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The French government wants to ‘save’ Muslim women by controlling them

On September 8, France’s top administrative court upheld a government ban on the abaya in public schools. The government had announced the measure in August, claiming it broke the rules of secularism in education.

The following Monday, nearly 300 girls showed up to school wearing an abaya; some 67 of them who refused to change were sent home.

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This ban is part of a series of measures undertaken by the French government in recent years, targeting the Muslim minority under the pretext of protecting secularism – or laïcité. How Muslim women should dress has become a particular obsession of the authorities.

In 2004, the country banned the hijab in state schools. Then in 2010, it passed a ban on full-face veils in public. Since 2016, various municipalities have been introducing prohibitions on wearing full-body “burkini” swimsuits in public pools.

In November 2022, the then minister of national education, Pap Ndiaye, introduced a Laïcité plan which aims to prevent students from wearing modest – or what is seen as “religiously affiliated” – clothing in French public schools by “strengthening human monitoring”, ie policing them.

The plan instructs school staff to go after students wearing long skirts and long-sleeved attire to report them and sanction their behaviour if they refuse to change. Disciplinary action includes halting their education by “prohibiting the student’s access to the [school]” until they understand via dialogue that “their behaviour harms secularism and the values of the Republic”.

France’s commitment to secularism, which it defines as the freedom from religious influence, has clearly been transformed into an ugly cult-like system. The original concept of separating church and state to guarantee freedom of thought and to prevent the coercion of religious dogmatism is no longer the driver of official action.

Instead, secularism is instrumentalised to establish complete control over a religious minority and further push them to the margins of society where they hold no social or political power. No other religious group in France is as targeted as the Muslim community.

French government officials routinely accuse it of what they call “Islamist separatism” – the idea that Muslims are hostile to the French nation as a whole and do not want to belong to it. In 2021, the government unveiled legislation aimed at combating this “separatism”, by extending the ban on religious symbols, making it easier to close places of worship and coming after Muslim civil organisations.

While the French authorities have launched systematic attacks on the whole community, Muslim women and girls have borne the brunt of the French authorities’ obsession with controlling their bodies.

It does not matter if the skirt or dress has any religious significance. If the Muslim female body is wearing it, it automatically becomes a danger to French secular values. Tomorrow, if a certain fabric, a T-shirt, or even a certain shoe style gains popularity among Muslim women, France will find a way to ban it.

The policing and literally undressing of Muslim women is justified, with the dominant narrative that the Muslim man is forcing the Muslim child and wife to wear Islamic clothing. The image of the helpless Muslim woman or child in need of liberation is one of the driving forces of these policies. That they are actually themselves coercive is, of course, viciously denied.

It is not the first time France has tried to control what Muslim women wear. In his 1959 book A Dying Colonialism, anticolonial thinker Franz Fanon emphasised that the control of Muslim women was crucial to the French colonial project in Algeria. He wrote that by forcing Muslim women to unveil, the French were “committed to destroying the people’s originality”.

According to Fanon, the French settler authorities “were under instructions to bring about the disintegration at whatever cost, of forms of existence likely to evoke a national reality and to concentrate their efforts on the wearing of the veil, which was looked upon at this juncture as a symbol of the status of the Algerian woman”.

Today, the French authorities have transferred their colonial obsession with controlling colonial subjects onto the Muslim community within their own borders. For Muslim girls, this violent experience starts as early as their first encounter with the public sphere – in the classroom.

By controlling their right to bodily autonomy from a young age, the French government is attempting to not only silence dissent, but program into the minds of Muslim children that it can give and withhold their freedoms as it pleases.

Singling out and targeting Muslim students in schools does not make them more committed to current interpretations of secularism in France. It does, however, traumatise them and further isolates and separates them from the rest of society – ie it does the opposite of “combating separatism”.

For example, Collectif Contre l’Islamophobie en Europe (CCIE), a non-profit organisation that documents and fights against discrimination and human rights violations of Muslims in Europe, has highlighted the case of a French schoolgirl, who was harassed by one of her teachers because her skirt was considered to be too long.

She told CCIE she was forced to take off her skirt and stay in leggings all day. Worse, school staff associated her choice of clothes with terrorism and with the beheading of French teacher, Samuel Paty, which deeply upset her and made her afraid to go back to school.

Unsurprisingly, French government policies and rhetoric attacking the Muslim community are fuelling Islamophobia in the country. In 2022, CCIE reported a total of 501 anti-Muslim incidents compared with 384 in 2021, an increase of more than 30 percent. It has also found that since the implementation of the 2004 law banning the hijab, 59 percent of Islamophobic acts within the education sector were committed against female Muslim students in high school.

The CCIE and other  Muslim civil society groups are also trying to challenge the backwardness of the republic and its mistreatment of Muslim women, but they are facing an uphill battle.

French Muslim women and girls, for their part, are resisting, despite the constant attacks, policing and harassment. They are constantly reasserting their agency and autonomy and choosing to wear the hijab and traditional Islamic clothing in the face of growing hostility from the French authorities. They know these bans are not about protecting them but about denying them the ability to control their own bodies.

Muslim women and girls are not “separatists”, as the state so desperately wants to depict them. They are, however, freedom-seekers, and they will continue fighting for their right to live a life in France free from intimidation and coercion.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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