Finalist, High School Essay Contest 2021
On March 30th, 2021, The French Senate voted in favor of adding an amendment to the “Separatism Bill” that seeks to ban women under the age of 18 from wearing a hijab in public. This amendment is part of the growing effort by the French government to publicly portray the burqa and the hijab, religious garments worn by Muslim women, as anti-feminist and incompatible with France’s secular values. Over the past few years, the policy actions of the French government to limit religious visibility contradict their justification that legislation such as the new separatism bill is aimed to uphold France’s core liberal values, including religious freedom. While the government claims to preserve the French national identity by reinforcing its republican principles of secularism, Muslims in France are denied their right to religious expression and thus, deprived of their cultural identity.
In 1906, when the French chamber of duties enacted what became known as the Separation Law, it was to address the increasingly hostile Church-State relations in France. The Separation Law laid the legal framework for the contemporary secularism that the French government promotes today. In addition to outlining France’s political separation from the Church, the law also enshrined guarantees of freedom of religious expression.  This particular guarantee is currently under attack as the French government is once again, attempting to suppress religious expression by banning the hijab. Similar to how the French national identity is comprised of secular values that have been shaped by history, the hijab, a symbol of faith, is a key component of the Muslim cultural identity and contains profound religious significance. In an attempt to apply the doctrine of secularism to the public and protect an individual’s freedom from religion, the French government is simultaneously threatening the fundamental freedom of religion for the 8% of the French population that identifies as Muslim.
The discussions surrounding secularism in a modern context continued to rise and the French government continued to act. First, in 2004, the French Parliament enacted legislation to ban the Islamic headscarf and any other religious signs in public schools. In 2010, President Nicolas Sarkozy announced that the burqa, a full-body veil that covered the face, was not welcome in France and catalyzed the French Parliament’s passing of a law that prohibited any face coverings in public. When Frances’s High Authority for the Fight against Discrimination and for Equality (HALDE) equated the wearing of a burqa to the submission of women and claimed that it undermined republican values, it paved the way for religious coverings to be viewed as not only anti-feminist but also foreign to French culture.  Anybody who wore a burqa began to be viewed as a victim of male oppression and, soon, the public began to question whether or not Islam was compatible with the French republic. 
The Covid-19 Pandemic recently unveiled the irony surrounding these pieces of legislation and it called into question the french values the government claimed to be protecting when asked why they were enacted. In March 2011, the government issued a circular in regards to the burqa that stated “to conceal the face is to infringe the minimum requirements of life in society”.  However, 9 years later, the French government made face coverings and masks mandatory in response to the pandemic, despite the burqa still being banned. France’s mask mandate received backlash from religious freedom advocates because a garment that was prohibited because it “threatened public safety” was now being promoted to ensure public safety. To display their commitment to France’s cultural values, Muslims were required to show their face, even at the expense of cultural and religious expression or they were fined and punished. But now, in order to be considered a decent individual who cares about their community, french citizens are required to cover their face with protective gear. The president, Emmanuel Macron, is often seen wearing a mask that contains the colors in France’s flag, symbolizing french ideals of liberty and equality whereas the religious covering Muslims wore was categorized as an indicator of religious extremism.  Many advocacy groups claim that this affirms their argument that inhibiting religious expression was never about secularism or feminism; rather it was an attempt by the French government to exclude Muslims from the french identity.
Across the world, Muslims are commonly stigmatized due to Islamic extremism, and therefore, the Muslim cultural identity is not usually determined by Islamic customs, arts, social institutions, or other components that are commonly used to define the word “culture”. Culture is expressed and exhibited in a multitude of ways by those who practice it. For some Muslim women, wearing the hijab or the burqa is their primary form of cultural and religious expression, but in France, many are denied that right in order to preserve France’s national culture. National culture is defined as the customs and beliefs shared by a country’s citizens and the French government has declared secularism as a key component of it. In order to be included in the French Identity, Muslims had to sacrifice a significant element of their identity: religious expression. However, due to the inevitability of progress in society, these identities will continue to be redefined over and over again. With the new Separatism Bill, France caneither continue moving towards an assimilationist understanding of the French identity or stay true to the enlightenment principles it was founded on, and ensure religious freedom, including religious expression, to all.
 Jones, Nicky. “Religious Freedom in a Secular Society: The Case of the Islamic Headscarf in France.” In Freedom of Religion under Bills of Rights, edited by Babie Paul and Rochow Neville, 216-38. South Australia: University of Adelaide Press, 2012.
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 Diallo, Rokhaya. “Coronavirus Exposed the Real Reasons behind France’s ‘Burqa Ban’.” Coronavirus pandemic News | Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera, May 15, 2020. https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2020/5/15/coronavirus-exposed-the-real-reasons -behind-frances-burqa-ban.
 Cohen, Roger. “French National Assembly Backs Law to Combat Islamist Extremism.” The New York Times. The New York Times, February 16, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/16/world/europe/france-law-islamist-extremism.h tml.
Cohen, Roger. “French National Assembly Backs Law to Combat Islamist Extremism.” The New York Times. The New York Times, February 16, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/16/world/europe/france-law-islamist-extre mism.html.
Diallo, Rokhaya. “Coronavirus Exposed the Real Reasons behind France’s ‘Burqa Ban’.” Coronavirus pandemic News | Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera, May 15, 2020. https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2020/5/15/coronavirus-exposed-the-real-r easons-behind-frances-burqa-ban.
Griffin, Cailey. “Why Has France’s Islamist Separatism Bill Caused Such Controversy?” Foreign Policy. Foreign Policy, February 23, 2021. https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/02/23/why-france-islamist-separatism-bill-cont roversy-extremism/.
Jones, Nicky. “Religious Freedom in a Secular Society: The Case of the Islamic Headscarf in France.” In Freedom of Religion under Bills of Rights, edited by Babie Paul and Rochow Neville, 216-38. South Australia: University of Adelaide Press, 2012. Accessed April 11, 2021.http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.20851/j.ctt1t3051j.16.