Since 2008 French sociologist Agnès De Féo has been studying the subject of the niqab – the full Muslim face veil worn by women – in France. She has spoken to over 200 women who wear it.
On the 10-year anniversary of the French parliament backing the controversial law forbidding women from wearing the niqab in public places, De Feo explains the real impact of the ban and why French governments need to change their view of the country's Muslim citizens.
On October 11, 2010, a law was passed in France to penalise those Muslim women who wore the full face veil – le voile integral or niqab in Arabic – which at the time only affected a few hundred women.
So as not to target Islam directly, the law was given a neutral title. Officially it was to ban “concealing the face in the public space”.
Ironically, 10 years later, because of the Covid-19 epidemic and the requirement to wear face masks, concealing the face is now mandatory in France rather than banned.
Conversely, shaking hands with the opposite sex has gone from being a compulsory social gesture to being banned.
Ten years ago strict Muslims were criticised for wearing a full face veil and refusing to shake hands with the opposite sex, which was seen as akin to lacking civility.
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The niqab has now become extremely rare in France.
The number of women wearing it in 2020 has fallen below the level of 2009, when the controversy around the proposed law began to flare.
But this drop should not be seen as an impact of the law itself, because it actually resulted in an exponential increase in the act of wearing a niqab in the years following 2010.
That's because the law had an incentive effect: it incited women to transgress the ban by embracing the prohibited object.
Prohibition made the niqab more desirable and created a craze among some young women to defy the law.
In fact more women wore the niqab after the law was introduced than before.
A French woman named Fanny, pictured here wearing the niqab. Photo: Agnes de Feo
These neo-niqabees were drawn to this symbol, because it made them feel like heroines, defying the forbidden.
These new partisans of full face veils born after the law all had something in common – that they had no religious background. Among this group there was an over-representation of converts to Islam from atheist or agnostic backgrounds. Nothing predisposed them to choose this path of sartorial radicalism.
This craze for the forbidden created a new form of religious observance, away from the mosques, a virtual form developed on Salafist social networks.
At fault for this phenomenon was the huge and overblown media coverage of the bill from June 2009 onwards, which played on mainstream opinion in France.
Following the law some “good” French citizens saw themselves as responsible for enforcing the law themselves. They directed insults, threats and even physical violence towards women who carried on wearing the full face veil.
These women responded to the attacks not by abandoning the niqab but by resistance. They saw them as trials sent by God.
So a standoff then developed between these two sides, which each side justifying the use of insults against the other.
Some women who wore the niqab had enough resilience to get through it, while others choose to go to the UK or the Maghreb in North Africa.
But many simply cut themselves off from all social links with the outside world and entered a spiral of “marginalisation”, in particular by no longer going outside their home and taking their children out of school.
These are the niqab-wearers who would then go on to fight in Syria.
The same problem was observed with France's 2004 law that banned “religious symbols in schools”.
While the title of that law made it seem that it covered all displays of religion, once again it was the Muslim headscarf or hijab that was targeted in particular.
Young girls who refused to remove the hijab were excluded from public schools.
As a result of this 2004 law, there has been an explosion in the number of women born in France choosing to wear the hijab.
Previously the wearing of the hijab only concerned women born in the Maghreb and who arrived as adults in France.
It was also after this law that we saw the creation of Muslim schools to accommodate these girls who had been forced out of public schools.
These are the same schools that President Emmanuel Macron now laments the existence of and accuses of wanting to be separate from the French nation.
Once again a government in France continues to stigmatise French Muslims by accusing them of “separatism”, as Macron did in his recent speech and plan to tackle radical Islam.
But it is the French governments themselves who have created this separation over the last two decades by pushing Muslims to retreat in a self-marginalisation.
The only solution today is for France to accept its Muslims as full French citizens in total equality with others and by treating them with dignity.
In other words by applying the Republican principles of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity towards its Muslim population.
Agnes De Feo is the author of a new book Behind the Niqab (Derrière le Niqab) published by Armand Colin.