French Muslim women
push back on the politics of the hijab

June 19, 2021

It was, to many observers, just an ordinary. Two women and two men, dressed in business casual, stood smiling in front of what looked like a park. Above their heads, in bold but cheery font, read the words “Different, but united for you!” in French.

But the candidate on the left, Sara Zemmahi, was wearing a headscarf — a decision that has become decidedly unordinary in French politics.

Zemmahi, a 26-year-old Muslim woman and lab technician, was running in local elections in Montpellier beginning Sunday with the backing of French President Emmanuel Macron’s party, Republique En Marche. The party withdrew its support over the poster in May; its general secretary, Stanislas Guerini, said its values were “not compatible” with “wearing ostentatious religious symbols” on a campaign document.

The controversy was the latest to bring the issue of the headscarf back into the conversation in France, whose secularism has for years imposed restrictions on where and when Muslim women can wear head and face coverings. In April the French Senate voted to bar girls under 18 from wearing headscarves in public — a move that is unlikely to become law because it lacks political support in the legislature’s lower house and is widely seen as unconstitutional. Another amendment would prevent mothers who wear hijab from accompanying their children on school trips.

In 2010 the government passed legislation banning full face coverings, including the burqa and niqab, in public, citing concerns about safety and inequality. In 2004, France passed a law banning overt religious symbols — such as head coverings — in public schools.

“It’s nothing new,” said Rim-Sarah Alouane, a French legal scholar and expert in religious freedom. “It’s interesting to see that more Muslims are being constantly accused of not assimilating, not taking part in society. It’s not true. The more they’re participating in society and democratic life, the more it becomes a problem.”

Zemmahi and the three candidates on her ticket are running as independents. “We’re not giving up,” she told Reuters. “This is my neighborhood, I was born here. The headscarf wasn’t an issue for the four of us.”

She’s a clear but rare voice in the debate. Analysts noted that when the issue emerges in French politics, Muslim women’s voices are usually glaringly absent from the conversation.

While Zemmahi’s story captured national attention, Muslim women throughout France — teachers, writers, entrepreneurs, mothers — face challenges around their headscarves every day.

Nine of them told The Washington Post their stories. Though many in France may see it as a symbol of submissiveness, for these women, the hijab is a symbol of strength and commitment to their culture and religion.

Translations have been edited for clarity and brevity.