Can curbing a woman’s right to religious expression affect her self-identity, her level of education, or her income? According to Clayman Institute Faculty Research Fellow and Stanford assistant professor of political science Vicky Fouka, the French headscarf ban in France has emerged as a model case of the adverse effects of further marginalizing and stifling a minority community.
In March 2004, the French national assembly passed a legislation to ban “ostentatious religious symbols” from schools, consonant with the national idea of laïcité, or secularity. The legislation’s general wording, according to Fouka, targeted mostly Muslim schoolgirls who wore headscarves in schools.
Until Fouka conducted her research, there has been no systematic empirical evidence of the effects of this ban on Muslim women. This silence around the ban’s repercussions, along with the surge of immigrants in Europe in the last decade, therefore, imbues the issue with political significance in addition to offering psychological insight.
Through her research, Fouka sought to break this silence around the issue and understand how these girls and young women have been affected by the ban. In her Faculty Research Fellows presentation, “Political Secularism and Muslim Integration in the West: Evidence of the French Headscarf Ban,” she introduced and explained a longitudinal study that drew comparisons between the pre- and post-ban time periods.
The Islamic headscarf controversy in France dates back nearly three decades, when three Muslim schoolgirls were suspended from a middle school in Creil for refusing to remove their headscarves in 1989. At the time, the principal of the middle school alleged that headscarves were a part of the “insidious jihad” propagated by fundamentalists in France.
Fouka shows a steady decline in completion of secondary education by Muslim women born in 1986 or after – those women who are in school when the ban takes effect in 2004 – relative to those born beforehand and not affected by the ban. Further, a small margin of these women (post-ban) was enrolled in universities, as they either never graduated from high school or took longer to finish their schooling. Fouka’s research shows startling consequences of the ban: by 2011, Muslim girls were 20% less likely to be enrolled in schools as opposed to non-Muslim girls. In the longer term, these women were found to be 40% less frequently employed and 30% more likely to be involved in unpaid housework.
Young Muslim women’s attitude towards their own “Frenchness” complicates the issue, as women who were in school during the ban’s implementation are 30% more likely to feel French but also equally likely to feel that others do not see them as French. The tension between their self-perception vis-à-vis how they are perceived by other members of French society merits further study, Fouka believes, in assessing the psychological impact of the ban. This additional research is already in the process of being conducted by Fouka and Aala Abdelgadir, a Political Science PhD candidate at Stanford, who have been conducting interviews with French Muslim women.
The fact that the law signals the “inherent non-Frenchness” of Muslim headscarves—as a way to justify the ban itself—creates an identity dilemma for these women. These women, already situated at the margins of society, are thus presented with a choice, where attempts to assimilate into either French or Muslim culture can isolate them from the other, as if the two cultures could not comingle or coexist. If they decide to assimilate into French culture by erasing—literally, removing—elements of their culture from their bodies, moreover, there is no guarantee that French people will see them as French. It is critical, here, to note that the headscarf ban is directed specifically at women; sexism inheres in the religious symbols ban, as it affects women only. In Fouka’s words, therefore, these women experience a “double jeopardy” by being part of a disadvantaged population that is further singled out for its religious attire.