French Muslim Women Speak Out on the Horrifying Upcoming Presidential Elections
With far right politician Marine Le Pen running for president on an anti-Islam platform, we speak to French hijabis about their hopes and fears for the elections.
Photo by Thomas Brémond
With the final round of elections on Sunday, voters in France must choose between Emmanuel Macron, the centrist leader of the fledgling En Marche! (French for "On the Move") party, and Marine Le Pen, the former leader of the far right National Front.
Le Pen has run a terrifying anti-immigration and anti-Islam campaign. In one speech, she described multiculturalism as "the soft weapon of Islamic fundamentalists, which is allowed by useful idiots under the guise of tolerance." If elected, she would ban religious symbols like the hijab in public and cap immigration at 10,000 a year.
Le Pen's rhetoric is nothing new to Muslim women in France. The country has waged an obsessive legal war against headscarves since 2004, when the full-face veils like the burqa and the niqab were banned. Those who work in the public sector, including teachers, are banned from wearing the hijab altogether.
We spoke to six Muslim activists and feminists about their fears and hopes for this weekend's election, and what it's like to be a hijabi in France.
Imane Chinoune, 25, social science student, Paris
Seeing naked women in adverts, dancing suggestively in music videos or being considered as sexual objects is another form of submission. The hijab is a way to liberate myself from all this. I want people to be interested in my ideas first rather than my physique.
As a Muslim feminist, I fight for the right of all women. If a woman wants to go out topless and wearing a mini skirt, it's not my problem; she can do what she wants to.
Read more: How Islamophobia Hurts Muslim Women the Most
There are some women who want to wear the hijab here, and that there are other countries where women fight not to wear it. Each country has a different history. I unfortunately know some girls who feel forced to wear the hijab, but it remains a minority—two or three people out of dozens of women who don't feel pressured.
Islam is a part of France today. French Muslims have to stop being presented as some foreign thing. If we are less discriminated and marginalised, things will get better. I will vote on Sunday, it's my duty as a citizen.
Leyla Larbi, 27, activist, Bordeaux
The previous generation didn't wear the hijab as much as our generation does. Our mothers and grandmothers just wanted to integrate into French society.
The fact that the hijab has been under so much scrutiny—called wrong and oppressive for women—made us wonder what was the problem. So many of us started to look into the meaning of the hijab as a result of this ongoing controversy. We came back to our religion and culture, to our religious texts and started to wear it.
We Muslim feminists find solace in reaffirming our religious identity. When we decide to wear the hijab, we're not thinking, "I'm doing this to bother Sarkozy or Le Pen." The French assimilationist model doesn't acknowledge the plurality of our identities.
I don't vote, but I respect those who do. No political party respects my identity.
Hawa Ndongo, 25, student, Seine-et-Marne
I chose to wear the hijab when I was 20, it was a spiritual quest. The aim of the hijab is to symbolize the relationship between God and I, and to go further in this relationship, I started to wear the hijab. Whether people accept it or not, I will continue to wear it.
People tell us that the hijab is a tool of patriarchal oppression. This argument is so tiring. Women should be able to use their bodies in the way they want to, to dress the way they like, without being judged or stigmatized.
I recently changed my mind about voting, I hesitated a lot as many candidates don't represent us and make us feel like second-class citizens, but I will vote against Le Pen as I don't want the situation for the most vulnerable people in France to get worse.
Nargesse Bibimoune, 25, writer and activist, Grenoble and Toulouse
Extreme discourses have been normalized. In France, the minister of women's rights compared hijabi women to black slaves who "were for slavery." If politicians are able to speak about us in that way, why wouldn't the man on the street?
Nowadays there is no longer this fear of the National Front. Today it is a possibility that she will be elected. But I tell myself, if Marine comes to power, maybe some people will revolt.
People use to tell me my hijab was part of a teenage crisis, and that I was rebelling against France's values. I heard people comparing the hijab with the g-string. It's always the same negative judgment when women decide to use their bodies in their own way.
I don't vote. I don't think that voting a president in every five years is necessarily a political act... None of them represent me.
Hada Korera, 22, carer, Val D'Oise
Racism in France is a huge issue. A few years back I was on holidays with my family in Tréport, a seaside town in Northern France. I was waiting in a parked car for my brothers and sisters. Another car drove past very near us, a couple at the front with two kids in the back seat. They opened their window and shouted at us, "Move out of the way, dirty blacks!" Two years before in the same town, a kid who was maybe eight or nine called my sister and I monkeys.
I will abstain to vote. I don't feel represented by any of the candidates. This may seem sadistic but I am curious to see what will happen if Marine Le Pen wins. Whether she wins or not, it will be the same.
Hanane Karimi, 37, sociology PhD student, Strasbourg
Last January I was at the Senate in Paris. I found myself in front of heinous feminist groups. I was booed when I said that women who wear the hijab are women. I stayed dignified, and held until Strasbourg to burst into tears. I felt very lonely, and hated to be a feminist that day.
What gives me hope is witnessing the dynamism of young Muslim women who feel strong enough to build local solidarities with other minority groups, [like] gay groups. This would have been unthinkable ten to 15 years ago.
The current rise of Islamophobia is very dangerous. We're heading straight for fascist dead ends. One day I was in a supermarket, and a man came up to me and told me, "One day, a second Hitler will come, and he will exterminate all of you."
Terrorism is disrupting our willingness to rethink society as something inclusive. I am not saying that there aren't groups that menace democracy, but conflating everyday Muslims who have an individual and apolitical religious practice with terrorists is sort of a Muslim hunt.
Politicians have no desire to understand us. At what point will they be able to think France as non-white, as a diverse country? In France it's bad to speak about race, but it is a social reality. In this country Islam has become synonymous with race, or Arab identity.
[I would never vote for Marine Le Pen but] as dramatic as her presidency would be and the repercussion on our lives, I sometimes wonder if we don't need a Le Pen tsunami [to bring things to breaking point].