic’s institutions and by its representatives. This is in stark contrast with the U.S., where to give only one example, the president swears on a Holy Bible. This difference in the relation that the U.S. and France have towards religion is absolutely crucial in understanding why the debate surrounding the hijab is often misunderstood or twisted.

Even though the problem started emerging in the late 1980’s, what made the question famous worldwide was the decision in 2004 by France to ban any “apparent” sign or dress that overtly stated a person’s religious belonging at schools. It is important to note that this law is only applicable to students indoors and I have myself witnessed a young girl arriving to class with it and taking it off as she was entering her high school.

The latest debate that sparked fresh tensions between 2009 and 2010 involved the complete ban of the integral veil, or niqab. This was a very different story that involved a tiny number of individuals and that was put forward for political reasons linked to immigration and gaining votes from the extreme right. Unfortunately, various politicians played on the population’s fears and often used the word “burqa” (non-existent in France) instead of niqab, making an easy parallel with the awful conditions of women in Afghanistan under the Taliban. This time the main arguments put forward were the fight against Islamic fundamentalism, upholding women’s rights and security issues linked with identification. The law was passed but the stain of intolerance remained.

The American point of view is that the government would infringe on its citizens basic liberty by legislating on an element of their attire. The French point of view instead is that by limiting the impact of anything religious in the state’s sphere, religion remains something private and not political. Both positions are defensible.

At a time where Islamophobia seems to be on the rise in the United States following the outrage over the construction of a Muslim community centre in New York and the Congress hearings into the “radicalisation” of the American Muslim community, governments on both sides of the Atlantic should reaffirm the core values they believe in and make sure that these are respected throughout its populations.

Photo Credit: Naeem Meer