Everyday Gendered Racism: Injunctions to Assimilate in the Lives of Veiled Muslim Women in France and Switzerland

Sélima Kebaïli is Senior Researcher, Centre for Gender Studies, University of Lausanne; Eléonore Lépinard is Associate Professor, Centre for Gender Studies, University of Lausanne

 

Muslim women wearing headscarves have been at the center of intense public scrutiny for several decades in France, as in other European countries. They have also proved to be the group most targeted by Islamophobic discourses and acts. (Strabac et al. 2016; Beauchemin, Hamel, and Simon 2016; Esposito and Kalin 2011; Perry 2014; Allen 2014; Tisserant, Bourguignon, and Bourhis 2014; Gustavsson, Noll, and Sundberg 2016; Helbling 2014; Gianni, Giugni, and Michel 2015; Sarrasin, Fasel, and Green 2019; Weichselbaumer 2016).

Scholars who study the specific processes of racism and othering that target veiled Muslim women—in the media, institutions, and daily encounters— have mainly looked at how they react and manage to self-define inside or outside these normative discourses and representations, such as their supposed submissive nature, embodiment of backwardness, gender oppression and foreignness, and excessive religiosity. We also discuss, and nuance, accounts of these negotiations and tactics that veiled Muslim women deploy in contexts marked by rising Islamophobia. However, we use these accounts to shed light on the practices of power exercised over veiled Muslim women in everyday contexts and to characterize the social interactions through which it is deployed. To this end, we underline the intersectional dimension of these interactions—how both sexism and Islamophobia, as well as class and age, are leveraged asymmetrically to impose assimilation into the majority’s norms (Karimi 2023).

Indeed, conceptual elaborations on everyday racism have stressed that the relevant focus of inquiry should be at the level of daily interactions where systemic racism is woven into the social fabric (Fanon 1952; Essed 1991). Ideas about cultural differences and about racial and national superiority are weaponized in everyday interactions that marginalize, contain, and problematize racialized women (Essed 1991, 10). This is particularly true for veiled Muslim women, whose belonging to the nation is constantly questioned. Research shows how in the United States, Germany, and France, they are denied participation and belonging in the national community through ordinary interactions (Fernando 2014; Bendixsen 2013; Galonnier 2021b; 2021a). In France, the normative discourse of secularism frames visible Islamic religiosity as excessive and deviant, thereby pushing hijabi women to “unveil” their motivations for wearing the veil.

The case studies we examine here occurred in France and Switzerland. The legal and political context in Switzerland differs from France since the notion of secularism is not prevalent there, but in both countries veiled Muslim women are asked to explain themselves and accept constant scrutiny in their daily interactions. These common experiences suggest that other processes than the pressure of the secular order are at play in the scrutinizing and constant demands made to hijabi women to talk about their hijab, about their feelings, and about their motivations or attachments to veiling.

To explore the mecanisms of everyday gendered Islamophobia, we focus on interactions narrated by hijabi women during which they are asked to renounce an important part of their religious practice, such as taking off their veil or opting for another form of veiling more in line with the majority’s cultural and secular norms (such as wearing a turban). This demand is not based on the idea that hijabi women do not belong to the national community—like other forms of discrimination against  Muslim women (Bendixsen 2013)—but rather it is because they are recognized as members of the national community that they are asked to conform to norms of “proper” gendered emancipation. We look at interactions between veiled Muslim women and white figures of authority (such as employer or school director) to identify how assimilation to the majority’s norm (by unveiling or changing veiling style) is extolled even when it is not legally compulsory. We focus on situations where legal restrictions on veiling do not apply but veiled Muslim women are asked to unveil anyway.

Methods

This research is based on qualitative interviews with 46 veiled Muslim women in France and Switzerland. These two countries offer contrasting contexts in terms of the legal regulation of Islamic forms of veiling. France has been at the forefront of legalizing prohibitions: first in 2004 with a legal ban on conspicuous religious signs worn by students in public school that targeted the hijab, then in 2010 with a law banning the hiding of one’s face in public spaces, which targeted the niqab. These stringent laws, following several judicial decisions, were complemented in 2016 by a law authorizing private businesses to forbid veiling by their employees, especially if the latter are in contact with the clientele. It has been considered impossible for veiled Muslim women to be public servants—without any actual jurisprudence on the matter—simply because of narrow interpretations of the duty of state neutrality of civil servants and since a 2021 law made it impossible for public services or public entities to contract with businesses that hire hijabi women (Hennette-Vauchez 2022). Both judicial and legislative frameworks have proliferated in France that severely limit the schooling and job opportunities of hijabi girls and women. Recently, when a municipality authorized that modest bathing suits could be worn in public swimming pools, the minister of the interior issued a decree banning this possibility.

In France we interviewed women in Paris and its surroundings as well as in a middle-size city in southern France. In Switzerland we interviewed women in French-speaking cantons (Geneva and Vaud) as well as in a German-speaking canton (Zürich). The interviews were conducted between April 2021 and April 2022. Each interview lasted between one to three and a half hours. Interviewees were aged between 19 and 57, but a majority were younger than 35. They were either citizens or legal residents in France or Switzerland. While most of the women were of migrant descent, or migrants themselves, their perceived race or ethnicity varied: they included women from former eastern Yugoslavia, North Africa, East Africa, West Africa, Middle East, and white converts. We focus principally on young Muslim women who are often Swiss or French nationals rather than immigrants. They come from various educational and social-class backgrounds but most have a post-secondary degree.

Interviews focused on the life stories of the interviewees and retelling accounts of discrimination, Islamophobia, sexism, or racism. We did not impose these terms on the experience of the participants but rather first asked them to tell us positive or negative experiences related to the wearing of the hijab.

Imposing Assimilation by Other Means

France and Switzerland do not have similar regulations for the Islamic veil, yet the situation remains strikingly similar. The Islamic veil is not prohibited in employment in Switzerland, but it is partially prohibited in France (in public service and in businesses that have a public service mission, as well as any business that adheres to strict internal rules of neutrality). Despite this difference, we collected similar stories in both countries about the lack of clear rights protecting veiled Muslim women when they apply for jobs, or when they wish to do specific undergraduate training that necessitates an internship. For most positions, the absence of clear protections for religious rights opens the door to proscriptions based on each business owner’s or manager’s own arbitrary and unpredictable reasons.

In this respect, injunctions to assimilate differ from other forms of violence recounted by hijabi women, such as insults in the street or direct exclusion as they trigger discussions, negotiations, and arguments to persuade veiled women to yield. In private interactions involving a power asymmetry, such as job interviews, the negotiation to assimilate to the majority’s norm may take the form of bargaining about the way to wear the veil. Where legal norms prohibiting the veil exist, such as for public service agents (both in France and in some Swiss Cantons) or in French public schools for pupils, institutional authorities attempt to extend the prohibition to other categories of women not included in the purview of the prohibition, for example by asking veiled Muslim women who are not subject to the French 2004 law banning headscarves for pupils in public school—such as mothers of enrolled pupils, or potential or former students—to also take off their veils.

Taïz’s story and the lengthy discussion she had to endure is quite representative of the process by which she is supposedly invited to consent to unveil and, in practice, coerced into doing so if she wants to get the job. Taïz is a 20-year-old woman with Yemeni parents who immigrated first to the United States and then to Switzerland. She is the youngest of three children, all observant Muslims. After graduating from high school, she started studying law before quitting after a year, convinced that she would not have any job opportunities as a lawyer with her veil. She switched to a bachelor’s degree in social work to become an auxiliary care giver in preschools. No law formally forbids the wearing of the veil in any job in the Vaud canton where she lives, but Taïz knows it will also depend on the preschool manager and on the human resources manager. She also needs this internship to obtain her diploma as a preschool auxiliary. She asked around in her network about preschools that would be open to hiring an intern wearing the veil and applied to a place where she knew another auxiliary was wearing a turban. After two days of her internship, she was summoned by the director of the preschool. During our interview, Taïz recounted her meeting with this white, middle-aged woman:

She [the director of the preschool] told me, “Here at the school, the way you wear your veil, it doesn’t work for us. If you want to stay, you have to wear it as a turban.” She explained to me that there was another girl who wore it that way in the nursery and that it didn’t cause any trouble. She said, “we are a laïque [secular] nursery, we don’t want to shock the parents,” while I knew that none of the parents would complain about it. Then she explained to me that, in summer, I might be hot because of the way I wear my veil. At that moment, I wanted to laugh, I couldn’t believe it. […]. And then she explained to me that I could wear a turtleneck with the turban.

The negotiation in this quote has to do with what Taïz would agree to give up. In particular, the preschool director asked her if she would be willing to wear her veil as a turban, by tying her headscarf, rather than in the traditional form of the hijab where the headscarf covers the neck. She first brought up one argument, the secular nature of the preschool (an argument with no real legal traction in Switzerland), then that of the possible rejection by the parents, and ended up discussing Taïz’s possible discomfort (“you might be hot”). Here, the negotiation is manifested by the deployment of a multitude of arguments, which often have no link with each other but nevertheless share the same objective to “convince” Taïz to change her veiling style, or more to the point, bargain her internship position against her willingness to take on a physical appearance more in line with the majority’s notion of proper womanhood. The inconsistency between the various arguments shows that the director of the preschool cannot rely on a pre-existing rule prohibiting the veil but nonetheless attempts to make Taïz conform to what she, the director, thinks is “proper” in the workplace she manages.

Among these arguments, we also note the reference to hypothetical situations related to the job. In particular, the director mentions the fact that this could “shock parents.” This situation is indeed hypothetical since no parent complained after the two days of trial when Taïz was wearing her veil. It is also interesting to underline that the school principal initially did not want to prohibit Taïz from wearing her veil when Taïz explicitly asked her if her veil would “cause any trouble” during her first job interview. Taïz was willing to forgo the internship if she could not wear her veil as she wished, and she successfully worked during her two days of trial. By changing her mind after Taïz began the trial period, the director of the preschool was able to impose a lengthy round of bargaining on her and to push Taïz to submit to a norm of assimilation that was never made explicit. Indeed, the proscription of the veil is the result of an argumentation that allows the preschool director to obscure her own personal point of view concerning the veil in her decision, as if she were enforcing a norm that is not her personal preference. This shows on the one hand that she is aware of the unethical nature of her demand, but also of its potential unlawfulness.

In addition, the pressure to give in and yield is often presented as valuing compromise. Giving in would be the equivalent of “making an effort” or being “open-minded.” What this shows, from the point of view of the production of violence, is that it is not necessarily related to the object of the veil, or even to its religious symbolism, but to what it represents as a form of resistance to institutions, as an active or passive refusal to conform. The discussions about the possibilities for Taïz to give in on what matters to her, would therefore be proof of her allegiance, of her willingness to assimilate.

In some cases, assimilation is imposed by figures of authority in spaces where young women are particularly vulnerable. This is the case in French high schools where administrative authorities tend to extend the prohibition on veiling beyond its legal scope (the pupils on school premises targeted by the 2004 law). This situation is exemplified forcefully in the story of Bakhta. Bakhta is an 18-year-old woman from a family of Algerian origin who lives with her family in the suburbs of Grenoble. Due to an illness, she had to miss several years of high school before finally re-enrolling. The stakes are high, as she is over the compulsory school age, and it is therefore up to the school to choose whether to accept her or not. In her interview, she recalled her meeting with a school director about her potential enrollment. Bakhta is aware of the law that allows her to enter the building with her headscarf as long as she is not registered as a high school student, and thus presents herself with a headscarf for the interview. She explains that,

When I arrived, the woman [the principal], who was a little bit old, welcomed me. And when I was about to enter her office, she said to me: “Oh yes, but the veil, on the other hand, you will have to remove it” [to enter her office]. I asked why, I was shocked, I said “Why?” She said, “It’s out of respect.” And I was so scared. I was so afraid of not finding a school. […] I took it off, and I then cried in the corridor. Then she welcomed me back, and she had this big smile, great. […] I felt so bad. And after that I tried to talk to her [to ask her why], I said to myself, at least I can get something. She said to me, “No, but you understand, afterwards the other students will wonder why.” She was giving me totally incoherent examples.

The director herself is aware that the veil is allowed in this type of situation but imposes a moral argument without justifying it. The terse explanation,” out of respect,” hardly hides the bare power at stake here. Indeed, far from providing a justification, the director does not explain for what or for whom respect is warranted. Rather, what is demanded is unconditional acceptance of the arbitrary nature of the demand to yield and assimilate.

Conclusion

We have aimed to describe interactions that hijabi women recount as moments of humiliation and violence, moments when they have felt voiceless, shattered, or frozen by what figures of authority said to them, and more importantly what they asked them to do. Detailing these everyday gendered Islamophobic interactions, we aimed to shed light on insidious forms of violence against hijabi women and to reveal authority figures’ ultimate goal of ensuring the erasure of visible religious difference and to extort the “willingness” of hijabis to assimilate.

We also hope to contribute to a more precise understanding of ordinary violence. Everyday interactions have become sites to harness the power of public discourse—about veiling, Islamophobia, secularism, national belonging, and gender emancipation—against hijabi women in order to keep them in their place at the bottom of social hierarchies. The recent public debate around abayas in French public schools, which emerged after the new minister of education declared on August 31, 2023, that these loose-fitting robes are now forbidden on school premises, illustrates once again the ongoing coercion to assimilate that is exercised on young Muslim women. More than 20 years of debates on regulating the veil in France in the name of secularism were never about the veil itself or about secularism. They were about targeting, and erasing, a sign that matters for pious Muslim women. New signs may be identified as markers of religious identity, like the abaya, but the intent remains the same: assimilation.

 

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