OPINION: 10 years after France banned the niqab, French governments are still stigmatising Muslims

Ten years ago France introduced a controversial ban on women wearing the full Islamic face veil in public, but the legislation did not have the desired impact and French governments are still making the same mistake towards the country's Muslim citizens, writes Agnes De Feo, author of a new book on the subject.

OPINION: 10 years after France banned the niqab, French governments are still stigmatising Muslims
A French muslim woman named Karima, pictured here wearing the niqab. Photo: Agnes de Feo
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. 
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.
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.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


Down with hygge! Sweden’s mys is more real, fun and inclusive

Hygge, the Danish art of getting cosy, has taken the world by storm. But the Swedish equivalent is refreshingly different, says David Crouch 

Down with hygge! Sweden’s mys is more real, fun and inclusive

It is around six years since the Danish word hygge entered many of our languages. Hygge, pronounced hue-guh and generally translated as the art of cosiness, exploded almost overnight to become a global lifestyle phenomenon.

Hygge dovetailed with mindfulness and fed into other popular trends such as healthy eating, and even adult colouring books. “The Little Book of Hygge” became a publishing sensation and has been translated into 15 languages. In time for Christmas, its author has just issued a second book, “My Hygge Home”, one of dozens already on the market. This is the season of peak hygge, of candles, log fires, cups of cocoa and comforting music.

There is nothing wrong with new ways to relax, and certainly no harm in identifying them with Scandinavia. But as a guide to living your life, there are some problems with hygge. 

First, the original meaning of the word is too broad and subtle to enable a clear grasp of the concept among non-Danes. This probably helps to explain its appeal – hygge is an empty bottle into which you can pour whatever liquid you like.

Patrick Kingsley, who wrote a book about Denmark several years before the hygge hype, was “surprised to hear people describe all sorts of things” as hygge. Danes, he said, would use the word when talking about a bicycle, a table, or even an afternoon stroll. 

So it is hardly surprising that, outside Denmark, hygge is applied rather indiscriminately. Last week the New York Times devoted an entire article to achieving hygge while riding the city’s subway, of all places. “A train, after all, is basically a large sled that travels underground, in the dark,” it said, trying too hard to find a hint of Nordicness on the overcrowded railway.

READ ALSO: Danish word of the day – hyggeracisme

Hygge has become an exotic and mysterious word to describe more or less anything you want. It is as if someone decided that the English word “nice” had a magical meaning that contained the secret to true happiness, and then the whole non-English speaking world made great efforts to achieve the perfect feeling of “nice”. 

A second problem with hygge is that, in Denmark itself, it seems to operate like a badge of Danishness that can only be enjoyed by Danes themselves – a kind of cultural border that outsiders cannot cross. You can walk down a Danish street in the dark, one journalist was told, look through the windows and spot who is Danish and who is foreign just by whether their lighting is hygge or not.

When writer Helen Russell spent a year in Denmark, she was intrigued by hygge and asked a lifestyle coach about it. “It’s hard to explain, it’s just something that all Danes know about,” she was told. How could an immigrant to Denmark get properly hygge, Russell asked? “You can’t. It’s impossible,” was the unhelpful reply. It can’t be a coincidence that the far-right Danish Peoples Party has put a clear emphasis on hygge, as if immigration is a threat to hygge and therefore to Danishness itself. 

READ ALSO: It’s official – Hygge is now an English word

Outside Denmark, this exclusivity has taken on another aspect: where are all the children? Where amid the hygge hype are the bits of lego on the floor, the mess of discarded clothes, toys and half-eaten food, the bleeping iPads and noisy TVs? “Hygge is about a charmed existence in which children are sinisterly absent,” noted the design critic for the Financial Times. It’s as if the Pied Piper of hygge has spirited them away so you can get truly cosy. 

But there is a bigger problem with hygge. It is largely an invention, the work of some clever marketing executives. After spotting a feature about hygge on the BBC website, two of London’s biggest publishers realised this was “a perfect distillation of popular lifestyle obsessions”. They set out to find people who could write books for them on the subject, and so two bestsellers were born, spawning a host of imitations. 

Sweden has a different word that means roughly the same thing: mys (the noun) and mysig (the adjective). There have even been some half-hearted attempts to sell mys to a foreign audience in the same way as hygge. But the real meaning of mys in Swedish society is rather different, it seems to me. The reason for this, I think, is that mys has become so firmly identified with Friday nights, or fredagsmys – the “Friday cosy”. 

Fredagsmys is a collective sigh of relief that the working / school week is over, and now it is time for the whole family to come together in front of some trashy TV with a plate of easy finger-food. The word first appeared in the 1990s, entered the dictionary in 2006, and became a semi-official national anthem three years later with this joyous ad for potato crisps:

In this portrayal, mys is radically different to hygge. It is a celebration of the ordinary, witty and multi-cultural, featuring green-haired goths and a mixed-race family with small children. Food is central to fredagsmys, and what is the typical food of choice? Mexican, of course! Not a herring in sight.

Why Mexican? It seems nobody is really sure, but tacofredag now has roots in Swedish society. Tacos, tortillas, and all the accompanying spices and sauces take up a whole aisle of the typical Swedish supermarket. Swedes are accustomed to eating bread with various bits and pieces on top, according to a specialist in Swedish food culture, while the Swedish tradition of smörgåsbord (open sandwiches) makes a buffet meal seem natural. The fussiness of tacos is even reminiscent of a kräftskiva crayfish party.

There is no cultural exclusivity here. On the contrary, fredagsmys food could equally be Italian, North American, Middle-Eastern, British or French. And children are absolutely central to a good Friday cosy. 

With Swedish mys, everybody is welcome. Get cosy and relax, but do it by mixing and getting messy, rather than retreating into pure, perfect, rarified isolation. There is a time and a place for hygge. But the Swedish version is more real, more fun, and more inclusive.

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University