Since 2004 I’ve been thinking about the issue of French laïcité and Muslim headscarves.1 The historical development of secularity in France is something that interests me greatly in part because there was so much religious and theological greatness that came out of France throughout its history (even after the 1905 law establishing the separation of church and state that would come to be known by laïcité2). I sympathize with Thomas Merton’s perspective on France. For example, in discussing his educational experience in France, Merton theologizes,3

Since evil is the defect of good, the lack of a good that ought to be there, and nothing positive in itself, it follows that the greatest evil is found where the highest good has been corrupted. And I suppose the most shocking thing about France is the corruption of French spirituality into flippancy and cynicism; of French intelligence into sophistry; of French dignity and refinement into petty vanity and theatrical self-display; of French charity into a disgusting fleshly concupiscence, and of French faith into sentimentality or puerile atheism.

The idea Merton expresses here is that all the greatness in the Catholic tradition that came out of France–especially in the medieval era at the University of Paris and the development of monastic spirituality, like the Cistercians, and the early modern era with the great figures of French spirituality and reforms of monastic traditions, like the Trappists–has been corrupted by the raising of the separation of church and state to its own religion. (More on this idea later.)

Back in February, a friend from high school brought my attention–via Facebook–to Marine Le Pen’s refusal to wear a headscarf while meeting with Lebanon’s Grand Mufti and her subsequent cancelling of that meeting because he was going to require her to wear one. Marine Le Pen is the presidential candidate for the far-right Front National, the political party I first became aware of in the 2002 presidential election when I was studying abroad in France, in which her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, gained enough votes to make it to the second round, which immediately set off a series of protests, especially among students. Although she has distanced herself and the party from the more extreme views of her father, she is still farther to the right than many of the other French parties, especially in relation to her views on Islam and putting France first. There is a lot to dislike about Marine Le Pen in relation to her politics, but I reluctantly support her refusal to wear the headscarf.

Here is the issue: Under the pretense of enlightenment in France, the state has decided that women who wear a hijab are being forced and are therefore oppressed. They cannot fathom under the system of laïcité that women might choose to express their religious beliefs through their form of dress. As Saba Mahmood explains in her discussion of studies on women’s choice to wear the hijab in Egypt, the focus is often on functionalist explanations–like avoiding sexual harassment–or forms of resistance to Western culture.4 However, these studies ignore the religious aspect of the hijab, specifically in relation to the Islamic virtue of female modesty. Among the women of the Egyptian piety movement that Mahmood studies, the veil functions in two ways. First, it is an expression of the virtue of modesty, a perspective that fits with general liberal views about religious expression (i.e., the veil as a form of religious or cultural expression). But, it is also a bodily way of acquiring the virtue of modesty (Mahmood, 23). These women, therefore, are not just choosing the veil to express an inner religious belief, but as a way of inculcating the religious virtues they hold important in themselves. This choice, therefore, has more importance than just a symbol would and that is the perspective that gives it more weight among these Muslim women than most of us can understand today, given that the religious tradition of Christianity, for most Christians, does not have an analogous form of dress. Although Mahmood ultimately critiques the argument that I’m about to make for not fully encompassing the agency present among the women of the Egyptian piety movement, a true feminist perspective would embrace these women’s ability to choose to wear the hijab as an enhancement to and an expression of their practice of their religion (for her critique, see Mahmood, 195).

Now, there are a lot of memes and videos going around, like this one, that show how headscarves are not exclusive to Islam, but appear in both Judaism and Christianity as well. In the Catholic tradition, of course, the traditional garb of nuns included veils. And although throughout the history of the church of course we have the examples of some women being forced into convents–which is why the Council of Trent decreed against this practice–many women also chose that life of their own accord just as Muslim women today are choosing to practice feminine virtues in the Muslim tradition by wearing the hijab.

The issue, as Matthew Kaerningk has helpfully pointed out, is that the modern-day conflicts between Islam and laïcité in France are basically conflicts over two religions. In the long legacy of the French Revolution, the modern form of laïcité can be seen as a form of religion that was first introduced to France in 1789, “the religion of modern secularity.”5 Kaerningk points out that in the history of France, there have been only two basic ways of approaching the question of the relationship between church and state: first, the Gallican management of religion by the state, and then, in laïcité, the exclusion of religion from the public sphere. It is the latter method that has characterized France’s approach to Muslim women’s dress.

This is not just an issue for France, however, and has broader implications for thinking about how we treat religion more generally in relation to the public sphere. As Mahmood explains, “For those with well-honed secular-liberal and progressive sensibilities, the slightest eruption of religion into the public domain is frequently experienced as a dangerous affront, one that threatens to subject us to a normative morality dictated by mullahs and priests” (Mahmood, xxiii).

The problem with all this is precisely a feminist problem because France has been particularly concerned with policing the bodies of Muslim women and removing from them their choice to practice their religion in accordance with their own beliefs about submission to God and the virtue of modesty. In Kaerningk’s analysis, he points out,

Laïcité’s reaction to the veils of Muslim women appears to indicate that, if it is indeed a religion, it should be categorized as a rather traditional and conservative one. After all, the body and clothing of Muslim women is clearly a matter of higher concern than that of Muslim men. The beards, clothing, and head coverings of Muslim men in France rarely receive any national attention from the Laïcists (Kaerningk, 167).

Later, Kaerningk adds that this choice of the hijab was interpreted as a threat to laïcité–as a religion–in part because it is seen as a rejection of that ideology.6 The issue here, however, is the fact that the focus is so much placed on the way women dress and the idea that dressing in accordance with female modesty is such a threat. 

There needs to be a recognition in the feminist project that women may choose to embrace other forms of agency than those that have been envisioned by feminism in the past. Some of these forms of agency can include an embracing of religious practices that are seen as patriarchal and that some may judge as oppressive, but women may instead find them empowering as ways to practice their religion and connect to God. These practices may include things like Muslim women wearing the hijab or Catholic women entering an enclosed convent.

To return to Marine Le Pen, I suspect that her motives for refusing to wear a headscarf are less than pure. As the Washington Post article I linked above explains through the voice of Natasha Ghoneim, “Observers, pundits and voters here say that they believe this was planned on her part because it would play very well to her far-right base at home, and also because they say it might detract from a growing scandal she is facing.” I suspect her motives have to do with the anti-Islam sentiment in her campaign more than they do a personal choice to wear or not wear a headscarf.

Now, I, personally, would opt to wear a headscarf in such a context as a sign of respect to the beliefs of those whose country I am in. But in the same way that I would want to support Muslim women who choose, because of their religious beliefs, to wear the hijab, I similarly, albeit reluctantly given the tone of her campaign, support Marine Le Pen’s refusal to do so.7

  1. The featured image is by Manuel (fn11) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons. 
  2. I use laïcité generally untranslated because there is not a really accurate way of translating the French concept into English. Sometimes in this post I will use “secularity” instead, which is one of the ways that this term is often translated, but I don’t feel that it quite gets at the French concept accurately. 
  3. Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain: An Autobiography of Faith, 50th Anniversary Edition (New York: Harcourt, 1998), 57. 
  4. Saba Mahmood, Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012), 16. 
  5. Matthew Kaerningk, “French Secularity and the Islamic Headscarf: A Theological Deconstruction,” in Neo-Calvinism and the French Revolution, ed. by James Eglinton & George Harnick (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 155–75. A similar analysis of laïcité as structuring the identity (religion?) of far-right, anti-Muslim discourse in France has been made in Per-Erik Nilsson, “‘Secular Retaliation’: A Case Study of Integralist Populism, Anti-Muslim Discourse, and (Il)liberal Discourse on Secularism in Contemporary France,” Politics, Religion & Ideology 16, no. 1 (2015): 87 – 106, DOI: 10.1080/21567689.215.1012160 
  6. “The schoolgirl’s headscarf was a poignant visual reminder that Laïcité’s civilizing mission to Islam had failed. These girls were, in essence, rejecting Laïcité’s offer of liberation, salvation and Enlightenment” (Kaerningk, 169). 
  7. The Religion in Europe unit of the American Academy of Religion is sponsoring and co-sponsoring two sessions at this November’s Annual Meeting in Boston that touch on the issue of Islam in Europe in which some of the presentations will address questions of women’s dress in Islam in France. For example, the Religion in Europe’s session, “Under the Surface of Current Debates: Islam Negotiating with European Culture,” will have a paper that analyzes the understanding of religion that underlies the niqab ban in France (the niqab is a form of the veil that covers not just the head, but also the face and torso). With the Islam, Gender, Women and Men, Masculinities, & Religion units, we are co-sponsoring a discussion-focused session, titled “Islamophobia, the Body, and the State in Contemporary Europe,” in which one of the topics that the presenters will raise is the issue of critiques of the length of Muslim girls’ skirts in France. Both of these sessions are related to the topic I am addressing in this post as well. 

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