France takes a stricter stance towards the Islamic veil than the U.S. Yet despite legal protections, Muslim women still face discrimination in the U.S.

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Pakistani women hold a banner during a rally to mark World Hijab Day and show solidarity for Muslim women in France. Karachi, Pakistan, 4 September 2014. (EPA/Shahzaib Akber)
This is Tania Bagan’s last story as News-Decoder’s 2017 summer intern before she returns to her final year of university in the United States. She has written on guns and poverty in America, immigration, French President Emmanuel Macron, tensions in the Gulf and a cyber swat team in Brussels. To read her stories, click here.

By Tania Bagan

As my internship for News-Decoder in Paris draws to a close and I prepare to resume my studies in the United States, I ask myself: Why do the French make a big deal out of the Muslim veil while Americans do not?

And I wonder: Are Muslim women better off in the United States than in France?

To find the answers, I had to dig into the two countries’ histories and their divergent legal treatment of religions. And while I found that France takes a relatively strict stance towards outward displays of religious identity, the United States is no safe haven for Muslim women.

In other words, U.S. citizens should not throw stones in this glass house.

Remember the burkini, the full-body swimsuit, designed to respect Islamic traditions of modest dress, that generated heated religious debate in France last year when mayors in several cities banned the garment from beaches?

It was back in the headlines last month when a mayor in central France defied a court ruling and barred women from wearing the swimsuit at a new swimming pool.

The mayor’s move was the latest example of France’s protracted struggle to assimilate growing numbers of Muslims while adhering to longstanding laws aimed at protecting the country’s secular tradition.

Very different approaches to secularism …

But if both France and the United States are secular countries, why does religious dress provoke gnashing of teeth more in the European nation?

In part because the two countries have fundamentally different approaches to secularism, grounded largely in the different roles that religion played in nation-building.

In the United States, the dominant ideology has historically been “passive secularism,” which allows public visibility of religion. France, on the other hand, practices “assertive secularism,” excluding religion from the public sphere.

The French Republic emerged from a bloody revolution that crushed a monarchy that for centuries had ruled hand-in-glove with the Catholic Church. France was founded on an anti-clerical struggle.

Little wonder, then, that France enacted a law separating church and state in 1905, ensuring the allegiance of all citizens to the republic and requiring the retreat of religion to the private sphere.

The United States emerged from a struggle between colonialists and British rulers, and the state has long taken a more tolerant view than the French towards the public display of religious identity.

Indeed, the First Amendment of the Constitution, adopted in 1791, forbids Congress from restricting an individual’s religious practices.

So while American secularism is founded on the idea that every citizen has a right to publicly exercise their religion and peacefully coexist, French “laïcité” expects people to subjugate religious identity to the notion of a common, national, secular identity.

In France, communitarianism — the prioritization of a specific group identity over national identity — is seen as a threat. French secularism’s goal is homogeneity.

… have led to contrasting laws on the display of religious belief.

The different French and American approaches towards secularism have resulted in contrasting laws on the public display of religious belief such as the Islamic veil, worn by many Muslim women as a sign of piety and modesty.

In France, if the Muslim veil has sparked such heated controversy, it’s because the notion of laïcité treats the garment, in some instances, as privileging Islam and the Muslim community over a shared, national French identity.

Over the years, France has grappled with a series of events that have tested legal boundaries and society’s tolerance of religious identity. The burkini is only the latest such event.

In 1989, three Muslim girls were expelled from their French middle school for refusing to remove their headscarves in class. Fifteen years later, parliament adopted a law banning conspicuous religious signs in state-run primary and secondary schools (but not in institutions of higher education).

In 2011, lawmakers banned face-covering headdress in all public spaces, prompting outrage among some Muslims.

In the United States, the Islamic veil is a less contentious issue. That’s partly because Muslims make up only one percent of the U.S. population, according to the Pew Research Center, compared to about 7.5 percent in France, which has the largest population of Muslims in all of Western Europe.

Also, the U.S. First Amendment and Title VII — implemented in 1964 to prohibit employment discrimination — protect women’s right to wear the veil in the public sphere.

Muslim women under pressure to take off the veil in both countries.

Nonetheless, these measures have not prevented instances of Islamophobia in the United States.

Muslim women wearing a hijab headdress are much more likely to face discrimination than women without such garb, according to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union that found that that nearly seven in 10 women who wear the hijab have reported at least one incident of discrimination, compared to three in ten who do not wear it.

The Islamic veil is one of the five main triggers for anti-Muslim harassment, according to a report by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights and advocacy group. The same report accused several federal government agencies including the Federal Bureau of Investigation of instigating anti-Muslim incidents.

It seems, then, that discrimination against women wearing an Islamic veil is a reality in the United States, despite constitutional protections.

France and the United States have adopted different legal approaches to the treatment of outward displays of religious identity, including the Muslim veil.

But in both countries, Muslim women face pressure to take off the veil if they want to avoid being marginalized.


Tania Bagan is News-Decoder’s 2017 summer intern. She grew up in Venice, Italy, and now attends Haverford College in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania. Later this year she will be entering her final year, studying Comparative Literature. She is a staff writer at Haverford’s Communications Department.

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